Deserted: Neighborhoods Without Schools

Words by Ben Sciacca

Photos by Jonathan Wade

When you pull up to Peace Preparatory Academy (a private school grades K4 – 3rd) on English Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia, it doesn’t take long for its founder, Benjamin Wills, to take you on a walk. He is always excited to take guests through the hallways of his amazing school and show you his students. But he’s equally passionate to walk you down the streets of his community.

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If you have never been to English Avenue, or neighborhoods like it, it can feel a bit daunting. Sagging and burned-out houses adorn the streets. Trash clings to the curbs. As you pass by, drug dealers nod or wave. English Avenue is one of the largest heroine-dealing neighborhoods in the country. But you are safe as you walk with Benjamin. He is respected in the community because he loves their children and his school is making a difference.

In the United States few of us like to be told what to do, where to shop, what to eat, or where to worship. We thrive on having options that suit our interests and meet our needs. However, impoverished communities frequently experience a poverty of options. Many are considered “food deserts” because there are no grocery stores with quality choices within miles. Poor residents must look for nourishment at the local gas station or at a fast food restaurant.

Many of these same families are zoned in an educational desert as well. Surrounded by failing schools rife with violence, drugs, and abysmal test scores, children are left with few if any options. Many young people in these educationally malnourished environments begin to zone out or quit altogether. To be fair, there are good schools in some impoverished communities, but this is becoming the exception and not the norm.

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The unfortunate reality of much of the private school movement throughout our nation’s history has been tethered to “white flight” and wealth. In the 1950s and 1960s, as neighborhoods and schools became increasingly diverse, many families deserted their neighborhoods or created private schools to keep poor and ethnic minority students at a distance. Private schools are typically cost prohibitive. For most people living in poverty, private schooling is not an option, either because a private school does not exist in the neighborhood or because it is too expensive. All parents want a good education for their children. Parents understand that schooling is one of the primary catalysts for launching kids toward success. But the sad fact remains that hundreds of thousands of young people in this country, due to financial poverty, are living with few or no educational options. In many respects, the guarantee of a good and safe education is becoming something accessible solely to the middle and upper classes.

For this reason, pioneers like Benjamin are seeking to provide a quality education in these under-resourced neighborhoods. Rather than simply transporting children to another community, they are seeking to create the same educational choice for parents in a neighborhood like English Avenue as parents have in more affluent Atlanta communities. Providing choices like this in an educational desert is educational justice.

Benjamin and Peace Preparatory are committed to educational excellence. But Benjamin  doesn’t want his school to touch the lives of only his students. He is persistent in making Peace Preparatory a conduit of flourishing to the entire English Avenue neighborhood. Benjamin’s combined focus on indigenous youth and community restoration is unique. “Peace Prep is passionate about children, families, and communities,” he says. “Living where we are designing and implementing programming is conducive to the success of all kids and all families. Our kids eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner prepared by a business club executive chef. We are hyper-focused on solving big community problems. Most recently, we launched a housing ministry aimed at securing dignified and affordable housing for our staff and their families to promote community retention.”

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Peace Preparatory, Restoration Academy in Fairfield, Alabama, and Valiant Cross Academy in Montgomery, Alabama, are making a huge difference. These schools provide rigorous academics, safety, character formation, and caring from qualified staff. They are geographically accessible to neighborhood youth, and tuition is affordable due to generous contributions from corporations and from individuals who believe that every child in this country should have options for education and for life.

The old African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But what does it take to create a school that effectively and lovingly raises hundreds of children? To answer that, it may be wise to strap on some tennis shoes, drop by English Avenue, and let Benjamin take you on a walk.