Two Principals Partner to Produce ‘Wonderful Miracles’

Published July 1, 2004

More than 90 percent of the 972 students at Larry C. Kennedy Elementary School (LCK) in Phoenix, Arizona are Hispanic, black, or Native American. But 25 percent don’t speak English when they start school, and less than half in grades 3 through 5 make a full year’s progress in math each year. The school’s two computer labs still run on DOS.

Across the street, but worlds apart, sits St. Paul’s Preparatory Academy, a private, religious high school for boys. The school’s average ACT last year was in the 80th percentile. Each student in the mostly Hispanic student body gives an average of nearly 25 hours to community service per year, and 99 percent of the school’s graduates move on to college. St. Paul’s computer lab allows students to do computer animation.

When St. Paul’s moved into the neighborhood seven years ago, Johnny Chavez, the principal at LCK, introduced himself to the private school’s founder, Lowell Andrews. After touring the St. Paul’s facility and seeing the admissions criteria and uniforms–jacket, shirt, and tie–Chavez commented, “So this is how the other half lives.”

Andrews replied with a rather unusual question: “Do you have any students that would do well here?”

Of course we do, said Chavez, but they can’t afford $12,000 in tuition.

Two years later, St. Paul’s created the Arizona Episcopal Schools Foundation (AESF). Formed after Arizona began its tuition tax credit program, the AESF collects private donations and distributes them as scholarships to students based on family financial need.

Where would St. Paul’s find scholarship students? Right across the street, as it turned out. Unsure of how Chavez and his deputy principal would react to a proposal from his elite private school, St. Paul’s principal Hal Elliott suggested Chavez recommend students from LCK who could succeed at St. Paul’s.

He needn’t have worried. Over the past four years Chavez and Elliott have become firm partners. Chavez and his teachers look for students with the attitude, need, family support, and ability to take advantage of St. Paul’s opportunities. AESF awards scholarships to LCK students so they can afford the tuition at St. Paul’s.

On average, one to three LCK students cross the street to St. Paul’s each year. Today St. Paul’s has seven former LCK students. One will be valedictorian this year. Another was St. Paul’s starting point guard on the basketball team, and a third will most likely be the top student of next year’s graduating class.

Elliott makes sure St. Paul’s give something back, too. St. Paul students spend countless hours teaching LCK students soccer and helping out at after-school family nights. They raise more than $2,000 per year for Christmas gifts for LCK students. Elliott personally donates to LCK’s after-school activity fund.

This unusual partnership stems from an understanding the two principals have of how their schools complement, rather than compete with, each other. They recognize not all of Chavez’s students can live up to St. Paul’s demanding expectations. In fact, a couple of students he’s referred to St. Paul’s decided not to go, and one student didn’t work out.

But for those students who can make use of the opportunity, “St. Paul’s is changing generations,” Chavez said. He sees them moving on to higher education and creating the same opportunities for their children that St. Paul’s created for them.

“They’re working wonderful miracles with my kids,” he said.

M. Royce Van Tassell is executive director of Education Excellence Utah. His email address is [email protected].