School administrator Neil Phillips isn't easily satisfied, so even with some early successes at Visible Men Academy, a Bradenton charter school he co-founded, he still seeks more.
The school, for boys in kindergarten through second grade, opened in August in Bradenton with 65 students. There are two kindergarten classes, one first-grade class and two second-grade classes. The first four months have been a lot of learning — both for Phillips and the staff, and the students.
“We feel like we have gotten off to a great start,” Phillips says. “But when you start anything, especially a school, there is so much you want to get right.”
Phillips, the principal of the school, previously held administrative positions with the Landon School for Boys in Bethesda, Md., and the upper school at the Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota. He also founded Visible Men, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. It's named after the 1952 book “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, in which a nameless black man searches for himself and for meaning in life in an oppressive society.
The concepts behind the nonprofit, to instill character and discipline in young boys, also form the foundation of the school. The idea, Phillips said over the summer, before the school opened, is to change the failing dynamic for young minorities.
That mission, Phillips has learned at Visible Men Academy, is an everyday battle filled with many mini-successes. “We are pushing these kids,” says Phillips. “We are stretching them. We want to continue to solidify a distinct culture.”
To the good, for example, Phillips says early returns on recent reading proficiency tests are “really encouraging.” On the other side, behavior issues can, and do arise. And those tend to come with little warning. Says Phillips: “There's so much volatility in kids.”
Beyond the school itself, there's the business of running and growing Visible Men Academy. The school, just like traditional public schools, doesn't charge tuition. But funding doesn't come from a county school district's budget, like it does for traditional public schools.
Charter schools, instead, get funds through three sources: The Florida Education Finance Program, which provides money based on full-time student enrollment for all public schools; federal grants; and foundations and charity-based organizations.
Phillips and the Visible Men co-founders also invested a significant amount of their own money in the school. That group includes retired GE executive Louis Parker; Phillips' wife, Shannon Rohrer-Phillips, who has a background in social work and education; and Cindy Cavallaro Day, a former Pfizer business manager. Phillips nonetheless knew funding would be a constant challenge.
One way to combat that, he says, is to prove the school is following through on its mission. “We feel like we have been well-received in the community,” Phillips says. “There is a lot of interest in what we are doing and that's absolutely critical. We don't want to be a school on an island.”