South Florida school a ‘builder of boys, maker of men’

Palm Beach Christian Preparatory School’s mission is to guide and support students to become men who are proficient both academically and extracurricularly, open to growth, intellectually competent, religious, loving, and committed to doing justice so they can work as leaders for the promotion of justice in a multicultural society.

Just now, the news Palm Beach Christian Preparatory School is making belongs on the sports pages — which is what you would expect when a bunch of coaches launches a private school.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

To its enormous credit, PBCPS embraces vigorous competition as one of its ideals, and for all the right reasons. Pursued appropriately, high school sports teach responsibility, reliability, the value of doing your job, time management, homework, sacrifice, and teamwork.

There’s also this, which must not be underestimated: The Saints of PBCPS learn about the joy of rewards earned, not given. Because of this, expect the news made by Palm Beach Christian Prep graduates to be splendid and widely worthy of note.

“Our principles,” says PBCPS founder Willie Snead III, “are built around biblical principles that tie into athletics, academics, and just being responsible — being a servant to your community, being a light in your own family.”

An ordained minister, Snead carries the titles of senior pastor of Palm Beach Christian Ministries and headmaster of PBCPS. But athletics is in his blood: All-Palm Beach County and All-Academic wide receiver for Glades Central High School; four-year letterman in college (two each at the universities of Virginia and Florida); pro football stops with the New York Jets, Toronto Argonauts, and Saskatchewan Roughriders; and successful high school football coach (state championships in Florida and Michigan).

Everywhere, he saw youngsters who were just one wrong turn, one instant from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, from seeing their promise vanish in a heartbeat.

Snead saw and he knew, because he remembered being 8 years old, home in bed from trick-or-treating on Halloween night, and hearing that pop-pop-pop out on the street. Firecrackers, he thought, drifting off.

The news, engraved in his memory, came on the morning of All Saints Day: There had been a shooting in the neighborhood, and his dad, Willie Snead Jr., a bystander, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A tragedy like that changes a person. Makes them or breaks them.

Willie Snead III went to work, pushed by his widowed mom, who finished school at night, became a bookkeeper, and for the next 34 years never was without a paycheck.

Snead chased rabbits and raccoons through the muck around Lake Okeechobee, getting stronger and faster, because that’s what kids did if they wanted out of Belle Glade. But all through the years and long into adulthood, he never forgot those friends and teammates who couldn’t keep pace.

Willie and Sofia Snead

About four years ago, while waiting for a plane to take him home from a coaching clinic in Muskegon, Mich., and wondering what would come next, Snead experienced an epiphany. Flanked by wife Sofia, a regional sales manager for cosmetics-packaging giant SeaCliff, and son Willie Snead IV, then and now an NFL wide receiver, he leaned into a story on an overhead television about the education initiative in Akron, Ohio, being driven by NBA star LeBron James.

James’ efforts had culminated in the I Promise School, a public school that does revolutionary things for students in difficult circumstances. And there it was, the answer to a prayer the Sneads scarcely knew they’d whispered, as though the Almighty himself was reaching through the screen.

“We could do that,” Willie III said. “We have to do that,” Willie IV replied. Sofia hugged them both.

Set back a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, Palm Beach Christian Preparatory School opened in August 2021 in a modest block building in Greenacres, Fla., practically in the shadow of John Leonard High, the largest public school in Palm Beach County.

Fifteen months later, this little David of an educational miracle continues to gather its flock, paying scant attention to the Goliath up the street.

Most of the original Saints had run into trouble typical of their neighborhoods. Substance abuse, getting high, drinking, ditching school. The difference, Snead says: “They said that they wanted help. We offered them that help. And a lot of them gave up those other devices. They stopped smoking and they found that someone truly cared about them.”

Consider the encouraging parallel experiences of Jadarius Patterson and Grant Turner, both 16 and both from tough neighborhoods in beach towns south of Lake Worth. Adults in their lives had reason to fret over the youngsters’ futures if their courses remained unaltered.

Now, delivered daily into the care of Pastor Snead and his team by the school’s small fleet of buses, hope burns brightly for both.

Some aspects of PBCPS borrow from learning centers and microschools such as KaiPod, Outschool, and My Tech High, each of which blends the flexibility of online study with immediate access to learning coaches in the room.

Having unearthed an affinity for algebra and hands-on chemistry, Turner ponders life as a veterinarian, never mind how much school is involved. You’d never know he arrived at Palm Beach Christian Prep as a 10th-grader groaning under road-to-nowhere baggage: a hyperactivity discipline problem with truancy issues.

Now he’s an honor roll student.

PBCP operates on the belief that learning extends beyond the classroom, to the chapel and the athletic field.

“It’s actually better than if we were at a public [school] environment,” Turner says, “because [at PBCPS], they’re always on top of you. They’re always going to make sure that you’re doing the right thing. And they’re going to keep you around more good things so you won’t do bad.

“When you’re in a public environment … nobody cares what you do. … It’s more structured when you’re around people who care.”

That caring involves the sorts of adult intervention that teens often describe as meddling. Be on time. Do your homework. Are you studying? Pay attention. Who are you hanging out with? Rather than bristle, successful Saints regard all this as love expressed.

“To me,” Patterson says, “them being in our business is like them being a father figure toward us. Of course, they’re going to be on us because they are our coaches and stuff, but it’s more like a father figure.

“You’re doing stuff you don’t have any business doing. They’re going to make you own up. … You’re going to have to take accountability for your actions.”

Being a Saint doesn’t necessarily mean being saintly. But it does mean striving for goals revered by — among others — St. Basil the Great, the master of self-discipline.

Patterson is on the path.

“Being here … taught me how to think things through,” Patterson says, “not, you know, do things before I think. It taught me how to calm down.”

Willie Snead IV

Hearing this self-report brings glad tidings to Willie IV, who personally recruited Patterson for PBCPA. Not solely because, as the scouts say, he could play, but because, for all his athletic skills, his path out of the neighborhood was not certain.

“JD is the kind of kid we built our school up for,” Willie IV says. Minus support from the Saints network, “Jadarius probably would have gone in a whole different direction.

“The environment that he lives in, it’s so easy for him to be on the corner or to be in a park smoking or whatever. … It’s so easy for them to do that because that’s all they have around them.”

Instead, the men of Palm Beach Christian Prep are constant mentors to provide nurture and encouragement. Not just during school hours or at practice, but all the time. Every student has phone numbers for their coaches, Pastor Snead, and their favorite 49er.

And call they do.

They pick up the phone, Willie IV says, “when they might be struggling with something, or they might need direction about something and don’t want to make that decision on their own.

“I know kids look up to me,” he says. “And I just tell them, like, look, regardless of what your situation is, man, you are always in control.”

Jonathan King, Pastor Snead’s longtime colleague and friend, serves the school as head football coach and athletic director and also teaches daily Bible classes. Attend PBCPS and you’ll pray at least three times a day, he says. Go to practice, and it’ll be six, minimum.

“It’s not easy, because you’re trying to change mindsets of young men who have never seen this side of individuals talking to them about Christianity on an everyday basis,” King says. “But the overall is how to become one closer with God and closer to God.”

Palm Beach Christian Ministries, the organizing group headed by Pastor Snead that founded and guides the school, was PBCPS’s principal source of financial support in its first year. Fortunately for the backers’ bank accounts, there were just 12 students. Not that 12 is to be dismissed as insignificant, especially for a school rooted in the Bible’s New Testament.

Disciples in their own right, the original dozen helped grow the student population to 25 in Year 2. Also on the bright side, because of PBCPS’s partnership with Step Up For Students, Snead and his team are having to leverage far less of the funding.

But the needs and the opportunities are equally great, Snead says. Because more must be done, more is being done.

Nearby, a 5-acre piece of land is being developed into a campus with state-of-the-art classrooms, a 6,000-square-foot training facility, a chapel, and a hybrid student union and community center, a place, Snead says, “where the boys can congregate and read or study, and just kind of relax. We want it to be an environment where they’re protected, where they can be true to who they are, and let the true nature of their personalities come out.”

Ultimately, Pastor Snead imagines a place effervescing with the honest ambitions of 500 student Saints, each one eager to deliver good news.

And leading them as headmaster will be Willie IV, who won’t have to look for a job when he finishes with the NFL, where he’s been a gritty, move-the-chains journeyman pass catcher for eight seasons (Saints, Ravens, Raiders, Panthers, 49ers).

An undrafted free agent from Ball State, Headmaster Willie IV will present walking-around proof there’s more to success than off-the-charts talent. There’s all that stuff team sports can teach, plus faith in something larger than yourself.

Living examples make compelling guides. With Team Snead on the job, Palm Beach Christian Prep surely will deliver its message of rewards earned, not given.