On a recent Monday night, at a time when other children their age were at home, the 17 sixth-graders who attend THRIVE Academy in Baton Rouge were still at school and they had a lot of work ahead of them.
It wasn’t just homework. They had to finish cooking dinner, then clean up the dishes, wash laundry, sweep floors and get ready for the Winter Formal dance the following night.
In a similar vein, this inner-city boarding school limits potential distractions that their peers enjoy, which means no cellphones and a strict, one-hour limit on TV and game-time each night. Family visitations are few, and the children have to do for themselves what their parents and guardians had done for them in the past.
It’s a lot of independence to ask of an 11-year-old, something that is recognized by staff at the charter school, which strives to reach inner-city children at an early age and prepare them for college.
“I would have been scared to be away from my family,” acknowledged Leand Coates, one of three residential advisers at THRIVE.
Teleshia Rushing, 12, said she’s come to enjoy THRIVE, but on occasion misses her family.
“Sometimes, when I get mad, I want to go home and I pack up my stuff,” Rushing said.
Another residential adviser, Maia Young, said it’s good that the students get to go home on weekends and don’t have to stay all week.
“They miss their parents, and their parents miss them,” Young said. “It just would not work. The kids are really close with their families.”
Sarah Broome, THRIVE’s founder and executive director, said the school screened prospective students to find those who could handle being away from home.
Three of the original 20 students who started in August have left, though only one because of homesickness, Broome said. Three new students will take their place when the second semester begins later this month.
The school employs a paycheck-style discipline system where students earn or lose points. The can use the points they earn for a variety of rewards, including to attend the Winter Formal dance; three students fell short and were only going to get to watch the fun.
“It’s much harder to gain the points than to lose them,” Broome said.
“It’s all about balance,” Coates said. “If you give too much slack, they’ll miss the bus, but if I’m too hard, they’ll shut down.”
On this Monday, two days before winter break was set to start on Dec. 19, the adults are about ready to shut down themselves.
“It’s been a really great first semester, but I have a staff that needs a break,” Broome said.
It’s a small staff. The school has just two full-time teachers, Brittany “Bree” Quinn, who teaches math and science, and Katie Andrews, who teaches English and social studies, for the 17 students.
The school also benefits from two Americorps workers assigned to the school who teach art and physical education. In addition, the school also gets visits from several different volunteer groups, including students from Episcopal High School who stop by regularly.
THRIVE occupies two floors of an old dormitory at 1120 Government St. on the edge of downtown Baton Rouge, the longtime home of the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, and will occupy more space over time. The school started with students in the sixth grade and plans to expand by a grade level each year.
Broome plans to hire more teachers next year when the school adds a seventh grade. By 2018, the school hopes to have at least 240 students in grades six to 12 and expects to graduate its first senior class the following spring.
Broome, among her other duties, is serving unofficially as the school’s principal for this year only. She’s planning to hire someone to take that job next year.
“One year, I can do it,” she said, with a weary look in her eyes.
Broome, Quinn and Andrews are all middle-school teachers who have taught sixth grade in the past. Broome taught at Prescott Middle and Quinn at Broadmoor Middle, both in Baton Rouge, and Andrews worked in East Feliciana Parish.
For now, THRIVE remains a mystery to many prospective parents and students.
“The challenging thing is that nobody knows who we are,” Broom said.
Broome said she receives lots of inquiries from parents of children with serious behavior problems who assume THRIVE is a strict alternative school.
“We try to tell them, ‘Think more prep school than military school,’ ” she said.
The college prep part is key to THRIVE’s mission.
The school wants every one of its students to go to college, and go on to graduate from college.
College prep has been a calling card of the small number of schools like it, most notably SEED. That public inner-city boarding school started in Washington, D.C., in 1998 and has been the subject of lengthy profiles on “60 Minutes” and the New York Times. Almost all SEED graduates get accepted by four-year colleges and most, so far, are finishing college. The school has a long waiting list.
Broome said she didn’t know about SEED when she was a middle-school teacher at Prescott Middle School and came up with the idea for THRIVE.
The idea arose from a neighborhood street fight involving one of her students in which someone died. Broome said she wanted to create a safe haven for her students so they could pursue their dreams.
“Almost every teacher I’ve ever talked to has said, ‘You know, I’ve always thought we should do that,’ ” Broome said.
Andrews said knowing her students are safe makes her job easier and less stressful.
“You do worry about your child when they go home at night,” Andrews said. “This takes that out of the equation.”
With college years away, THRIVE is for measuring its academic progress through unit tests known as Edusoft, a testing system used by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which monitors THRIVE’s charter contract.
As of November, THRIVE students had shown substantial growth in all four core subjects — English, math, science and social studies — and were outpacing other sixth-graders in the school system. Every THRIVE student was proficient in social studies, meaning they are on or above grade level, and almost all were proficient in English and math.
Their weakest subject was science; a little more than half of THRIVE students were on grade level in that subject. That’s more of an achievement than it seems. Last year, when they were still in fifth grade, every student now in the THRIVE program scored at the lowest achievement level, unsatisfactory, in science.
Quinn, the science teacher, was trying hard on a recent Monday day to capture and hold the interest of her students. Using a series of graduated cylinders partially filled with water, she had them plop in hard-to-measure objects and calculate the resulting displacement. The objects were a pen, a dreidel, then a Russian figurine known as a Matroyshka doll.
“If you can spell that right tomorrow, that might be worth a bonus point,” Quinn said, referring to the doll. “That might be worth five points.”
The final items were all Skittles. One at a time, the students plopped them in, eyeing the water line rising and rising. Finally, they were done.
“It took us 147 Skittles to get 100 milliliters,” Quinn pronounced. “How would we figure out how much each Skittle weighs?”
Teaching middle-school children can be a see-saw.
“They can just shift suddenly from being happy to upset, the whole range of emotions in 20 minutes,” Broome said.
She said she tries to remember that on bad days.
“You wish you could just turn that light on, but you have to remember they are middle-schoolers,” Broome said.
Coates said when she talks to people about where she works, people suggest to her that their parents must not care for their children. She said the opposite is true; the decision to let their children leave them all week is a hard one.
“They’re here because their parents love them,” she said.