When Principal Nash Alexander III ’89C decided to change the name of his northwest Atlanta public school from West Fulton Middle School to Benjamin S. Carson Honors Preparatory School a few years ago, he met some resistance from the students.
“They felt it sounded like a private school and that other students would tease them,” Alexander says. “But once we had a dialogue and I explained the significance of the name, almost all the students voted in support of it.”
Alexander had chosen to rename the school in honor of Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. The world-renowned African-American surgeon was raised by a single mother in Detroit and started out as a poor student with a violent temper. He turned his life around with a level of self-determination that Alexander expects from each of his 825 young charges. Carson’s autobiography, Gifted Hands, is required reading for all students at the school.
“Ninety-eight percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. We draw from several Atlanta Housing Authority residences, such as Hollywood Courts, and many of our students are from single-parent, lower-socioeconomic homes, or have had a parent incarcerated at one point in time,” says Alexander, as he walks through the halls of the school, pausing to pick up a discarded chip wrapper or to tell a student to take his hood off.
The school’s historic building is immaculate, with bright yellow lockers, colorful paintings featuring motivational quotes hanging over each classroom door, a new media center, spacious lunchroom, and outdoor amphitheater.
“Our vision is to teach and learn so well that family background is no longer an issue,” says Alexander, a soft-spoken, charismatic man who was born and raised in northwest Atlanta. “It’s not about their background, it’s about the expectations we place on them. As they prove year after year, if we set high standards, they’ll meet them.”
Alexander, who began his career as a physics teacher at North Atlanta High and then served as assistant principal at his alma mater, Frederick Douglass High, is as supportive as he is demanding of his sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students. He shows up at most of the school’s sporting events, awards ceremonies, and other functions.
The students are required to do their part as well. Known as the Carson Trailblazers, they attend school from 8:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. each day—a half-hour longer than the typical school day. Block scheduling gives teachers extra time to cover the subject matter. Students have year-long concentrated study in either French or Spanish. No math courses below pre-algebra are offered. Test scores and student behavior have improved consistently since Alexander took over the school in July 2001.
“These students,” he says, gesturing to a bulletin board filled with neatly typed essays, “have the ability to compete with anyone.”
Talia Myrick, an eighth-grader at Carson Prep, says she had a lot of misconceptions about the school before she became a student there.
“People expect children who go [to Carson] to be killed or to go to jail,” Talia says. “When I was in private school, I thought everything would be handed to me. But when I started here, it taught me a new way of life. I realized this is a real school with real people who have real problems. At Carson, nothing is fake—it is a school that helps children become anything they want to be.”
Alexander, Talia says, is an “awesome” principal.
“Mr. Alexander is a busy man with a lot of things on his plate, but he’s never too busy to help a Trailblazer in need,” she says. “He talks to the children at Carson with pride because he knows they will be something in life.”
At thirty-eight, Alexander is one of the youngest principals in the Atlanta Public School System. But his work at Carson Prep is already gaining national recognition— he was among fifteen principals across the country to receive the 2004 Ambassadors in Education Award from the National Civic League and the Met Life Foundation. The $5,000 grant is given to public school principals in the middle grades and higher who are making extraordinary efforts to strengthen their schools and communities.
Alexander’s innovative leadership has attracted other invaluable resources to the school: Dr. Carson himself visits his namesake once each year on “Ben Carson Day,” and his foundation provides several annual $1,000 student scholarships. More than twenty business partners have painted classrooms and the media center, provided donations, and built extras such as picnic tables outside the lunchroom. The accounting firm Deloitte and Touche, in collaboration with Hands On Atlanta, mobilized about 1,500 volunteers and donated more than $250,000 in materials and supplies.
Emory’s Office of University-Community Partnerships worked with Carson Prep last year to increase parental involvement. This relationship is set to expand, since the middle school has been chosen to be Emory’s partner on a $400,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the next three years. A Community Outreach Partnership Center at Carson Prep will strive to strengthen families, improve student achievement, preserve affordable housing, and attract resources to the northwest Atlanta community, an area where the poverty rate is nearly double the citywide rate.
“Nash and I were classmates at Emory,” says Sam Marie Engle ’90C, director of the Community Building Fellows Program, who is helping to coordinate the grant. “It is no accident, we think, that all these years later we have come together again to do something groundbreaking.”
Emory students who are fellows in the program, which was launched in 2001 with a seed gift from alumnus Kenneth Cole ’76C, will lead several outreach efforts at Carson Prep.
Other Emory faculty and alumni are involved with the school and the community in innovative ways. Nancy McGarrah ’83PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice, is teaching Carson faculty ways to foster non-violence and resiliency among the students. Melissa Wade ’72C-’76G-’96T-’00T, director of the Barkley Forum, Emory’s nationally ranked debate team, has established a debate team at Carson Prep, part of the forum’s outreach to Atlanta middle-school students. Wade has worked with eighty-six students at Carson, many of whom have won awards in tournament competition. “Our students are debating students from private schools like Westminster and Pace Academy and winning,” Alexander says.
Emory’s debate project caught the attention of First Lady Laura Bush, who praised it and other efforts to help improve innercity education during a visit to Carson Prep on March 9.
Sustainability is the key, said Michael Rich, director of the
Office of University-Community Partnerships. “We want to keep this program going not just for three years, but for thirty years.”—M.J.L.