When it came time for Stephanie Ogidan Preston to send her daughter to middle school, there was only one choice, as far as she was concerned: Community Preparatory School in Providence.
Anywhere else would have been unthinkable.
“There was no question. I would have been devastated if she didn’t get in,” she said.
Preston, a 1993 graduate of Community Prep, now sees her daughter, 8, in third grade there. From the perspective of a high-level position at a computer-software company, Preston can look back at her days in the nonprofit school and say, without question, that it changed her.
“A great education can change the course of your life. Even though my parents were dedicated to my success, they needed a partner. They found that at Community Prep,” she said.
The independent middle school – Grades 3 to 8 – was founded in 1984. It sits in the heart of inner city Providence at 126 Somerset St. Community Prep offers its students the benefits of an independent school – small classes, challenging academics and a positive, nurturing environment – along with the cultural and economic diversity of a public school.
“I remember the sense of community, the expectation of being smart and giving my best effort, the sense of self-advocacy that was rightfully placed on my shoulders but also the support they insisted upon – the teachers and my parents – to help me thrive in life and to be a better-educated community resident,” Preston said.
Community Prep serves culturally and economically diverse students who are well-qualified to benefit from a rigorous academic education in an atmosphere of mutual respect, especially students who would otherwise not have access to such an education.
Preston is happy to see that many of the things she loved about the school have not changed.
“I am energized by the fact that the morning pledge and the parent-teacher-student contract have remained intact. How awesomely amazing is it that the fabric of what helps kids succeed – high expectations, self-advocacy, committed to self-improving goals – was encapsulated 25 years ago? It seems we are always changing what it means to educate kids from this particular background. My alma mater has been exceeding at this goal since its inception,” Preston said.
The school’s goal is to help students succeed in college-preparatory high school programs and to become community leaders.
“We use the percentage of our Providence students who are accepted to Classical High School as one benchmark for our students’ performance,” said Dan Corley, co-founder of Community Prep and current head of school.
“Classical is Providence’s exam-entrance public high school. They only accept 300 students each year, from more than 1,500 applicants. We are proud to have maintained an 80 percent acceptance rate over the life of our school, with 85 percent being accepted in 2012, 90 percent in 2011, 95 percent in 2010, and 85 percent in 2009.”
The school challenges students to become confident, independent learners and develops a strong sense of public service in students through community service and stewardship. It engages parents, students and teachers to set goals and plan in an effort to ensure academic and social success for each student.
The school is committed to sharing its vision, programs and resources with the local neighborhood and the broader community. While most of its 150 students come from Providence, it also attracts students from Central Falls, East Providence, Cranston, Warwick, Little Compton, North Kingstown, Johnston, Lincoln and Pawtucket.
“It’s a school for low-income, high-achieving students. But it does a great job of a socio-economic and diversity mix, so that the school represents everyone in the community and it doesn’t relax its standards for high achievement or high expectation because of where you come from. I have never seen a school get it this right on all dimensions,” Preston said.
The school’s numbers back up Preston’s enthusiastic praise.
• Eighty percent of Community Prep’s college-age alumni are pursuing or have attained college degrees.
• Community Prep’s 626 graduates have received more than $19 million in scholarship assistance from the high schools and colleges they are attending.
• The school’s endowment is at $13 million. Every six months, it transfers 2.5 percent of the three-year average into the operating fund for scholarship and program support.
• The school is tasked with raising $1.4 million annually to meet the $2.4 million operating budget.
These days, positive numbers like those do not come easily; especially for a nonprofit looking to raise money in a struggling economy.
“There is much more competition for raising funds than there was 10 or 20 years ago. I think that the number of nonprofits has grown dramatically in the last decade, and the number of businesses has declined just as dramatically,” Corley said.
“Our goal is to have our endowment produce 40 percent of the school’s annual income. It is currently producing 24 percent. In today’s numbers, we will need $21 million in endowment to generate $967,000 per year,” he said.
Many corporations have been longtime supporters of Community Prep, including Amica, Citizens Bank, Bank of America, Ferguson Perforating, CVS Caremark, Taco, GTECH, FM Global and Macy’s. In addition to donations, companies support Community Prep by sponsoring and/or attending their golf tournament, providing volunteer tutors, and volunteering on board committees.
“Traditionally, our donor base has been people in their 40s or older. We are trying to come up with fundraisers that are also friend raisers geared toward people in their 20s and 30s,” Corley said.
In line with its mission statement and philosophy, Community Prep adheres to a policy of equal-opportunity employment. The school has 26 full-time employees, with an average tenure of eight years. Many of the employees have been with the school more than 15 years. Several teachers started out as Brown University master of arts in teaching candidates, working with Community Prep’s SummerPrep program.
“Clearly the success of Rhode Island businesses will depend on their ability to recruit talented employees. When students graduate from Community Prep, they are well on the path toward building those skills most necessary for businesses to thrive. They are learning to communicate, ask questions, problem solve, set goals and work together with others.” •