Once bored, now soaring, thanks to all-boys charter school

BRADENTON, Fla. – Lena Clark has a recurring nightmare. The former Army medic and Iraqi War veteran is trapped on the battlefield – bombs exploding, smoke everywhere – and desperately looking for the date in her contract that tells her when she can leave. She can’t find it. Nobody can help. The war drags on.

Brothers Frankie and Allen Clark are thriving at Visible Men Academy, an all-male charter school. Pictured here, the Clark family. (From left to right: Lena, Kennice, Allen, Frank and Frankie.)

Clark said the nightmare persists because it’s about her sons, Frankie, 11, and Allen, 10, and the hurdles they face as black males. It’s about the education she feels they must have – and she and her husband must give them – to navigate a world that can be hostile to children of color.

“I’m always going to be in a war for my children because I am raising black men,” Lena Clark said. “And that’s something I need my school to help me with.”

Thankfully, she said, she and her husband found that school.

For the past three years, Frankie and Allen have attended Visible Men Academy, a K-5 charter school south of Tampa Bay that is 100 percent male, 99 percent low-income, 96 percent black and Hispanic – and on the rise academically. The school emphasizes personalized instruction and character development. It’s big on expression through art and parental engagement. That combo, Clark said, has been a tonic for her boys.

“When they get up in the morning, they iron their own clothes and say, ‘We’ve got to be men today,’ “ she said. “If I have to pull them out for a dentist appointment, they’re like, ‘Mommy, what are you doing?’ They don’t want to go. They want to be in school.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Clark said she and her husband, Frank, removed their boys from their district school because the boys’ enthusiasm had begun to wane. Frankie and Allen are straight-A students. Clark said she pressed teachers for tougher assignments, but it didn’t happen.

When Frankie and Allen got home, they binged YouTube with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and devoured websites for brain teasers. That was good, but the Clarks also saw another sign their sons weren’t getting the intellectual nourishment they needed at school.

“We were higher than our grade level, but our teacher didn’t have anything for us beyond that,” Frankie said. “It wasn’t really challenging.”

Too often, Allen said, it was also frustrating.

“If a student had to be redirected,” he said, meaning steered back on track after dis-engaging or causing a disruption, “it was like, ‘Here we go again.’ “

Lena and Frank Clark are disabled Army veterans. She served eight years. He served 22. Both suffer from PTSD.

They concluded the district school did not share their expectations for their sons. That’s not an uncommon view among parents of color. Maybe it’s one reason nearly 60,000 of Florida’s 283,000 charter school students are black, and 117,000 are Hispanic.

In Florida, 36 percent of black students read at grade level, compared to 65 percent for white students, according to state test results. In Manatee County, home to Bradenton, the rate for black students is 28 percent. Meanwhile, studies show black charter school students are making big gains compared to their counterparts in district schools.

Visible Men Academy rents space from a low-slung, salmon-pink church graced by stalks of lady palm. Inside the main building and a smattering of modest portables, 100 boys are warmly immersed in a regimen that goes beyond traditional subjects. It’s why giddy kindergartners, when asked what they love most about their school, are as likely to say poetry and making pies as PE and pizza. It’s also why, supporters say, the charter school buried two F grades; missed a B by a hair last year; and made reading and math gains that ranked among the top 5 percent in the state.

“We’re ashamed of it (the F), but it’s far in the past,” said principal Mary Berges-Simpson. “We are confident about our academic gains and the trajectory of growth we’re on.”

The Clarks say the same for their sons.

Allen is in fourth grade. Frankie is in fifth. Allen is taller than his brother, and more reserved. He rocks the mini-dreads. Frankie, with the high-top fade, is quicker with the smile and lengthy explanations. Both are scoring at the highest levels on standardized tests. Both were recently assessed for gifted programs.

Both also shed the reticence they exhibited when they first arrived at Visible Men Academy, said Cedric Hameed, the school’s arts coordinator. They take part in the charter school’s expansive arts offerings, which include writing poetry and transforming poems into performance pieces. Both read poetry to audiences at nearby Ringling College of Art and Design. On Martin Luther King Day, both read at a synagogue – to 400 people.

Once butterflies faded, endorphins surged. When it was done, Frankie said, pumping his fist, “I felt like a superhero.”

“A lot of kids come in as lambs. Allen and Frankie have become lions,” Hameed said. “They’re not waiting around for opportunities. They’re creating opportunities.”

The charter school embraces a “two-generation approach” to learning. It offers a menu of classes requested by parents, including cooking, personal finances, even yoga. It promotes responsible parenting with a Fatherhood Initiative and a Visible Moms group.

At VMA, “there’s no separation between the parent and the child,” said Frank Allen, who credited the school with helping him cope with withdrawal issues tied to PTSD. “They want to make sure the whole house is good.”

The school also has a theater troupe where more than a dozen parents, including the Clarks, write and perform poetry, too. The topics they’re assigned – self-image, oppression, heroism – often spark deep family discussions. And, Hameed said, there’s something about kids seeing Mom and Dad stepping out of comfort zones that fuels their own resolve.

“When you have a child who’s scared of the dark, you can tell them stories about bravery. But the biggest thing is for them to see you’re not scared of the dark,” he said. “That emboldens them. They’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s my dad. If he’s not afraid, I’m not afraid.’ “

The Clarks don’t know yet which middle school their sons will attend. But they’re confident Visible Men Academy helped lay a strong foundation for future success. Their sons agree.

One of Frankie’s teachers recently gave him a gift, the book “I Am Malala” – about the Pakistani girl from a war-torn region who was nearly assassinated for her education advocacy, but survived and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The lesson, Frankie said, “is anyone can do anything.”

Allen said that’s the message his VMA teachers reinforce the most.

“They say we can do it, when we think we can’t,” he said. “And we can.”

About Florida’s charter schools

Florida is home to more than 650 public charter schools. They enroll 280,000 students, with more than half qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunches. As of September 2017, the state classified 171 charter schools as academically high-performing.