Winning minds

Winning minds


Melissa smiles at a classmate during Calculator Club.
One urban school is proving that money is no object when it comes to first-class results.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Adrian celebrated, running from the room like someone who just learned he had hit the numbers.

And in fact, he had.

Moments before, the sixth-grader was in the throes of a stiff competition in “Calculator Club” at Community Prep, an innovative independent school serving children in grades K-8, on the southwest side of Providence, not far from the hospital complex.

Community Prep may well be among the best schools in the state, but if you are from the East Bay, odds are good you have never heard of it.

Calculator Club is not what you think. There is only one calculator in the room, operated by the contestant on deck, and if the game goes according to plan, the calculator will be the slowest “computer” in the room as each student attempts to solve ten complex math problems in a row, before the calculator can generate its answer.

Calculator Club is taught by Dan Corley, the Head of School. Corley’s own children are the 4th generation of his family born on Providence’s West Side.

Back in the 1980’s, he decided to do something about the lack of educational opportunities for children in his neighborhood. “My neighbors knew that I was a Brown graduate and a teacher,” he said. “We would talk about their children and what their hopes and fears were as their teenage years approached.”

The neighbors banded together, and with the support and assistance of a local parish priest, Mr. Corley and his former Brown roommate, Bob Hahn, who went on to become a member of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George H.W. Bush, opened Community Prep in 1984, in the John Brown Settlement House.

Its mission: to serve culturally and economically diverse students who are well-qualified to benefit from a rigorous academic education.

Accordingly, 90% of the students at Community Prep receive substantial financial aid to help offset the burden of the $14,000 tuition. But there’s an inverse to that: even the neediest student must pay a minimum of roughly $850. There is no such thing as a “free ride” at Community Prep.

There’s a very good reason for this mandatory buy-in, which is certainly significant enough to pinch many low-income families. “Children benefit greatly when parents and teachers work together,” says Mr. Corley. “The fact that all of our parents pay something for tuition is indicative of their commitment to their children, and this partnership helps to motivate the students to excel.”

And excel they do. Each family signs a “RESPECT” contract, an acronym for the ideals of Responsible, Enthusiasm, Support, Prepared, Effort, Communicate, and Trustworthy. The students’ dedication to their contract is apparent, and the halls of Community Prep are full of children who are polite, kind, supportive, and above all, clearly happy.

Community Prep left the Settlement House years ago and is hoping to expand adjacent to its current location on Somerset Street, across from some of their administrative offices as well as the Davey Lopes Recreational Center, which the Community Prep students utilize for physical education and recess space. The school is currently in discussions with Providence Mayor Angel Tavares to buy or lease Somerset Street to unite the properties as one campus.

Back in Calculator Club, Adrian returns to the room, flush with excitement over his victory: he is the first 6th grader to beat the calculator 10 out of 10 times. Someone else is in the hot seat now, and Mr. Corley is asking for the square root of 324; 10 to the 12th power; 6x7x8x9 divided by 72. These are typical elementary math problems at Community Prep. Mr. Corley has taught his students tools to help solve these problems, and they apply the logic they’ve learned at warp speed. Their results speak for themselves.

Measuring results at an independent school that ends in the eighth grade is fairly simple, and it’s not necessarily matriculation, given the many other factors that can influence high school choice. Acceptance, on the other hand, is a fair measure, and Community Prep graduates gain admission to elite boarding schools like Deerfield, Andover and Exeter—schools that can be hard-won by students with every social and educational advantage.

Community Prep sends 92 percent of its graduates to college preparatory programs, public and private, throughout the state. A good example of the results earned by Mr. Corley and his faculty? For the past 15 years, The Lincoln School, an independent girls’ school on the East Side of Providence, has given a full scholarship to the incoming freshman who scores the highest on their “Lincoln Scholar” merit exam. For 11 of the 15 years, the Lincoln Scholar has been a graduate of Community Prep.

As is the case with other independent schools, tuition and fees only cover a small fraction of the school’s operating cost. In the case of Community Prep, roughly 20 percent. Donations cover the rest, and it’s notable that the overwhelming number of donors are individual, rather than corporate. Fundraising is ongoing, with wine tastings, golf tournaments, and other events.

Calculator Club is wrapping up for the week, and Adrian remains the only sixth grader who has made the grade—but it is only the second week of school. By June, the Calculator Club honor roll, which hangs by the front door, will be filled with names. The last competitor of the day hesitates a moment, a few too many times, and only scores 6 out of 10. Her classmates enthusiastically applaud her efforts.

The student body is overwhelmingly from Providence and adjacent towns; with the exception of a handful of students from East Providence, there are virtually no members of the student body hailing from the East Bay (though there have been recent graduates from Tiverton and Little Compton.) Perhaps it is the school’s relative youth, or its West Side location— a century younger and on the other side of 95 from the better-known East Side independent schools—but Community Prep seems to fly below many prospective parents’ radars.

However, parents who believe real results are the best measure of success, and who are looking for a learning community that is naturally diverse—ethnically as well as economically—with a culture firmly grounded in community and respect for the individual, must mark the Community Prep Open House on their calendars. This year, it’s November 3, at 2 p.m.

To learn more about Community Prep, either as a prospective parent or as someone who would like to contribute to their mission, visit, or call 401/521-9696.