A vision for high school education: The Neighborhood Academy

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by M. Abdul-Qawiyy
For New Pittsburgh Courier

On a fall morning, nestled at the hill top, is The Neighborhood Academy (The Academy). Founded 10 years ago by Rev. Thomas Johnson and Jody Moore, its mission is to break the cycle of generational poverty through education.

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EXPOSURE TO CAREERS—The Civic Health Institute, Davis Eye Group and Star Optical joined together to host 11th & 12th graders from the Neighborhood Academy for a Career Day. The students received an overview for careers in opticianry science, optometry, and ophthalmology. The classes were at Star Optical in Wilkinsburg. Louis Mosley, the lab optician, is the man who makes the glasses, cuts the glass and puts them into the frames. (Photo by J. L. Martello)

“Any independent school is driven by vision and we are a faith-based and college preparatory school,” stated Rev. Thomas Johnson, as the head of Neighborhood Acad­emy. “We are not only concerned about the student’s academic development but also his or her character, value system, priorities, and the goals that shape their lives.”

This holistic approach to educational and social growth is based on the importance of faith and discipline. As a college preparatory school, students are being molded from eighth grade to aspire to attend college. The Academy not only has an extended 12 hour school day for 8-12th graders, but also a strict dress code. Students are expected to arrive at school no later than 7:30 a.m., when breakfast is served, and students have the option of attending morning worship in the small chapel. They will then go on to attend five to six classes, interspersed with breaks, a lunch meal, after-school-activities and depart after 7 p.m.

Impressively The Academy, throughout its years of operations, has maintained a 100 percent college acceptance rate, with 85 percent graduating from four-year colleges and universities. Rev. Johnson said, “We’re not saying our way is the only way, we’re saying our way works.”

The discussion of whether attending a private or public school yields a better education, has been recurrent over the years. To some, neither of two are extraordinary in their approaches or teaching methods; however, when comparing the two, one must take the following into consideration: financial and administrative support, a safely run facility, and the significance of class size and how those determine a student’s success.

The Academy has received significant funding from foundations, faith based organizations, communities and individuals, all of whom share and support the vision of the school. “Our development team is brilliant. They have cultivated a donor community that understands and shares our goals and values,” Rev. Johnson said.

With a campus consisting of two structures, an academic building and a gymnasium, the environment sets The Academy apart. “Most importantly, in our 10 years of operation, there have only been six fights. We have zero tolerance for violence,” Sheila Rawlings, the development officer, stated. “Once the conflict reaches the point of physically harming another, the student will be expelled.”

One of the major points of private education is individual attention and with 70 students in total, The Academy is achieving that goal. The largest class may range from 11-15, while other classes have 4-7students. “While our overall goal is to have 110-120 students, we are a small school intentionally. When one is in a small setting and character formation and school culture is implemented, academic success follows,” Rev. Johnson said.

The admission process is extensive and thorough. Students and parents must attend an admissions open house, which are given during evening and Saturday sessions. This is followed by a testing session and a family interview. The final steps involve potential students attending a five week academic summer academy, after which they are informed of their acceptance.

“At first, the 12 hour school days were tough,” said David Ingram, 17 year old junior at the school. “It’s like you have two homes.” When asked about his goals for the coming year as a senior, “I want to be president of the student council and captain of the basketball team.”

High aspirations for a determined, hardworking student, reflects the result of The Academy.

“This school has taught me to think about the future—I’m going to be a father, someone’s husband, and I want to have my own business one day. And I’m not taking the easy way out. I’m willing to do the work,” Ingram said.

Ingram is hoping to travel to Guatemala as he and other students have begun fundraising. “We’re hoping to visit Agua Viva, it’s an orphanage in Guatemala and we want to help. And practice our Spanish of course.”

When asked about comparing his other school experiences to those at The Academy, “I attended a different school before coming here and I still see my old friends from there, but they never mention college as a goal. So, if you’re willing to work and ready to grow into an adult, you should come here.”

When comparing a public and private school, the environment, dedication of the teachers, funding for equipped facilities, and administrative support all help to build a superior student. However, it’s ultimately the student’s duty to take his or her potential and hone it to achieve academic excellence.

“Unfortunately, to some in the African-American community, to be well spoken and well read, is negative,” Rev. Johnson said. “This is perverse and distorted belief, and some may be discouraged. But achievement takes hard work. Achievement is possible and that’s no one’s responsibility but your own.”

(To learn more about The Neighborhood Academy and its vision please stay up-to-date via the website at http://www.then­eighborhoodacademy.org.)

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