Lots Of Love And No Excuses

It's 8 a.m., and kids are filtering into the second-grade class taught by Brother Mark and Brother A.J. The 20 kids start the school day with the Lord's Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and five minutes of vigorous exercises. In chorus, they promise to be good citizens and keep the classroom safe. Then they shout: "Zion scholars are tomorrow's leaders!"

Another day has started at Zion Preparatory Academy, a small private school for inner-city children, mostly African American, in Seattle. A black pastor started it in 1982 with six kids, one teacher, and $13. Now, it has grown to 570 students, from preschool through eighth grade, with a teacher for every 12 pupils. Two-thirds of its graduates have gone on to private high schools on full scholarships, and several have entered college. One was recently accepted at Columbia University to prepare for medical school.

"SAVING LIVES." Emphasizing both discipline and caring, Zion is educating kids other schools have given up on--kids with such labels as at-risk, underachiever, hyperactive, or crack baby. About 60% come from single-parent families, while 22% are in foster homes. More than 80% are poor enough to qualify for federal school-lunch subsidies. About one-third have tuition waived because they receive government child-care subsidies; the rest rely on extended families to come up with $195 a month. Still, there's an annual shortfall of about $1,000 per pupil.

To make up the gap, a group of heavy hitters in Seattle's business community started a foundation for Zion two years ago. They have persuaded hundreds of individuals to donate $1,000 a year to sponsor individual pupils or $25,000 per year for a full class. They have also raised nearly $3 million toward a goal of $7.6 million to acquire at a discount and renovate the seven-acre former corporate campus of Rabanco Co., a Seattle environmental-services company. The foundation board includes top executives at Nordstrom, Weyerhaeuser, Price/Costco, Starbucks, and Seafirst Bank. "They're saving lives," says coffee mogul Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks Corp.

Zion's principal, Doug Wheeler, declined to accept donations at first. "I didn't want people coming in with their agendas," he says. But he has been surprised at the outpouring of no-strings-attached support from individuals and businesses. Price/Costco Inc. not only guaranteed the loan to buy the new campus but also donated backpacks for all Zion kids. Boeing Co. is equipping a science lab. Seafirst donated kitchen equipment. "It's hard not to fall in love with that school," says John Meisenbach, a Seattle insurance broker who started the Zion Foundation. "I think it's a wonderful model for the country."

Zion indeed seems in tune with the times. It is a grassroots, private-sector venture with an emphasis on family, moral values, structure, and back-to-basics education. Conservatives like Doug Wheeler's no-excuses, everyone-can-succeed attitude. "At Zion, you see the community come alive and the parents take ownership," says Jeff Kemp, executive director of Washington Family Council, a former Seattle Seahawks football player, and son of former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp.

ROLL OF THE DICE. Like Brother Mark and Brother A.J., most Zion teachers are African American, and one-third are men. They try to recreate the nurture and discipline of a family environment, along with the excitement of learning.

On the day of our visit, my 8-year-old daughter, Emily, and I watch as Brother Mark starts a spirited competition among a class of second-graders whose desks have been clustered in four groups. The subject is math. Brother Mark rolls the dice, writes two two-digit numbers on the board, and the kids add furiously to see which group can get the right answer first. The kids jump up and shout with excitement. Brother Mark quiets them to listen to a classmate explain how he solved the problem. He awards points to the group with the right answer.

Two boys, Keith and Roland, get one answer at the same time. Brother Mark rolls the dice to determine who gets the point. Roland is furious when he loses. He pouts. But teaching how to lose gracefully is part of Brother Mark's curriculum. "When you get that attitude because it didn't go your way--that's not how we do it here," he tells Roland. "This is supposed to be fun."

Brother Mark asks the kids to tell us what's different about Zion Prep. No gym. Uniforms. No video games. Free lunches. Spelling bees almost every day. What else?

"We have to call you guys Brother and Sister," pipes in Sherrell. "In other schools they call the teachers Mr. and Mrs."

"Why do we do that?" asks Brother Mark.

"Because you guys love us," says Caleb.

"And when you love each other, you're like a what?" asks Brother Mark.

"Family!" the class shouts in unison.

A FEW QUIET WORDS. When recess comes, a little girl, Shammara, takes Emily's hand and leads her to the playground with the rest of the class. Brother Mark asks five kids to stay behind. One by one, he has them come to him. He holds their two hands, looks them in the eye, and talks to them in a stern, quiet voice.

"Kicking your chair is not the right way to get attention," he softly tells Damario. "Show me you can sit quietly for two minutes, and then you can go to recess."

Brother Mark could be doing other things. As Mark Wheeler, he has an undergraduate degree from Harvard, an MBA from the University of Washington, and a law degree from Vanderbilt. He has worked for Procter & Gamble Co. as well as Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, a law firm in Seattle. Six years ago, however, he joined his brother Doug, Zion's principal. "This is what I should have been doing all along," he says. "I get more hugs in a day than in my whole career as a lawyer."

To me, it's amazing what a handful of people have done at Zion Preparatory Academy, not by implementing yet another round of educational reforms, but by disciplining and nurturing each kid as good parents do. It may be small-scale, but it works.

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