1 of 2
Spring Cambric has sent all four of her children to St. Andrew's School, including (from left) Quentin Lambert, Kalia Lambert and Travis Cambric.Photo by Chris SmithPhoto by Chris Smith
2 of 2
Working with tomato plants in the garden at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School Photo courtesy Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School
Spring Cambric was looking for an educational environment that respected the individuality of her four children when she found St. Andrew's School. "From the moment you enter those doors with your child, there is a feeling from all of the faculty and staff that they care about those children," she says. "It has a friendly, loving atmosphere. Everyone there is always willing to give a hug or kind word of encouragement. I have never at any moment felt that St. Andrew's was not the place for my children."
Located in Oregon Hill, St. Andrew's School was founded in 1894 by Grace Arents. "It was a tuition-free school started for working-class families [in the neighborhood]," says head of school Dr. Cyndy Weldon-Lassiter. "Now we have branched out to the city of Richmond and surrounding counties."
When people think of independent schools, they don't normally think of free or significantly reduced tuition, but the Richmond area has a few examples of independent schools with a mission to serve low-income students.
When it first opened in 1894, St. Andrew's taught classes at night because children usually worked during the day. Today, the private day school serves students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It has remained tuition-free for the low-income families it serves since its founding. (There is a $125 enrollment fee.) "Grace Arents left an endowment, and one-third of that covers operating costs," Weldon-Lassiter explains. "The remainder of the funds is raised through donors, corporations, foundations and churches."The school's hallmark of catering to the needs of the whole child appeals to Cambric. "They allow [students] to express themselves and have experiences that will last them a lifetime," she says. "That is exactly what I wanted, for my children to go somewhere that was more than just a school, someplace that would feel like a home."
Third-grade co-teacher Melissa Moye was drawn to St. Andrew's because of its nurturing atmosphere and focus on individuality as well as its small class size (16 children per class). "With smaller classes, we are able to integrate units of study across the various areas of curriculum," she says. During National Poetry Month in April, for example, third-grade students read from a variety of anthologies, wrote their own poems, and made collage pictures to accompany their work.
The school is constantly enriching its curriculum. This year, Advanced Placement students from the Governor's School taught Spanish to the children at St. Andrew's. The school also began an after-school program. "We recognized the importance of providing some kind of enrichment after school," Weldon-Lassiter says. "We offer snacks through the Kid's Café." Volunteers teach harp, violin, piano, yoga and cooking classes. Students take tennis lessons through Virginia Commonwealth University's Lobs & Lessons program and go to the YMCA for swimming. "Many of the programs are offered to us at reduced rates because of the students' economic level," Weldon-Lassiter says.
These types of offerings are attractive to parents, as evidenced by the surge in applicants, whose numbers were up 33 percent for the 2012-2013 school year. "There are more children applying than we have spots for," Weldon-Lassiter says.
In addition to academics, the school emphasizes health and nutrition by providing a healthy breakfast and lunch to students. It also has started a food-pantry program two days a week that gives students one bag of food per family member each day the pantry is open and a program in which children carry food home in their backpack on the weekend. A recent grant allowed the school to enlist the services of a nutritionist to teach a workshop on the importance of fiber in the diet. Families who participated went home with all the ingredients in the recipe and a crock-pot donated by Hamilton Beach. "We want to give as much information to families as possible," Weldon-Lassiter says.
She expects families to be active participants in their children's education. Parents volunteer in a variety of ways, and many participate in the Family Association, which holds events such as a talent show and Mother's Day tea. "It's an opportunity for families to take leadership roles," Weldon-Lassiter says. "The association has been pretty active in school."
Cambric can understand why so many parents want their children to attend the school. "My children love being at St. Andrew's," she says. "They are excited about learning, excited about reading, excited about math and science. Their teachers make it fun, and if they have a problem, the children know their teachers will help them understand."
Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School was founded three years ago to provide an educational opportunity for low-income families from neighborhoods in Richmond's East End. The faith-based, tuition-free (there is an enrollment fee of $50) private school is located near Creighton Court. "We hope to help change the trajectory of kids' lives," says Michael Maruca, head of the school. "We want all the kids to be thinking about high school and college as well, and that is ambitious for a lot of our kids."
The school's roots trace back to area Episcopal churches such as St. James's and St. Stephen's, both of which were instrumental in the development of the school, which was first located in a house owned by the Peter Paul Development Center. The school's current building, owned by the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority, was once used as a preschool.
Iris Weathers' daughter has been attending the school for two years. Weathers likes the fact that teachers work one-on-one with her daughter. "It has been a great experience for her," she says, adding that before enrolling in the school, she had to push her daughter to read. "Now she loves to read. Her reading and math skills have increased. She is learning history now that I learned in the 12th grade."
The school, which serves grades six, seven and eight, had an enrollment of 50 during the 2011-2012 school year. Students have the opportunity to take classes in the arts, music, improv theater, sports and physical education in addition to regular courses. "This coming year, we want to have sports each season," Maruca says. "We are looking to have a football team. We are also looking at soccer, tennis and biking. We are trying to hammer that out."
Anna Julia Cooper's after-school program is mandatory for all students. "It's a period of time they can do their homework with teachers available," Maruca says. "We also have three weeks of school in the summer, and students are required to attend summer school."
Kimberly Branch enrolled her three children in the school as an alternative to a public education. All three have made the school's honor roll. "I wanted a school that would leave the bad elements outside," she says. "When they went to school, [I wanted them] to go to school and learn. Anna Julia Cooper did that."
Some of Anna Julia Cooper's graduates have received significant scholarships for area independent high schools. "I view that as a great opportunity for these kids that could potentially be life-changing," Maruca says.
School chaplain and science teacher Rock Higgins has been impressed with the students in an eighth-grade reading class that he oversees. This June, they finished reading The Lord of the Rings, a 1,000-plus-page assignment that started last September. "That was a major task for them," he says. "They read so many pages each week. It gave them a sense of accomplishment."
Anna Julia Cooper is more than a school, he adds. "We try to make a difference in kids' lives so they can see a broader possibility for their futures. We help them set goals and find ways to fulfill those goals."
Higgins is thrilled when his students ask curious questions in class. "They really do just want to learn for learning's sake, and that is cool to see," he says.
Maruca has been pleased with the level of participation from parents. Parent-student-teacher conferences have 100 percent attendance, he says. "All of our parents have been great," he says. He tries to instill in his students the power of hope. That, he says, is their most precious commodity. "If you have real genuine hope about life changing and getting better, you will think twice about things. If there is anything we could help give our students it would be that — hope."
William Kell wants the students at Elijah House Academy to know what they are getting into when they enroll in the faith-based private school. To do that, he asks them to memorize the school handbook. "We find that kids put a lot of effort in and apply themselves if we make it clear what we require," says Kell, the school's executive director.
Parents also are asked to sign a covenant with the school that explains the school's expectations. "For example, parents are expected to be at parent-teacher meetings," Kell says, adding that student's scores are sent home each week. "We don't accept F's and D's. Once that occurs, there is a process put in place to rectify the situation. Some parents can't deal with that and back their child out."
Kell, who is retiring this year, opened the school in 1989. He realized a need after starting a church in Gilpin Court. "When we tried to teach Bible verses, we realized that the kids couldn't read," he says. "We decided we wanted to found a school that was highly structured and disciplined."
Originally serving only eight students in grades 2 through 4, the school is now K-12 with an enrollment of 150. "So far, 100 percent of our graduates are going to college," Kell says.
Elijah House, now at 6255 Warwick Road, began in the basement of Kell's home. By design, 50 percent of the school's students come from families living at the poverty level, which is defined by free or reduced meals. "Now about 64 percent of our students are in that category," Kell says. "We have only three families that pay the entire tuition."
Tuition is based on a graduated scale. Families with gross annual incomes of up to $20,000 pay $1,000 a year, for example, while parents in the highest bracket ($80,000 and above) pay $5,000.
The school's goal, according to Kell, is to teach children to speak well, be well-mannered and to teach them basic morals from the Bible. Elijah House uses the A Beka curriculum, which emphasizes verbal and mathematical fluency at every grade level. Students also attend Bible classes every morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Sports programs include basketball, soccer and volleyball.
Mary Becoat's four children are all graduates of the school. She believes the education her children received will carry them through the rest of their lives. "It provides a great foundation," she says, noting that she now works for the school. "The staff is here for the children academically and spiritually."
Becoat saw improvements in her children's organizational and timekeeping skills while they were attending Elijah House. "They knew what they had to do in school," she says. "The same structure was there at home."
She is seeing the same success in Elijah House's students today. "It's a school of excellence in every area of their lives. It's always encouraging the kids," she says. "They are learning to persevere through hard times."