By Dustin Turner

On the western end of Ellis Street, one block off John C. Calhoun Expressway, Challenge Preparatory Academy sits among a collection of abandoned homes that are slowly being reclaimed by trees and vines. One nearby home is nothing more than charred boards and burned memories, left to the elements after a house fire. Vehicles line the road, many on jacks or with missing parts and broken glass.

The location of the school, though, is intentional. Challenge Preparatory Academy is a small school with a very large vision—neighborhood revitalization through education. Starting this August with fifth and sixth graders, Challenge Prep eventually will grow to include grades K through 12.   

“I love this area and the idea of being a part of the revitalization of this community,” says the principal, Dr. Mayreather Willis. “I think having a school here that they can anchor the movement on is going to be instrumental. We are going to expand from this building going east and we are going to create a campus. A part of our vision also is to provide community-based support for families and a part of that is education.”

She points to the fact that the neighborhood is in the backyard of the cyber industry. The problem, though, is that many adults don’t have access to the education to take advantage of that.

“Here in this community, a lot of people aren’t going to have access to Fort Gordon, and many aren’t going to feel comfortable going to the Cyber Innovation Center,” she explains. “AU may be a stretch even though it’s just up the hill, and with Augusta Tech, the travel to get there is difficult for some folks.”

That’s why, in addition to a private school for children, Challenge Prep also is a Cisco Network Academy, which uses the same platform Augusta University, Augusta Tech, Fort Gordon and the Cyber Innovation Center use in their curriculums. The school will offer certifications in programming, IT, cybersecurity, design and more, focusing especially on parents who have been displaced by Covid or are unemployed, or just want to have improved economic stability to help their families.

“Just think about what it will do for this community to have a space like this and the motivation and the draw it can have to give parents that economic power to change their future with stable jobs that pay 50 to 60 thousand dollars a year,” Dr. Willis says, her voice full of excitement. “Anyone in the community that wants to come to Cisco Academy, they will be welcomed. Many places charge $1,500 to $3,500 for one class. We are nowhere near that. We are a nonprofit, and our goal is to be a community-based school. In order to be able to do that, the parents have to be able to afford to come here.”

Giving parents that economic power helps their children.

“We believe if the parents are secure, the kids are secure,” she explains. “If I’m not worried about feeding my family and I have a career opportunity, my children are more apt to learn and succeed in school.”

Challenge Preparatory Academy is starting with fifth and sixth grades because Dr. Willis sees a need to close some educational gaps among those students.

“After I looked at the data for this area, I saw a gap between fifth and sixth graders. There are amazing programs and lots of resources out there for children in primary and pre-K; those kids get all sorts of support, but there’s not much for this age group,” she points out. “It’s difficult enough to go from fifth to sixth grade because now you have more responsibility, and you have to change classes and all of that. Compound that with the fact that you’ve been home and learning online all year because of Covid, and many kids are going to the next grade who just aren’t ready.”

Willis’s original plan was to start a charter school in the Harrisburg area, but after four years, she and her committee were struggling to make that happen. So, they started an after-school program in a partnership with Greater St. John Baptist Church in the upstairs of the Family Life Building. That program was such a success that the Rev. Dr. Melvin Ivey gave them the entire building to start a private school, which is where Challenge Prep is located.

At 1948 Ellis St., the building includes two classroom pods downstairs and offices and smaller classrooms upstairs for cyber education, music, art and more. The fifth and sixth grade classrooms are called pods because they are inside of cubicle walls that can easily be moved to facilitate collaboration, a method Willis picked up from her time working with the Department of Defense Education and Activity (DoDEA).

“I really liked their 21st Century methodology of teaching, and that’s how we’re going to implement instruction here. They see their schools as communities, they are ‘our children.’  They call their classrooms pods, a concept known as classrooms without walls,” she explains. “Twice a day, teachers remove the walls and they collab, not just with the other teachers, but with the students.”

As part of the concept, teachers will use their strength to help any students who are struggling in a certain area.

“If I’m in the pod and my specialty is writing, then we’ll do a differentiated instruction center where I’m focused on the writing and will work with any kids that are struggling with writing,” Willis says. “A teacher with a specialty in grammar will help any students who need to focus on grammar, and they’ll move through that. It really closes gaps in learning.”

Another concept Willis and her team will implement is looping. With looping, the teacher moves up to teach the same students in the next grade each year.

“That lets the teacher know what the students are mastering and where the deficits are. So, when the fifth grade ELA teacher moves up with the students and becomes the sixth grade ELA teacher, he or she already knows where the strengths and weaknesses are and can go from there,” Willis says. “The teacher can plan more authentically and on purpose to close the gaps and really prepare kids for the next year.”

In addition to core subjects that are part of any school’s curriculum, Challenge Prep will teach Cyber Literacy Connections, a program Challenge affectionately calls CLiC.

“With CLiC, cyber education is a part of the curriculum and not an elective,” Willis says. “They will look at the morals and ethical side of the internet. What does it mean to have a cyber footprint? They’ll learn the history of the internet and what it means to have an Internet of Things.”

Dr. Willis emphasizes that Challenge Prep’s goal is to be a community-based school that will be a catalyst to help with neighborhood revitalization.

“I want to see this community grow and not get pushed out. If they don’t get on this cyber boat that is moving through their neighborhood, they risk getting pushed out,” she explains. “We want to help create economic power for parents to help children be better citizens and to grow academically.”

Dustin Turner has spent most of his career in journalism and is now the Website Project Manager for Alison South Marketing Group, where he works with Jamie, his wife of 24 years. They live in Aiken with their daughter, Abigail, a ninth-grade artist, video gamer and jiu-jitsu student. Dustin is on the board of directors of Aiken Community Theatre and enjoys grilling and making muscadine wine.