School Lays Strong Foundation

Community Prep in Providence, R.I., helps students who `tend to get lost' build solid educational base for college

EVERY school day begins the same way here at the Community Preparatory School in a poor section of south Providence, R.I.

"The whole school gets together, and we say a pledge to ourselves," says fourth-grader James Deignan.

When asked if he can repeat the pledge, James doesn't hesitate. Looking straight ahead through round-framed glasses, he recites the pledge, which was written by acclaimed Chicago educator Marva Collins: "This day has been given to me fresh and clear. I can either use it or throw it away. I promise that I shall use this day to the fullest, realizing that it can never come back again. I realize that this is my life to use or throw away."

Community Prep, as the school is known locally, was founded in 1984 by former college roommates Daniel Corley, a teacher, and Robert Hahn, an economist.

The school's mis-sion is to give its students a strong educational foundation en- abling them to go on to college-prep high schools and eventually to college.

"We're here to challenge the level of expectation [for each child]," says Mr. Corley, who is the principal. "Right now it is only the real cream of the crop for whom college is held out as a real possibility. We want to say that average students ... should have college clearly in mind for themselves, should learn how to think and have the skills necessary to succeed in a rigorous college-prep high school program."

The school began with 25 students in three rented classrooms. Corley and two other teachers received a salary of $11,000 each that first year.

After several years of renting space at the local YMCA, the school purchased its own building. Community Prep moved into its new home this year. A staff of 12 educates 80 students in grades 4 to 8.

Originally, all the students were from the neighborhoods of southwest Providence. And everyone received substantial financial aid.

Today, some students come from wealthier sections of the city. But only 12 percent of all students pay the full tuition of $4,500. More than 70 percent of students receive financial aid for more than half of their tuition.

No student has ever been turned away because of finances. Funding comes from corporate grants, individual donations, and a small state subsidy.

The school is devoted to diversity among its small group of students. This year's student body is 40 percent black, 25 percent white, 15 percent Asian, and 20 percent Hispanic.

Through a partnership with the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, Community Prep also has six deaf students. "We see hearing impairment as just another aspect of diversity," says Andrea Joseph, director of development at the school.

In a sixth-grade class, two teachers stand at the front of the room. One is talking, and the other is translating the lesson and discussion into sign language. It makes for a lively atmosphere of varied communication.

Eighth-grader Joyce Hopkins, a hearing student, began taking sign language when she first came to Community Prep two years ago. "I wanted to communicate with [the deaf students] so much," she says. "And I always wanted to learn another language." This year, Joyce is teaching sign language to other students at the school.

Classes are small at Community Prep, and individual attention is enhanced by a steady flow of volunteers. Most classrooms throughout the school have more than one adult working with the students.

Barbara Churches, a community volunteer and retired teacher, helps out in the seventh-grade math class several days a week. "I came to the school and asked, 'Do you have a place for volun- teers?' " Ms. Churches recalls. The staff at Community Prep welcomed her into the school.

Interns from various colleges in the area come in to run regular group activities. The college students organize an after-school program and take over classes during Monday morning staff meetings. "We want to make use of all the resources that we can," Ms. Joseph says.

The school year is divided into five terms. At the beginning of each term, students meet with their teacher and parents to set goals. Grades are based on how well students do in meeting their goals. "The kids end up taking a lot of responsibility for their work," says Joseph, who has a son at the school.

The entrance requirements at Community Prep are still evolving. For the first few years, "we had no admissions criteria; we accepted everybody," Corley says. He saw a need to help middle-school students in the neighborhood perform better academically, and he simply responded to the need without a long-term plan for the school.

"I'm more of a throw-yourself-into-the-middle-of-a-situation type person," Corley says. "It's not the best management style, I've come to find out. But it's pretty good for getting things started."

In the third year, Corley began to rethink the school's structure. He committed himself to putting more money into teacher's salaries. In addition, all incoming students were required to have scored at least in the 70th percentile on the math or reading portion of their standardized tests.

"The thinking was that if they scored in the 70th percentile in math and were weak in reading comprehension, they've shown good native intelligence in one area, and we can work from there," Corley says. "We've come to find that marked discrepancies in test scores are also a sign of learning disabilities."

The new admissions requirement drew a disproportionate number of students with special needs into the school and created a challenge for the small staff. For this reason, Community Prep is revising the admissions guidelines. As of next year, incoming students are required to have a minimum average in the 60th percentile on standardized tests.

"We're still looking at the average or above-average student," Corley says. "We're not at all taking the cream of the crop." The goal is to make sure "we can meet the needs of those people who come through our doors."

"The public-school system has programs for the gifted and people who can work with the learning disabled," Ms. Joseph says. "It is those kids in the middle range who are given no special attention and tend to get lost ... that we think we can really make a difference with."

Corley has had to devote much of his time in the last several years to fund-raising for the school. "We've worked hard at getting resources together, helping us to establish a home. We're permanent now; we own a home in the neighborhood," he says. Now he plans to give more attention to what goes on inside the school. "I've been in more living rooms of prospective donors than in the living rooms of prospective parents over the last three years," Corley says. "This year that is changing."

Community Prep has graduated almost 50 students, and all of them have been accepted to college-prep high schools. Some attend the public magnet high school; others are attending New England boarding schools.

The first Community Prep graduate is now a freshman at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. And he's on the Dean's List, school administrators report with pride.

The 1992 graduates - today's eighth graders - have sent off their batches of applications and are waiting for word on acceptances. "It's nail-biting time," says Joyce, who applied to nine high schools.

But Damiso Husband, another eighth grader, isn't worried. When he went to visit high schools a while ago, the students were doing math that he had already mastered. "I think I may be ahead," he says with confidence.

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