Delaware Today magazine 302 DT Reads: Prestige Academy in Wilmington is a charter school that is transforming the lives of its students
The Ties That Bind: At Prestige Academy, it’s about tough beginnings and honorable endings.
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When Prestige first opened its doors, Jackson-Wright was one of the academy’s 103 inaugural fifth-graders. The academy expects to have a student body of more than 400 boys in fifth through eighth grade by the end of this school year.
Perry, who grew up in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood and, he says, was “lucky not to become another statistic,” founded the tuition-free middle school for boys three years ago. It serves Wilmington and its surrounding communities. Through a rigorous, college-prep curriculum and academic culture, Prestige is designed for boys just like Jackson-Wright who live in underserved communities and are academically behind the national average.
“What we’re trying to do here is serious business,” says Perry.
So is Jackson-Wright’s speech. With less than 24 hours to go, he’s still a little nervous. This school year marks his last at Prestige, but he still isn’t used to the celebrity status he’s earned since he first walked the academy’s halls as a shy, fragile fifth-grader.
Sitting on the living room couch inside his home on East 17th Street, Jackson-Wright folds his hands over his well-pressed khaki slacks; his pale-blue oxford shirt crisp and unblemished. He’s smaller than most other kids his age, and his timid, younger self—the reticent kid who used to give up on schoolwork and socialization—shows through now and then.
Despite the lingering shyness that remains, Jackson-Wright is a changed boy. His father, Barnell, sits in a recliner across from his son, lost in a long soliloquy about the transformation.
“People see him and they know right away. It’s like, My god! Who is this kid? Because they know how he used to be,” says Barnell Wright. “All he ever wanted to do was run off and play. And he couldn’t hold a conversation; couldn’t communicate on paper. Now? He’s a totally different kid.”
Three years ago, Barnell—who is no longer married to Jackson-Wright’s mother—knew something had to change. His boy was 9, his reading and math skills were several years behind where they needed to be, and his confidence level was poor. For several years, Jackson-Wright had been attending Marion T. Academy, the now-defunct charter school that was housed in the same space that Prestige now operates.
“At Marion T., there was a total lack of anything. They just pushed Daivon from grade to grade while he kept going down and down and down. His confidence was just shattered,” says Barnell. “But then I heard about Mr. Perry. He’s from my hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. And I knew this was a no-nonsense guy. I’m a no-nonsense guy. We’re the same age. And when I met him I thought, Definitely.”
The transition to Prestige wasn’t easy. The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The school year runs 194 days. Homework is assigned every night, and that includes the additional imperative teachers place on parents to make sure their sons are reading for at least an hour every evening.
“I tell every parent that this will be the strictest school your son has ever been in,” says Perry. “We have a lot of processes in place, not because we want to control your kids, but because we’re giving them the type of structure that will help them be successful. And it works.”
During his first few months there, Jackson-Wright wasn’t convinced.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he says, taking deep breaths between sentences, still finding his footing as the unofficial Prestige spokesman. “I didn’t have any friends or anything. But after a while, everyone started to get to know me. But my confidence was still low because I knew I wasn’t doing the work as well as I can now. But it’s better now. I know I can achieve more and I know that I can do more. I can do better.”
To illustrate the point, Jackson-Wright likes to tell a story about his first year at the school. During an especially challenging math class, he excused himself from the room, went into the hallway, curled up against a wall and sobbed.
“I was just so frustrated,” he says. “All I could do was cry. I just couldn’t do any of the work.”
Barnell chimes in. “He was basically tapping into his own soul, asking himself, ‘Why can’t I get this? Everyone else can? Why can’t I?’ And then a teacher came up to him, and instead of just telling him to stop crying and get back in the room, she sat down with him and helped him work through it. She actually made him believe he could."
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