Lashawnda Flowers initially had some reservations about the possibility of a new charter school opening on San Antonio’s East Side, where she grew up and has raised her children. She wondered what another school could do differently.
Then Flowers got to know Akeem Brown, the founder of Essence Preparatory Charter School. She said she soon realized that Brown and the nine board members he assembled truly had developed a unique school model that prioritizes student needs and family partnerships. They frequently asked for her input on her dyslexic son’s needs and the challenges she has faced as a parent.
Flowers hopes she can send her 8-year-old son, Amir, to Essence Preparatory one day. The charter school will open in August 2022 to kindergarten through second graders, after the State Board of Education approved Essence Prep’s five-year charter late last month. Essence Prep eventually plans to serve about 1,000 students through eighth grade at an undetermined Eastside location.
A former teacher in Brooklyn, New York, Brown saw the lack of support students received from compassionate, caring adults who didn’t take the time to understand why students struggled in the classroom. He went on to work for the New York City mayor’s office, but Brown’s teaching experience stayed with him.
“It was a rewarding experience but one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had,” he said.
When Brown moved to San Antonio, his work as communications director for then-District 2 Councilman Alan Warrick and then as senior management analyst for the city’s Office of Eastpoint brought him to the East Side, where he saw students from Sam Houston High School floundering after graduation. They weren’t prepared for college, he said, and efforts to help these mostly Black and Latino students were not happening quickly enough.
Brown’s solution? Open a new school.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” he said. “When we talk about young people, we only have a finite time to connect with them.”
City of San Antonio Chief Innovation Office Brian Dillard serves as chairman of Essence Prep’s board. During a May interview between Essence Prep and Texas Education Agency staff, Dillard said the charter school will take a “holistic and student-centered approach” focused on a student’s journey of self-discovery. Schools often label this as “social and emotional learning” that is incorporated into parts of the curriculum, but it will be embedded into every aspect of the student’s day at Essence Prep.
“We truly believe that our school design not only makes us unique, but they are the keys to ensuring Black and brown students of the East Side of San Antonio are able to thrive not only for themselves but also for their community,” he said.
Dillard knows because he is a third-generation East Sider. He knows what it’s like not to have the educational support he needed growing up. Dillard dropped out of college and waited to earn a bachelor’s degree at the end of a 10-year military career.
His experience is not unique for students on the East Side, Brown said. He and his team sought feedback from residents, including 478 parents and 76 students, to develop the vision for Essence Prep.
“This came from the East Side of San Antonio,” he said. “This came from community members who live, work, and play in our target community that we plan to work alongside.”
Brown said what separates Essence Prep from other schools is its willingness to “meet students where they are” by embracing their cultures and listening to their needs. That also means providing rigorous academics that challenge students and expecting them to meet those high expectations. Additionally, the charter school will prioritize relationships with parents and family members because they are partners in students’ education.
Essence Prep students will engage in project-based learning, which means they will propose solutions for real-world Eastside problems, such as gentrification and the water treatment cycle. Brown said this type of education is important because these students will be the people addressing these problems in the future.
Other notable aspects of Essence Prep’s approach to education include partnering with Compass Rose Academy, a charter school that serves grades 6-9, to provide transportation for students, and assigning two teachers to every classroom. One teacher will be the lead teacher, and the other will be a co-teacher with a bachelor’s degree who is working to become a lead teacher. Brown said Essence Prep will actively recruit teachers of color, particularly Black men, because there are so few in San Antonio.
“I want to give our young people exposure to professionals that look like them,” he said. “We have learned through research that when they have that exposure, they are often on a path to success compared to others.”
That was one of the major attractions for Flowers. She wants Amir to have teachers who look like him.
At Essence Prep, “my son can see other positive male role models,” Flowers said. “Being a single mother, there’s not a lot of African American male role models that we can trust.”
Flowers also wants her son to have educators who are willing to teach Amir in a way that he learns best. She said at Judson Independent School District, where her son currently attends school, he is labeled a special education student because of his dyslexia and that educators focus more on that label than on how Amir actually learns.
“I have a child that learns differently,” she said. “I would like to have a school that will embrace that.”