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How Neighbors Can Grow a Community-Centered School to Teach Kids and Adults

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Courtesy of Bible Truth Ministries Academy.
Students working in the community garden alongside David Whitwam of Whitwam Organics. Courtesy of Bible Truth Ministries Academy.

Suzette Dean’s tutoring sessions -- which she provided free of charge to children in an economically depressed section of Tampa, Florida -- were known for two things: a warm, nurturing environment, and the strides the children made, despite their struggles in conventional schools. After seeing her impact with the kids, the families urged Dean and her husband Daniel, who is a pastor, to start their own school, the Bible Truth Ministries Academy. The preK - 12 school opened in 1999 with Suzette Dean serving as principal and Daniel as administrator.

The Deans say they’ve taken good ideas wherever they’ve found them, so long as they can help empower children to succeed in life. The result is that the school’s two primary guiding philosophies are the behavior code of the Bible, plus evolutionary science findings about how humans are wired to learn. The two approaches may stem from different foundations, but they have a lot of common ground and build on each other very effectively, says Jerry Lieberman, one of the members of the Evolution Institute think tank who has worked with the Deans over the years.

Both approaches emphasize collaboration and community, so it’s no accident that the academy feels more like a home than an institution, Lieberman says. And the students and their parents feel ownership of the school, in part because families requested it and have continued to be involved. Some even helped the Deans to build it, in exchange for tuition credit.

But the Deans take the community service ethos even further. Instead of being an island unto itself that caters to only one segment of the population, the academy has expanded into a larger complex that serves the entire community. In addition to the school, the complex includes day care, as well as a church and the H.O.P.E. community center, learning center and community garden, which are open to all.

“While we are helping the child [at the school], some of the social issues parents struggle with, they can come to the [community center] and benefit from that,” Daniel Dean says. For example, residents of all ages go there to work on their GEDs, get help with food stamps, use the computers and search for jobs. Public school students also stop by the center after school to work in the community garden, play chess or pursue other hobbies.


It Takes a Village

The school, which employs four teachers and two administrative staffers, is private but caters to a mostly low-income population. It keeps its costs low and its community ties strong by relying on volunteers. All parents are expected to volunteer at the school for at least five hours per year, and many of the older students fulfill their state-mandated community service requirements by helping out with day care, cleaning up, or doing other tasks in the afternoons.

The school also uses volunteers, vetted by Suzette Dean, from the wider community. They include students from nearby public schools who choose to carry out their community service at the academy; young adults who are reciprocating with labor in exchange for receiving government benefits while they try to make the transition to independent living; and numerous others -- whether retirees or working men and women — who want to contribute in some way. Similarly, the community center was built with volunteer labor and is staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

“When people see we give of ourselves, it inspires many to do the same,” Suzette Dean says. “It’s an opportunity to be part of something.”

Reciprocity and a focus on the greater good are evident in other ways too. Most of the school’s 100 students cannot afford the $4,700 annual tuition and attend with the help of public money, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low- and middle-income families to pay for private school. Most of the money is drawn from a fund for disadvantaged children who haven’t been successful in school. Some of the kids have been labeled as special needs, but that doesn’t deter the Deans, except in severe cases they are not equipped to handle, even with the help of state-funded special education aides. However Daniel Dean says one of their first tasks is “to decondition the parents that if their kid has a special need, they just get [government] checks -- no, they still have to play a role in society.”

Creating an Empowering Environment

Courtesy of Bible Truth Ministries Academy.
Courtesy of Bible Truth Ministries Academy.

The Deans are hoping not only to empower the children to grow up to provide for themselves and their dependents to the best of their abilities, but also to fulfill their greater purpose. “Our motto is that we need to make a difference in this world,” says Suzette Dean. “That is what we tell the kids: Your purpose is not just to eat, sleep and die. Find out what your purpose is and start working to achieve it.”

Undergirding this journey is a strict code of behavior whose essence is “people respecting each other,” Daniel Dean says. Although the school’s code is Biblically based, “our emphasis is not on religion, but more on the discipline of the Bible. … As long as students don’t use their position to condemn or change our school, through confrontation or argument, it doesn’t matter what religion they are, or if they are atheist.”

This meshes with the circumstances in which evolutionary scientists say humans learn best -- in an environment where there is respect for personal differences and choices, within a larger context that emphasizes collaboration rather than competition. The academy has mixed-age classrooms, lets students work at their own pace and encourages peer-to-peer learning. At the recommendation of the Evolution Institute, it has also introduced more opportunities for unstructured play into each day because of its beneficial effects on both academic learning and social development, and has added a science laboratory.

Inspiring Progress

The academy’s “main selection criteria is not where [the child] came from, but the commitment of the parents and the child,” Daniel Dean explains. “If the parents and child are willing to do what they need to do, it’s the beginning of a new day.”

Mentors and instructors can exert a strong influence on children’s lives, he says, but the nature of the effect hinges on their attitude. “A negative approach breeds resistance, but if the approach is positive, effort will follow.” As a result, children at the academy who are not learning according to state mandates are not held back, because “that is not coming up with a solution for that child,” Daniel Dean notes. “We’re here for the child to do better, not to reinforce the darkness already in them.” Punitive policies tend to precipitate a downward spiral of kids acting out their frustrations, then being pawned off to detention centers that lack inspiring influences or the expectation of a better future. It’s a path that all too typically ends in a very grim place: prison.

On the other hand, “the mere fact that they now have respect [at the academy] makes them a better person,” he continues. That’s not to say there aren’t problems. “If they become complacent, we may give a warning. But at the end of the day, we are there to protect the quality of education for all, not just for one person. If they pose a threat to that, we have to ask them to move on.”

One way the academy seeks to provide solutions rather than punishment is by harnessing the power of peer-to-peer learning (another key element of how humans learned effectively through the millenia, Lieberman says). Students who are behind their same-age peers in reading are given opportunities to read to younger children. “They become more inspired, and they become a source of inspiration to the other kids,” Daniel Dean says. “Now they don’t look at reading as something that reflects inadequacy, but as a source of motivation because they’re helping someone else.” The younger children also “learn things quicker, because they have the older child as a source of inspiration. It develops a community sense of learning.”

Same-age peers are also encouraged to help each other. This generates additional benefits, Dean says. “It’s difficult to create bullying situations, because they see each other as mentor or mentee.”

A Holistic View of Outcomes

Daniel Dean says the school evaluates outcomes based on both academic and social behavior benchmarks. “We look at [the students] in terms of their history -- how they were noted to act in their other school, what they got in trouble for, and how often. When they leave our school with a better transcript, that is a benchmark. Also, every year we have the students take the Stanford Achievement Test, which lets us know what grade level they are on.”

“They do very well compared to schools in the region with similar populations,” Lieberman notes. More significantly, he has personally witnessed many instances of children who were not performing well elsewhere become “much more cognitively successful, and healthier, both mentally and physically,” after a few years at the academy.

Keisha Thomas, whose two daughters attend the academy, says the self-paced system also benefits children who are ostensibly doing well in a conventional school. Her older daughter easily earned A’s in her previous school and was bored in her classes. At the academy, “she’s definitely challenged; they’re not held back,” Thomas says. “The greatest thing is that they can grow in this school.” The downside is that because of the school’s small size, it can’t offer all the sports and other extracurricular activities her daughter enjoyed in her larger school.

Boston College professor and author Peter Gray, another member of the Evolution Institute who has advised the Deans, says the academy has also greatly impressed him, even though it’s not a democratic school of the sort he typically favors. “The kids seem happy and very much alive at the school,” he says. “It is a school that works in this neighborhood, because it was started by people in this neighborhood, people who knew what they wanted. … The school works, I think, because the families themselves are behind it and feel ownership for it.”

“Ms. Dean loves all those children like they’re hers, and she looks out for them,” Thomas says. “That makes a difference. They have to live up to their responsibilities, and take consequences for their actions.”

Lessons Learned

The Deans and the Evolution Institute had both been working in the area for many years before the Deans started the school, establishing relationships and earning the trust of the community. “I’m like family to these folks,” Daniel Dean says, “but that takes a while. One thing people are used to in this community is quick changes -- people coming in and out of their lives fast. When they see consistency, then they feel more secure.”

Similar schools could be established elsewhere, he says, by “individuals who understand that it requires a commitment over days, weeks and months.” Another success factor, he adds, is that “it must be driven more by the community’s purpose than by its problems. If you focus on the problems, you won’t fulfill the purpose.”

Lieberman, who has prepared a report on what ideal schools should look like, has similar advice. “It should be a really well thought-out community endeavor,” he says. “The most important thing is to engage people in the community first and foremost, not last — not to create it and then invite them to come and just be part of the PTA. They should help design the school and understand the choices. This raises the expectations about what they can contribute, and how they can help themselves. The school should also be concerned about the parents; there should be no boundary between the school and community.” This includes employing only residents of the community, “so it’s not a bunch of outsiders coming in.”


Schools that already exist should have a “real conversation” with the community about what changes might be needed, he continues. A place that “is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., with sign-in sheets and appointments, is in the community physically, but not there for people in the community to look at as a resource. It’s not fully used, and not used creatively. People should think about how assets in the community can be assets to the school, and vice versa.”