At its most basic, education is about uplifting the individual. That means providing the tools and knowledge necessary to give people choices about their futures and a chance to be productive, and hopefully happy, in their lives and work.
Such is the mission of Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School (AJC) in Richmond, Virginia. Small in size but overflowing with caring and ambition, the 12- year-old school, which calls itself “a community of affection,” serves 119 students in grades four through eight, most of whom are children of color from low-income families. The school’s leave-no-need-unmet approach results in a majority of graduates enrolling in private high schools and about a third heading to college. Some even return to AJC to work.
“This is an exercise in equity,” said Head of School Michael Maruca, who has been with AJC from the beginning. “This is a practical, concrete institution trying to make equity real. These kids’ families won't get this experience elsewhere.”
The school’s namesake, Anna Julia Cooper, was an educator, author, activist and prominent African-American scholar, born into slavery in 1858. She died in 1964 and is remembered for her work promoting education and civil rights for African Americans and women.
Cooper’s vision of making education attainable for everyone is one the AJC school takes on for itself. Seventy-five percent of students come from nearby public housing developments in a neighborhood in Richmond's East End. As of October 2020, the local poverty rate was 65.2 percent and the unemployment rate 12.9 percent, according to census data.
All students receive free tuition, the equivalent of $14,000 a year. And most enter reading below grade level, Maruca said, so the curriculum has a heavy emphasis on basic skills. The school also administers fewer standardized tests than public schools to give staff more instructional time.
“In our mission, we talk about helping students change the trajectory of their lives,” Maruca told us. “Every single day, every hour, we give kids experiences, love, safety and nurturing, and we create a center of gravity that serves as a counterweight to all of the difficult challenges they carry. We try and educate them in the traditional sense as well as we can, in writing, reading and math. When you become proficient, you feel good; when you become competent, you become confident.”
For decades, Black and Hispanic students, particularly those from low-income households, have been less successful in school than their white and Asian-American counterparts.
“The National Center for Education Statistics reports consistently growing or barely narrowing gaps between white and Black and white and Latino students in math and reading test scores since the early 1980s, as well as in the rates of attainment of bachelor’s or higher degrees since the 1990s,” Stella M. Flores, Director of Access and Equity for the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University, wrote for Inside Higher Ed in January.
Another recent study from Stanford University attributed the gap in part to the high concentration of Black and Hispanic children in high-poverty schools with limited resources. “If we want to improve educational opportunities and learning for students, we want to get them out of these schools of high-concentrated poverty,” Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and leader of the study, told Reuters.
The team at AJC has managed to bring quality education and resources to a struggling neighborhood, with positive results. One hundred percent of the school’s first graduating class, in 2012, went on to attend and graduate from high school, and 70 percent of those alumni enrolled in college.
At the time AJC was founded, people in the community thought middle-school-aged children were the most vulnerable to dropping out of school or getting into trouble in the neighborhood. But this is by no means the only group that could benefit from the school’s model, Maruca said. “The needs are pressing and unending in an area like this,” he told us. “Now we are working our way back down.”
To do that, Capital One's New Market Tax Credit Team (NMTC) is helping to fund a $9 million expansion that will allow AJC to almost double its population to 224. The additions include a gym and more classrooms so the school can begin admitting kindergarten through third-grade students. This fall they’ll enroll students in the second and third grades, with kindergartners and first graders arriving fall 2022. “When the new buildings open, I’m probably going to cry because of all the time and effort invested,” Maruca said.
The goal of the New Market Tax Credit program is to identify areas of need in underserved communities and fund projects to meet those needs, said James LaFleur, a relationship manager with Capital One. “We see our transaction as allowing at least 100-plus students to get an in-person education that is not easy to come by,” he told us. “This way, more kids can be involved.” This investment fits perfectly within Capital One’s Impact Initiative, an initial $200 million, five-year commitment to the advancement of socioeconomic opportunity.
While the number of students at AJC is a fraction of the 24,000 in the city’s public schools, the Richmond Public Schools’ high-school graduation rate for 2016-17 was 75.39 percent, which shows the impact of AJC’s approach of providing students and their families with high levels of academic and emotional support. Breakfast, lunch and snacks are free, and students have access to a number of after-hours activities. And a month of summer school is mandatory.
The helping hands stick with students even after they leave: An extensive graduate support program assists AJC students in applying to private high schools. If someone gets accepted to a school and the whole tuition isn’t covered, AJC makes up the difference. Staff members also keep tabs as students progress through high school and help them apply to college or look at other options.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” Maruca said. “There is no magic formula. The best possible things we can give them are to be safe and a nurturing environment. We used to have a lot more disciplinary issues, but the culture we’ve created is so strong, those have dropped off. We try to teach the students that when they do good things, good things happen. That’s how the world works.
“I tell teachers to focus on the kids standing right in front of them; whatever is happening now is what they should focus on. We’re blocking and tackling. We’re just trying to move the ball down the field.”
The school already has its success stories. One alumna — who grew up in a local public housing development and often asked Maruca to pick her up and take her home — is now back at AJC. The former student went on to attend an independent high school and graduate from Randolph Macon College, and now she works with AJC alumni. “When she talks, kids listen to her,” Maruca told us.
Another student overcame numerous obstacles in his life and at one point was living with a teacher, Maruca went on. But he graduated, attended an independent high school and joined the Marines. Now, he wants to join the police force, which came as somewhat of a surprise to his former mentors. “He is a completely different person,” Maruca explained. “I would never have guessed he would want to be a police officer.”
At AJC, staff members are excited to work with younger students. “The best time to begin education is in utero, but the closer you can get to that, the better,” Maruca continued. “The sooner we can get started with those goals, the less ground there is to make up and we have more time to work with them. The reading needs [of the new students] is going to be overwhelming.”
AJC staff are interviewing potential students who have not been in school for all of first grade. With many more applications to the school than it has openings, staff weigh factors such as income — family income must be at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or lower — with preference to students who live in one of the four low-income housing buildings in the area and have siblings attending the school.
The biggest daily challenge is to keep at it in the face of long odds, Maruca said. “The folks we work with are always coming up against limits, either in terms of the concrete hope they have for a different future or because the gravitational pull of their environment is so strong, or they are running out of data on their phone, and then everything in between,” he told us. “Students all have something inside of them — we try to provide the environment for seeds to develop and grow.”
This article series is sponsored by Capital One and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: iStock courtesy of Capital One
Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT. Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.