ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — A year ago, marquel Green could never have imagined studying Latin in sixth grade. The public middle school he was attending didn't even offer Spanish. Bored by crowded classes and undemanding teachers, he found his interest waning and his grades slipping.
"They weren't teaching me the things I wanted to know," Marquel explains. His mother, Deborah Green, adds, "He was running around with the wrong crowd. It was awful. He had a real bad year."
Desperate for a solution, Ms. Green enrolled her son in a summer program at Academy Prep, a private school for promising but disadvantaged boys in St. Petersburg, Fla. A transformation began.
"From that day forward he's been a new student," Green says. "Everything has changed - his whole attitude toward school. Marquel is a different person." His daily schedule even includes Latin.
Heartening stories like this echo through conversations at the year-old school, nestled in the heart of a low-income neighborhood. For 37 fifth- through seventh-graders, 36 of them black, Academy Prep offers a path to college in an area where only 25 percent of public school students graduate from high school.
It also represents a haven of stability for those who come from what director John Effinger calls "fractured families." Eighty percent live in single-parent homes. Some are being raised by grandparents.
"Research shows that African-American boys seem to lose their way in fourth or fifth grade," Mr. Effinger says. To keep boys on track, classes are limited to 15. The school day begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Students who do not earn B's in all subjects return for study hall from 7 to 9 p.m.
Teachers and staff, Effinger adds, "spend an incredible amount of time with the boys, giving them tools to meet the high expectations we have for them, giving them love, putting our arms around them, listening to them, and believing in them."
Modeled after a school on the lower East Side of New York, Academy Prep grew out of a dream held by four couples. Its intensive program emphasizes not only academic excellence but leadership and high morals.
"Hard work and time - those are two biggies," says Sandi Pearl, one of the founders, referring to the commitment students must make.
Already staff members are gratified by concrete evidence of academic progress. Scores on a standardized comprehensive test improved by more than a grade and a half in the first six months. As another measure of success, Ms. Pearl, the office manager and self-described "resident mom," pulls out a folder containing applications for 30 boys wanting to enroll next year. Another folder lists those who hope to enter in 2003.
Sitting in his office with classical music playing softly in the background, Effinger describes the challenges many students face. One 12-year-old whose mother is often hospitalized has full responsibility at home for his five-year-old brother, four-year-old nephew, and two-year-old niece.
"He's one of our best students," says Effinger. "He came here last year saying he wanted to be an assassin. He was very serious about it. Now he's telling us he wants to escape from his environment. He talks about boarding school and college."
Another boy arrived a year and a half ago "very rough-hewn" and the weakest reader. After working with a tutor, he is now "grammar guru" of the sixth grade.
Other students share that determination to succeed. On a recent Friday, Marquel is the first to raise his hand in Latin class. "Marquel, do you have a question?" asks teacher Jay Heath.
"Yes sir," the boy replies. "You said quadrilateral was a math term. I couldn't find it."
"I'll go over it," says Mr. Heath. "It's four equal sides. Quatro is four."
Heath spends much of the period today preparing students for a test on Monday. When two boys whisper, he cuts them short, saying sternly, "Gentlemen, excuse me. I do not need the rudeness. Just pay attention, gentlemen." Infractions like this can land students in the detention center after school.
Yet such strictness produces respect. Earlier in the morning sixth-grader Michael Hawkins, another of Heath's students, warned a visitor, "I would advise you to be on time for Latin or he will lock you out."
That sense of responsibility pleases Michael's mother, June Hawkins, who explains that her son "started drifting" last year in a public school. Now, she says, "The teachers are there for him. We have teachers who want to help." Already Michael dreams of attending the University of Nebraska and playing football.
Rosa Hemingway, who teaches math, spent 37 years in public schools before coming here. She says, "I tell them, 'Mama can't do this work for you. You have to sit down and do the work yourself. If you need me I'm right here.' "
Posters dotting the walls of her carpeted classroom offer further encouragement. "Remember: Only your best is good enough." "Failure is not an option." Buildings and classrooms are named for noted African Americans - the Justice Thurgood Marshall administrative office, the Jesse Owens classroom.
"I pray all the time for other schools to develop like this," Mrs. Hemingway says. "Suppose we had five of them. You can see the difference it makes."
To apply, students must be eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program. Their $7,000 tuition is paid by corporations, foundations, businesses, and individuals. So far the school has raised $3 million. Its target is $12 million, which will also fund classes for girls. Enrollment will peak at 120 - 60 boys and 60 girls.
Next year Academy Prep will add eighth-grade classes. Beginning in ninth grade, boys will attend boarding schools and private schools. Staff members will monitor their progress through college.
Attrition at the school runs surprisingly low - between 10 and 15 percent. Students who "attrit," Effinger explains, "don't buy into what we're about."
For the overwhelming majority who do embrace the school's philosophy, a quiet optimism prevails as they talk about the future. Sitting at a picnic table near the playground, a world away from last year's public-school experience, Michael says, "Everything we need to know in life is at Academy Prep." Marquel nods, adding, "It's up to us to fulfill our destiny."