Across the south, Black communities suffer the impact of systematic disinvestment in their school systems, so it is not surprising that educational indicators for these areas are disproportionately low.
In Montgomery, Alabama, Kia Debnam decided to do something about it. She wanted to prepare Black and brown children for success in life. She wanted to craft a school with both rigorous academics and deep affirmation.
In August 2021, LIFE Academy opened its doors.
Of course, the vision was not solely Debnam’s. “I worked closely with local parents to understand what they wanted for their children,” she says. “I am proud that our parents spoke up. They wanted a back-to-basics K-8 school that could teach their children to read before it was too late. And they also wanted their children to learn to be leaders and entrepreneurs. Then they honored us by enrolling their children here.”
LIFE Academy has a focus on entrepreneurship. Children start studying financial literacy in 3rd grade. The level of rigor increases with each grade level, and in high school they can add training for a trade, for instance taking classes towards getting a plumbing license.
“There is a need across this country for trade training that will help students get into higher earning fields; as a plumber they could make $75,000 within three years of graduating from high school,” Debnam said.
LIFE Academy sets all this within a cultural context. A life-long educator, Debham asked herself, “‘What are they missing? What do they need?’ The answer was simple. “They need to be seen. They need to be able to make mistakes, to cry, and to not have adults take it personally. So, we worked on creating a safe space.”
She continues, “In my experience, when you educate with the least privileged population in mind, everyone grows. We teach a full history. That gives students a better lens of where power lies and how they can affect change.”
LIFE stands for Leaders Influencing Freedom and Excellence.
It is fitting, then, that with BlueHub’s help, LIFE Academy is housed in the historic St. Jude Educational Institute. In the mid-1930s St. Jude pioneered nondiscriminatory health, education and social services. In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 2,000 members of the Selma-to-Montgomery march sheltered there. In 2021 it became the official home of LIFE Academy.
“It is amazing to have a building with such historical significance,” says Debham. “There is no way we could have afforded this on our own. We needed a lender with enough experience to be able to see our hearts, not just dismiss us for not having everything lined up.”
In Alabama, LIFE Academy made history as the only charter school to be approved by it's local authorizer, MPS. LIFE Academy is also the only Black female led charter school in the state with 100% of LIFE's Board being people of color, 100% of its leadership team being women of color, and 86% of teaching staff being people of color.
"As an academy that serves 98% Black students, we are excited that our board, staff and leadership reflect our community. Representation Matters," said Debnam.