Marques and Stacey Gunn have seen their sixth grader daughter Brooklyn’s love for reading flourish since joining Wilder’s Preparatory Academy last school year.
She even lined her Christmas wishlist with several books recommended by her English teacher and quickly devoured them.
“Her interest in reading and research has grown so much since being at Wilder’s,” Stacey Gunn said. “It’s amazing to both of us.”
Wilder’s Preparatory Academy in Inglewood is showing unusual success in teaching literacy and math. The K-8 school enrolls a student population that is more than 85% Black and boasts test score results that reflect performance far above that of the state average for all schools regardless of racial composition.
In fact, the scores make it the top performing school among predominantly Black schools in the state. It’s also a bright contrast to the performance levels reflected among the rest of the state’s Black student population, which is ranked lowest in performance levels among all of California’s racial and ethnic groups.
In California, 30% of Black students met standards in English language arts in 2022 and 16% in math. Both rates are 17 percentage points below the results for all students statewide.
But at Wilder’s Preparatory Academy, 72% of elementary and 82% of middle schoolers met standards in English language arts and 51% of elementary and 46% of middle schoolers in math. The scores surpassed the performance of surrounding Inglewood Unified by more than double in both subjects.
“Many people ask, ‘What’s the secret sauce?’” CEO and administrative director Ramona Wilder said. “Really, it’s a mindset.”
Wilder’s Preparatory Academy is a school of nearly 600 students that was started by Wilder’s late father, Raymond. The Wilder family comes from a long line of Black educators tracing back to the 1800s when the family converted an old church building into a schoolhouse and taught freed slaves how to read, Wilder said.
Her parents’ presence in Inglewood education began with a private preschool and, later, elementary school, before transforming into the now public charter school in 2003 in an effort to be more accessible for families.
At Wilder’s Preparatory Academy, nearly 70% of students are on free or reduced lunch because of their families’ low income. Students are accepted to the school by lottery off of a waitlist.
Myrna Castrejón, the president and CEO of the California Charter School Association, said Wilder’s Preparatory Academy’s success shows what is possible when goals are clearly outlined and followed up. Its flexibility as a charter just makes that easier, she added.
Because they are independent, charters don’t have to adhere to specific district standards, but students are required to take the Smarter Balanced assessment, California’s statewide standardized test.
The school places a heavy emphasis on intervention for students who need extra help. Teachers pull students out during the school day to work on skills, and tutoring is available after school and on Saturdays.
“This is a labor of love,” Castrejón said. “This is a place that was created with intentionality, with design that looks well beyond just the question of resources and programs.”
Castrejón said she believes school districts and other charters can look at Wilder’s Preparatory Academy as a model, particularly by treating Black student education with intentionality.
“I also don’t want people to believe that just because Ramona Wilder is special nobody else can be Ramona Wilder,” she said. “This is a call to action to us. This can be done by others. This is an invitation for us to stop dithering around excuses for why things can’t be done.”
UCLA education professor Tyrone Howard agreed that Wilder’s effort could be a model for building strong literacy skills, but that it’s also important to remember that each school is unique.
“I don’t think it really is rocket science at the end of the day,” Howard said about the possibility of applying similar approaches in public schools. “It’s just, do we have the capacity and the skills and the resources to make sure that it happens early on? Even in pre-K, how are we making sure that that foundation is in place and you build upon it.”
The importance of a strong foundation is something that the Gunn family agrees with, particularly following Brooklyn’s transition to Wilder’s from a private Christian school in Long Beach. They said they were happy to see a sense of caring, higher level of accountability among students and higher academic standards. It took Brooklyn a little time to get used to it, but they said they’ve seen her become more goal-oriented since.
“In the beginning she had some late nights, she’d be up to 1 o’clock in the morning doing homework, you know,” Marques Gunn said. “Some crying initially and things like that, but she figured it out.”
Brooklyn has been developing an interest in engineering and astrophysics through her academic explorations, according to Marques Gunn.
Across Wilder’s Preparatory Academy, teachers aim to have its students reading and writing proficiently in kindergarten rather than by third grade. Early grades focus on honing phonics and comprehension skills through the Wonders ELA curriculum, which is among the curriculums that emphasize phonics and the science of reading.
In Yvette Fenton’s second grade class, students slide their fingers over a paragraph on the life of 1920s pilot Bessie Coleman as a class. They paused only to debate unfamiliar words like “aviation,” which they sounded out together with Fenton and then shared ideas about its meaning.
“What would make sense? What could that be?” Fenton asked her students.
Those literacy efforts are integral to Wilder’s Preparatory Academy’s educational foundation, according to Wilder and the school’s teachers.
“When a child struggles with reading, it can inhibit how they actually learn,” said third grade teacher Mary Clemmons, who has been with the school for decades and has also taught kindergarten. “It can inhibit how they want to react in class or if they’re engaged in class. Reading takes place across the curriculum. And so for us to build those critical thinking skills, reading must be the foundation.”
For Wilder’s Preparatory Academy’s elementary students, each grade level has an intervention teacher and an instructional aide alongside its three primary teachers. The intervention teacher’s role is integrated into the school day to allow students who need extra help to brush up on their foundational reading and math skills. Sometimes that means students are pulled out individually and other times for a small group session to work on targeted skills. It requires collaboration between teachers and the interventionists, said Clemmons, to plan out lessons targeted at sharpening students’ weaker areas.
“The intervention teacher will look at the target skills that we feel those students need to work on,” Clemmons said. “It could be the most gifted kid. It could be the one who’s really struggling because they’ve been absent.”
At the middle school level, students have a period focused on intervention. Some days they work on English and others on math.
The school also relies on its own assessments scattered throughout the school year. Those assessments guide the teachers’ approaches to learning and in building extra help a student may need, whether that’s extra support during class or additional support through after-school and Saturday programming.
However, as schools nationwide deal with a shortage in teachers, so is Wilder’s Preparatory Academy. The school has 11 substitute teachers across 79 faculty and staff members. That instability has also required extra preparation for grade-level leads like Clemmons to ensure that students are still able to access the learning they need.
Wilder’s Preparatory Academy’s performance levels have remained fairly consistent, despite the setbacks of online learning during the pandemic, according to test data. As a charter without labor unions, the school was able to provide more live instruction than nearby public schools and provided some in-person learning the summer before classes returned in person.
Still, Wilder’s Preparatory Academy is navigating similar issues involving absenteeism and socio-emotional well-being in the pandemic’s wake. The school has expanded its counseling staff to a six-person team to provide students with support.
“You’ve got to teach kids what they may not have received at home about self-confidence and being the best,” Wilder said. “Seeing people that look like you, that are doing some great things and teaching a sense of pride, all of that goes with the curriculum. Those are the extra pieces that are put in place to make kids excel.”
Daniel J. Willis, EdSource data journalist contributed to this story.
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JudiAU 2 months ago2 months ago
These are really very impressive results. Congratulations to the excellent, hard working staff and administration and the hard working students and supportive families.
Bob Capriles 2 months ago2 months ago
A number of statements stood out to me in this article: "Wilder’s Preparatory Academy is a school of nearly 600 students that was started by Wilder’s late father, Raymond. The Wilder family comes from a long line of Black educators tracing back to the 1800s when the family converted an old church building into a schoolhouse and taught freed slaves how to read, Wilder said." This foundation provides the opportunity to provide culturally relevant education. The … Read More
A number of statements stood out to me in this article:
“Wilder’s Preparatory Academy is a school of nearly 600 students that was started by Wilder’s late father, Raymond. The Wilder family comes from a long line of Black educators tracing back to the 1800s when the family converted an old church building into a schoolhouse and taught freed slaves how to read, Wilder said.”
This foundation provides the opportunity to provide culturally relevant education. The educators truly get the world of the students. This makes a big difference with the nuances in the classroom.
“Tutoring is available after school and on Saturdays”
I’m curious who provides the tutoring. Teachers? Parents? Other staff? This sounds like an extended day program. More time and more learning.
“It’s just, do we have the capacity and the skills and the resources to make sure that it happens early on?”
This is a great question from UCLA education professor Tyrone Howard. I wonder if what makes Wilder go is there is the appropriate amount of time and resources provided to meet the students where they are.
“In the beginning she had some late nights, she’d be up to 1 o’clock in the morning doing homework, you know,”
Really, an elementary school student doing homework until 1 am? That seems rather excessive as part of getting adjusted to the school.
“Across Wilder’s Preparatory Academy, teachers aim to have its students reading and writing proficiently in kindergarten rather than by third grade.”
Wow. Amazing to aim to have students reading and writing in kindergarten. What, if anything, has to be given up to get there? Specifically, with the push to move more and more academics into kindergarten, do these children know how to play? Do they know how to work collaboratively? Do they know how to have ‘fun’? I worry about some of the critical soft skills being lost to a push for academics.
“For Wilder’s Preparatory Academy’s elementary students, each grade level has an intervention teacher and an instructional aide alongside its three primary teachers.”
Again, back to Professor Howard’s comments. This sounds like the appropriate number of resources to meet the students where they are. Staffing based upon needs, not an arbitrary ratio of students to teachers.
Jim 2 months ago2 months ago
Great story and congratulations to Wilder’s Preparatory Academy
Dr. Bill Conrad 2 months ago2 months ago
It is admirable and impressive that Wilder’s Preparatory School produces relatively high academic achievement results for its students in reading and math.
I wonder though why there is such an intensive need for intervention support. If the core curricula, professional practices, and assessments are of high quality up to 80% of the students should be learning.
The need for such intensive intervention may beg the question as to Why the Core Program is not being successful?
Elizabeth Silva 2 months ago2 months ago
It would be interesting to read a bit about the culture of classroom behavior management present in this school, because that is one aspect of today's education climate that dooms all the interventions. If the teacher has to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with disruptions, learning for everyone is impossible. I've been in schools where there is little support from administration for the classroom teacher's efforts and the partnership with the family is … Read More
It would be interesting to read a bit about the culture of classroom behavior management present in this school, because that is one aspect of today’s education climate that dooms all the interventions. If the teacher has to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with disruptions, learning for everyone is impossible. I’ve been in schools where there is little support from administration for the classroom teacher’s efforts and the partnership with the family is limited as well. For many reasons, unfortunately.
I’m sure there is a lot of family support at this school! Hence the long wait list to get in. The state really needs to be more friendly to charter schools, but I’m afraid the union is too powerful of an opponent.
David Leonhardt 2 months ago2 months ago
These are amazing results. And it is so important, because we live in the information age. You can’t get ahead without literacy. It starts with reading, but it includes financial literacy, digital literacy, etc. Being able to consume, understand and share information is the basic type of skills people need in this age – and likely for as far into the future as we can imagine.