Prestige Academy, the first all-boys charter school in Delaware, just came to the end of its first quarter, in its inaugural year of trying to help the most at risk students, namely inner city males who are predominanlty black and Hispanic. So, given the failure of these students historically speaking, report cards were not exactly stellar on Wednesday. But Executive Director Jack Perry says to give his school time before judging.

Prestige Academy, the first all-boys charter school in Delaware, just came to the end of its first quarter, which is remarkable in and of itself given the obstacles the school faced in opening.

Local and state teachers’ unions had balked at the concept of the fifth to eighth grade school, particularly because Red Clay Consolidated School District’s initial plan was to house it at the struggling Warner Elementary School. Next, they had to anxiously wait for the Delaware General Assembly to change a law last winter, to allow single-sex public schools to exist. 

The last-minute legislation succeeded, then there was the scramble to find a temporary location, and finally, the school opened with 103 fifth-graders this fall. It will gradually expand up to eighth grade, preparing students for the best schools in greater Wilmington.

Students received their first report card on Wednesday.

Executive Director Jack L. Perry already knew not to get his hopes up too high, based on mid-quarter progress reports and early benchmark tests. The bottom line?

“It certainly has been a struggle for some,” said Perry.

The school has a tough job ahead, Perry said. Black and Hispanic males are routinely a grade or two below their peers. Only 54 percent of black students and 42 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school, compared to 68 percent of whites, according to the Wilmington Education Task Force numbers from this past year.

That is precisely the at-risk group of inner city students Prestige aims to reach. To battle against those grim numbers, Prestige is establishing a disciplined environment and an academically rigorous, college prep middle school curriculum in the city of Wilmington, Perry said.

It will take time to get there, though. Benchmark tests were consistent with national numbers: most of Prestige's new fifth graders performed at a third grade level.

"Our kids have been in [other] schools for five or six years. This being our 12th week, we’re still trying to make up that ground," he said. “The population that needs this school the most is exactly who we have here. We still are continuing to push our kids along that continuum of what it ultimately means to buckle down and focus."

To begin with, during student orientation, students learned what was expected of them, from homework to how they organize their binders, Perry said.

And they are learning respect for their teachers, peers and themselves. All students started the year in a yellow orientation T-shirt, and had to earn their way into their Prestige Academy gold dress shirt and purple and gold tie (the school colors) – much like earning a spot on an athletic team.

The Doubters

After a failed attempt to obtain a charter in the charter-friendly Red Clay district, Prestige got its charter from the Delaware Department of Education, and took up temporary residence on the second floor of the Police Athletic League off North Market Street in Wilmington. Some might think it was out of the frying pan into the fire going into the Brandywine School District, which has traditionally been hostile territory for charter schools, and has been particularly hostile toward concentrating at-risk students in city schools, believing that such efforts are doomed to failure.

More than 90 percent of the students at Prestige are low-income, at-risk students, making Presige, in effect, a test case to disprove Brandywine's philosophy, Perry said. But the charter and prep schools Prestige has modeled itself after are already proving everyday what is possible with youths from the inner city and poor rural areas, he added.

To find quality teachers, Perry turned to Teach For America, the national corps of outstanding recent college graduates and professionals of all academic majors and career interests. They commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity.

The teachers

Prestige mathematics teacher Ben Phillips, a Teach For America alum, is in his ninth year teaching. He previously taught in the South Bronx for Lighthouse Academies.

“I’ve worked in high performing schools for several years now. So I know what a fifth-grader should be able to do,” he said. “And I’m just consistently holding them to that expectation with the confidence that I’ve seen kids just like them do it in other cities.”

Another Prestige math teacher, Luther Sewell, started out as a New York teaching fellow in one of the worst schools in Brooklyn, then moved to Prince Georges County, Md. before coming to Wilmington. He’s also a White House teaching ambassador fellow.

Sewell is part of a movement led by the White House to combat an inner city culture that has put more prestige in the “gangsta” lifestyle than education.

“It’s a cultural thing,” Sewell said. “One day I was driving through D.C. and on the radio the D.J. was saying, ‘Boy, you all are getting ready to go back to school. I hated school.’ What kind of impression is that going to leave on the kids? They’re going to hate school.

“And if the parents don’t say, ‘School is good for you and see what you can get out of it,’ the job becomes four times as hard on us,” he said.

Phillips said it’s not a matter of saying the culture students have is wrong or bad. It’s a matter of making it cool to be in school, he said.

Prestige aims to send its students to the most prestigious schools in Wilmington, Perry said. It has a relationship with academic heavyweights like The Charter School of Wilmington (which sends students to tutor in math and reading), and is in talks with Salesianum and Tatnall, among others to establish similar relationships.

“My hope is that as we grow, schools will be knocking at our door saying [they] want to offer scholarships as they do at Nativity Prep,” Perry said.

The students

Some of the first things students like Semaj Harris of Wilmington, Jonathan Dougherty of New Castle, Jamir Jackson of Wilmington, Rashun Clark of New Castle and Louis Hall of Belvedere learned when they got to Presige were discipline and etiquette. These include sitting up straight, listening and making eye contact with someone speaking to them.

Harris came from Harlan Elementary School in Brandywine, Dougherty from Anna P. Mote Elementary in Red Clay, Jackson from Warner in Red Clay, Clark from the defunct Marion T. Academy and Hall from Mote.

“You have to show that you’ve grown into a Prestige scholar and that you’re capable of learning. This is not your old school,” Clark said. “It’s to learn more about college and getting ready [for it].”

“At my old school, you could sit any way you want. The behavior was just way off,” Dougherty said. “What we’re learning in character education on Fridays with Mr. Perry is how to be a man. Respect yourself. Respect others.”

“At my last school, they would throw food around and get into trouble a lot – like going into people’s lockers and stuff like that,” Harris said. "In this school, they show you how to do the right thing and want you to go to college.”

Jackson said everyone gets homework on Fridays so that they will know what that feels like in college.

They do the work, but they're honest about how hard it is to adapt.

“I feel like it’s the right school to be in but we shouldn’t be getting homework on Fridays,” he said.

“It’s a good school to be at,” Jackson said. “But some students still got habits, doing stuff they did, at their old school.”

Students will take benchmarks again in the winter and spring, and Perry expects academic performance to make strides just like he's already seen in their behavior and attitudes. He has strong reason to hope.

“I grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, N.Y. – mom doing it by herself, three sisters, a father that died of A.I.D.S when I was 14,” said Perry, a graduate of Southern Connecticut State University. “I’m doing this because of where I came from. I know how lucky I am to be sitting here given the stats and given where a lot of the guys I grew up with are now.”