On an early Tuesday morning, a sixth-grader at Community Preparatory School is challenged to solve a math problem faster than his peer who holds one slight advantage: a calculator.
The teacher scribbles a complex problem on the blackboard and the race is on.
"9,900," the sixth-grader shouts quickly, beating the machine and winning applause.
It's another victory for the Calculator Club, the fun part of a tough math class at Community Prep, a fourth- through eighth-grade private school in Providence, R.I.
At this school in one of the city's poorest areas, teachers and parents share a common mission: to rescue average or slightly above-average performers in public schools and turn them into stars. It's a boot camp of sorts, surrounded by public housing and colorful graffiti, that will prepare students for the toughest prep schools.
The school is one of many options parents have during an era when sagging test scores, increased violence, and teacher shortages are plaguing urban schools. Ivy League graduates, such as the founders of Community Prep, and social pioneers alike are responding by stepping in to help drive reform. These entrepreneurs are pushing alternatives, such as private and charter schools, in impoverished neighborhoods with failing education systems and few choices. And they're raising the money to help support the students.
"In a way we're kind of a grandfather within the charter-school movement," says Community Prep Principal Dan Corley. "Each school has to come up with its own mission and be willing to be different."
At his school, the strategy seems to be working. The 15-year-old school has a solid track record, with 100 percent of its inner-city students getting into prep schools and 85 percent of alumni going to college - about twice the urban public-school average.
Students say it's common when they first arrive to drop from B's to C's. But after years of drill and practice, grades usually shoot up. A "C" student in Mr. Corley's eighth-grade math class, for example, will probably earn A's in math his freshman year in prep school, says Jim Donahue, assistant head of the school.
"I was capable of the work, but it was a different way of learning," says Hillary Lopes, a seventh-grader. "In public school you just filled in the blanks. At Community Prep, there's more of an analysis of stories."
Mr. Corley opened the school in 1984 with his former Brown University roommate, Bob Hahn. They were responding to local parents who couldn't afford private schools but wanted their kids to break free from the ghetto.
Enrollment has jumped to 129 from the initial 25, and Corley wants funding to add three classrooms in the next few years. Currently, there's only space for 25 percent of applicants. Selection is partly random, but the school aims for a diverse, academic middle range of students who show potential and might otherwise slip through the cracks.
The school stays afloat largely through sizable corporate donations, which also help fund the 90 percent of students who receive financial aid. Community Prep operates hand-in-mouth, striving to keep per-pupil costs at slightly below the state's public-school average: Tuition is $7,000 a year.
Yet even with meager means, the school fans flames of potential that public schools can mask. There's mandated parental participation, strict academics, and teachers double as social workers, parents, or disciplinarians.
Community Prep also stands firmly behind a creed of color that aims to mirror Providence city schools. Flags representing dozens of countries dangle brightly from the cafeteria ceiling. Students are 45 percent African-American, 23 percent white, and about a fifth live within 10 blocks of the school.
"We're an interracial family so we like the environment here," says Ken Luke, who is meeting with a teacher to discuss his daughter's performance. "They're not sheltered from outside events ... when they graduate they won't be overwhelmed or naive."
Empowerment and flexibility are the bread-and-butter of this school's success. Teachers are on the front lines so they are the best money managers, Corley says. Contrary to public-school policies, he lets them determine how to spend about $15,000 per two grades a year.
Teachers have high expectations for students. Assignments are writing-intensive and challenge kids to think beyond one-word answers. Fourth-graders typically learn how to set goals and develop study habits. In addition, every quarter teachers create interdisciplinary themes. Sixth-graders might study ancient civilizations and learn about them in history and science classes, for example.
"It's a lot of work, but I love it," says Diane Cunha, who teaches sixth and seventh grade. "I tell them that 'if you're willing to work hard, it's going to be OK.' I'm often going back and forth from being a teacher to a mother."
Teachers meet with parents every quarter in formal goal-setting sessions that focus on improvement rather than GPAs, Cunha says, and they talk with parents as regularly as once a week. Teachers are also required to give out home phone numbers.
Brian Morris takes advantage of that accessibility. The sixth-grader says homework has gotten so difficult, his parents can't always help. "This school helps you have more of a choice [in life]," he says. "If you don't understand, people will help you. We all talk to each other and help each other."
Cynthia Gonzalez, a soft-spoken seventh-grader, says she was bored and unmotivated until she came here in fourth grade. Last year she got F's in math, but teachers stayed after school to tutor her and her grades shot up to B's.
As the school continues to grow it will become bolder, Corley says, accepting more students with behavior problems or lower grades.
"Maybe because we're here we're raising the bar in Providence ..." he says, "schools will see us and try to improve."