Different Drummers

Different Drummers

Friday enrichment programs make this North Carolina middle school stand out.


6 - 8


Experiential Learning

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It is a Friday afternoon, and Wilmington, North Carolina’s D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy is a beehive of activity. In one room, a handful of students learn some tips on using debit cards from a couple of local bankers. In another classroom, students wearing protective gear and holding foils learn fencing techniques. Down the hall, another batch of middle schoolers are taught about natural resources in aquifers and bedrock by members of the Coastal Cadets. At the same time, students do a passionately choreographed hip-hop dance in the school’s theater. It is all part of the school’s unique “Friday enrichments,” where community members come to teach students different skills. Cameron Bolish, the arts coordinator and band leader at D.C. Virgo, says that 29 different community organizations or individuals come into the school on Fridays to enrich the students with their knowledge of everything from ceramics to acting. “It is allowing the community to come to our building,” Bolish says of the program. Located in an economically challenged neighborhood of Wilmington, D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy has established Friday enrichments to give students experiences that they might not normally have. “I want to be able to provide anything any middle-income or upper-income child has an opportunity to participate in,” Bolish says. Born of Necessity D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy’s new take on education came out of necessity. Virgo Middle School, which previously occupied the school’s multi-story brick buildings, closed in 2011 following repeated years of low test scores and student exodus. A year later, the grounds again welcomed public-school students as D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy. The school opened due in part to support from the Blue Ribbon Commission, a nonprofit organization seeking to reduce youth violence and decrease the rate of student dropouts in the area. The Blue Ribbon Commission now has its own office in the school. Today, D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy is home to 220 sixth and seventh graders. In the 2014-2015 school year, the school will also welcome eighth-graders. Principal Eric Irizarry notes that the enrichments are an important aspect of the new school’s philosophy. “Our goal was to bring in a program that supports the whole child,” he says. The enrichments are just one way that D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy differentiates itself from other local schools. Students use iPads instead of textbooks, and the school day begins at 8 a.m., a half-hour earlier than other schools in the area. Students usually wear uniforms—khaki pants and button down shirts with the school logo embroidered on the chest. Each student receives two sets of uniforms when they enroll, and families that are unable to pay for more uniforms can secure a grant through PPD, a pharmaceutical company with headquarters in Wilmington. “It is expensive to dress kids these days,” Irizarry says. “This levels the playing field.” Part of the Community One goal of the new school is its attempt to become an integral part of the surrounding community. An example of this is D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy’s parent room, which offers resources for parents, including a washer, dryer, coffee-maker and five computers with printers and Internet access. “If you are going to be a community school, you have to be a part of the community,” Irizarry says. The Young Kings program is a group of the school’s students that are at the greatest risk of dropping out. Blue Ribbon Commission’s Daawad El-Amin runs the program and says he is hoping to take the Young Kings on a trip to Harlem next year. “We are going to make a gang with no colors, a positive gang,” he says of the Young Kings. El-Amin believes he has discovered the key to motivate the Young Kings to stay in school and keep their grades up. “I found out the biggest thing a child hates is to disappoint someone they care about,” he says. Irizarry notes there has been behavioral growth among the students, but time will tell if academic growth will follow. According to seventh-grade language arts teacher Lissa McIver, 12 year-old student John Bowen is a great example of this positive development. McIver notes that initially Bowen had behavioral issues in her class. “John has matured and grown academically,” she says. One of Bowen’s most impressive accomplishments was winning first place in a school-wide poetry slam. Bowen describes his realization that his words were affecting people: “I felt good. I felt like they liked my poetry. I felt like I was something at that moment.” Bowen’s is the kind of experience that the D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy aims for—an incident that will keep their students interested in pursuing an education. “I really hope we can put them in a position that when they get to high school,” Irizarry says, “they see the importance of staying in school.”

Fast Fact

Resource RegionThe nonprofit Blue Ribbon Commission has designated a 14-block area in North Wilmington as a Youth Enrichment Zone. Blue Ribbon Commission Executive Director Jana Jones Halls says her organization’s aim is to “saturate the area with needed resources and services.” The zone is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was featured in the 2010 documentary Waiting For Superman.

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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