Planning a Private School for Low-Income Families
THE OAKS ACADEMY
Backstory Joanna Taft and her husband, Bill, had lofty goals when they moved into the King Park section of Indianapolis with their 3-month-old daughter, Rebekah, in 1991. "Bill's field is urban revitalization, and he wanted to practice what he preached. So we bought in a bombed-out area. We wanted to help restore it and make it healthy again," says Joanna. Not an easy task: The neighborhood was one-third vacant at the time and had the highest crime rate in the city. Thirteen cars were stolen right after they settled in. "I was scared to leave my porch to deliver the neighborhood newsletter we wrote," she recalls. They ultimately became more comfortable there, but not enough to send Rebekah to the local public school when she was ready for kindergarten. It just seemed too run-down and dangerous. After trying a private school in the suburbs, they decided to homeschool her. It was then that Joanna began attending meetings in the basement of a local church; the meetings were organized by middle-class families who, like her own, had moved in with the intention of improving the area. Everyone thought a faith-based school might be the answer.
After another mother, Sue Pankratz, heard about a third-grader in the neighborhood who couldn't read, she proposed starting a school that would serve the children from local low-income households too. Joanna began researching different educational models. Soon she hit upon something that sounded just right: a challenging curriculum, in which kids read the classics and learn Latin. While kids wouldn't formally learn about religion, they would examine faith-inspired racial reconciliation and social justice.
Mission The Oaks Academy is a private school -- serving children in pre-K through eighth grade -- that seeks to level the playing field by teaching a rigorous curriculum steeped in the cultures of ancient Africa, Greece, and Rome to a student body that is 50 percent low-income and racially balanced. Part of what makes this possible is the high level of adult attention students receive both in and out of school. Classes are small and heavily staffed (one teacher for every nine students), and the single criterion for admission is that there must be one adult committed to that child's success. "We don't require an academic or a behavioral history," says Andrew Hart, the head of school and the father of two Oaks students. "We just need a committed adult who will support the child's growth and learning, be it a parent, a grandparent, or anyone involved in that child's life."
Then and Now In the fall of 1998, The Oaks Academy opened with 53 students from pre-K to fourth grade in an abandoned school that the founding families renovated. Since then, the student body has grown to 390 children, and in September 2012 a new campus was opened to serve another neglected neighborhood. Initially, it was a real challenge to come up with the money necessary to support a school in which 75 percent of the students require financial assistance (per-student cost is $8,650). Charitable contributions from individuals and businesses have provided valuable opportunities for more people to be involved in the school. "Time after time the community stepped up to provide what we needed at just the right moment," says Hart. "One week we were struggling to make payroll, and then someone from the neighborhood donated the exact amount we needed. And when we were trying to figure out how to build a playground, we got a call from someone who had a grant to put a park in the neighborhood -- but no space to do it."
Thanks to the school, the neighborhood has been revitalized. Once called Dodge City because residents were literally dodging bullets on a regular basis, the area is now among the most sought-after downtown neighborhoods in Indianapolis. "The city was able to attract a redevelopment grant for the neighborhood, and the school was one of the things that helped make that happen," Joanna says. "Many families are moving in to be near the school." Its good reputation is well deserved: Of the nine classes of eighth-graders who have graduated, almost 100 percent have gone on to college.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.