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Meet Michael Brooks, pastor and educator

Today, Melissa introduced you to the students and educators at Hope Academy, a charter school catering to high school dropouts seeking their diplomas.
Meet Michael Brooks, pastor and educator
Meet Michael Brooks, pastor and educator
Today, Melissa introduced you to the students and educators at Hope Academy, a charter school catering to high school dropouts seeking their diplomas. The school is based in Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church south of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, where city councilman Michael Brooks is the pastor. He founded Hope Academy in 2009 along with Rabbi Paul Silbersher and other educators, basing the school in the church's basement.

Pastor Brooks was one of the "Foot Soldiers" Melissa spotlighted today, and had just met with the President and others at the White House about faith-based initatives on Friday when I spoke to him.

How did Hope Academy go from an idea to a reality? The main player that really helped us make it happen was Dr. Patricia Henley. The rabbi had known her (previously), so he just named her as probably the best person to work on the charter to actually make the idea into a reality. It was really her hard work in actually writing the charter, and contacting UMKC, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, to be the sponsor. So our idea really became a reality when she became involved.

You decided to use the church space for it, the basement? Yes, we used the basement because the construction going on didn't get finished in time, and we didn't want to delay the start of school.

Now, did you ask your congregants to help support the school? We did take up a couple of collections to help out with transportation and things like that. But the school was self-sufficient. They got a loan and then the state of Missouri actually gave them money upfront before the school started, something they'd never done before with a church school. The church really didn't put any money itself upfront; we were just donating space to begin with.

Right away, what were some of the immediate needs you identified? We really wanted to make sure we had a solid board. All four of the original board members recommended one other person. And then we set about advertising for the executive principal for the school -- we had about five or six applicants for that -- and (the principal that was hired, Vonelle Middleton) had prior experience being a principal, and so she actually knew other individuals in the school district that were interested. We interviewed staff, but she chose them.

When it came to applicants, how much interest was there from the start?
Actually, that was the thing that was interesting when we did the charter. We predicted that we'd start with about 100 kids enrolled; after about the first two or three weeks, we already had 200 kids enrolled in the school and had to re-apply to the state for extra funding because we'd already maxed out. And then we did a couple of PSAs, took out a couple of ads in papers. The marketing really became word of mouth; once the students came in and got excited (and) went back to tell their friends and relatives. We did a little bit of marketing, but not a whole lot. The kids themselves were really the ones that sold it.

As far as the framework for educating the students -- using computers, one-on-one, with help from teachers -- how did that become the best way you thought the students could do their work?
Again, that was one of (Dr. Henley)'s concepts, from another charter school she'd worked at. Hers was primarily a reading program, but we found a company that offered software on all subjects. It really was important that we allow the kids to go at their own pace, and not be a traditional lecture-type classroom, that they have the chance to work at their own pace to advance based on their ability to pass the tests and move on.
Also, working at their own pace is important because many of them have other obligations, kids, jobs, and whatnot. Did you ever have students leave the program do to the burden of their outside commitments?
Many students came to us with a lot of issues going on, and sometimes those issues kind of overshadow getting an education. We had a couple drop out, then come back and see the need to finish their education. We try to make it as convenient as possible, staggering the start times of our three daily sessions: morning, afternoon, and late afternoon to accommodate people's work schedules and take away any excuses. The only thing we didn't get put in place that I'd like to see in the future is an on-site day care, which was a problem for a lot of women who expressed that they couldn't find anyone to take care of their kids while they went to school. That still becomes a major issue for female students.
About how many graduates have you had in your graduating classes, and what has been the response at the ceremonies?
We've had (at least) three ceremonies already. The first couple of graduating classes, it was between 35 and 40 kids, and at every graduation, we've averaged anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people in attendance. Our sanctuary seats 1,500 people, and it's been packed every time.
In Melissa's interview with you, she noted that that certainly goes against the narrative of the black community not caring about education. Do you feel that this is a trend that Hope Academy is helping to spotlight, or whether you feel the academy is helping to reverse a negative trend?
I think it was a new trend, something that a lot of these kids hadn't seen before. For a lot of these kids, not only had the school systems and most of society given up on them -- for a lot of them, their families and close friends had pretty much marginalized them, too. For a lot of them to get to that point, for the people that know the struggles and things that they went through, I just think that's what you saw. A lot of these kids had not only family members, but friends and people from the block who had known what they'd struggled through, and were just excited to see them get their diplomas.
What advice would you give to someone who'd like to get a program like this going?
Well, I think what really makes our school successful is just the commitment from the board members who got it all started. I think we all had the same thing in mind, there were no hidden agendas, there were no ulterior motives -- everyone just wanted to provide (and that was the purpose for the name) some hope for these kids that society had given up on. So I think that's the main thing, having a board that's committed to doing a lot of work. It took probably close to two years of planning before we actually opened the doors and enrolled our first kid, so you have to be dedicated. It's not going to happen overnight. If you get some people really committed to the task, it can happen.