"I decided my knowledge and experience would be put to better use heading off the students’ academic issues instead of trying to correct them later."
I recently visited Tamara Stewart Hadaway at Kingsway Preparatory School, the one-room, faith-based school that she founded and opened last August in the Family Focus, Evanston building on Dewey Avenue.
I walked into a bright, airy, colorful classroom bathed in soft music. It was snack time, so the 13 students, pre-K through third graders, all dressed in khakis or blue pants and light-blue polo shirts, were sitting quietly in groups around three tables. With chatter in the background, I talked to Tamara.
DE: Where are you from?
TH: I’m from Morant Bay, Jamaica, but my family moved to Rogers Park and then to Evanston. I went to ETHS. I got my undergraduate degree in English and Education from Boston University, an MA in Literature from Northwestern and my MA in Educational Leadership at Concordia University. My daughter graduated from ETHS last year. I have a son who is a sophomore, a daughter in eighth grade and a son in fourth.
DE: What was it like to grow up in Jamaica?
TH: Growing up in Jamaica, I was never aware of being black, or at least that someone would look at me as less for it. I was just me. But when we moved here, suddenly I discovered that I was black. In Jamaica, everyone was black. Our highest officials, our police force, our role models, leaders, and peers. Blackness was the norm; nothing about it stood out. Chicago was not like that. Most of the officials were white. The blacks I encountered worked hard and had varying degrees of success, but no real political power. Here, I was told that I had a place and I needed to stay in it.
DE: Why is the school called Kingsway?
TH: It’s named after the school I attended as a child in Jamaica. That school gave me such a strong foundation. It's the reason I was so successful after my siblings and I integrated into the Chicago and eventually Evanston school systems. What I learned there, even at such a young age, gave me the mindset and drive I needed to be successful in school. It is important for me to share that with my students. And the name is telling our students, who we refer to in class as “Scholars” and “Royals,” to go the King’s way—to go the way God wants us to go.
DE: What is Kingsway's philosophy and why is it a good alternative to a public school for African American student in Evanston?
TH: Kingsway provides culturally relevant learning. Often, the history of the children in the black community is excluded from the standard curriculum. This omission doesn’t benefit anyone, black or otherwise. Offering a broader perspective to anyone who comes through our doors is part of an effort to effect real change. When a substantial part of history is excluded, people are bound to repeat mistakes. Faith helps shape our scholars into the citizens the world needs.
Christian principles, such as charity and empathy are crucial to making the world more hospitable and tolerant to all. We want our students to be a part of this type of transformation. Many schools cannot provide this. They are bound by standardized testing, overwhelmed teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and many of the other challenges that public schools face. We are a good alternative because we don't have these issues.
And we have demonstrated success. Students who came in at the beginning of the year only knowing the alphabet are now reading. They are adding and counting. They're also learning Spanish.
DE: How can a school like Kingsway can contribute to reducing violence in Evanston?
TH: I think violence has a lot to do with poverty and hopelessness. Those things lead directly to crime. I remember, when I was at ETHS, one young man was killed after a party and it was a huge deal. During my daughter’s four years at ETHS and just the one year since she graduated, there have been several students who were killed, some of whom she knew. It’s shocking how much things have changed—and how quickly.
I think a school like Kingsway can play a big part because we don’t only teach the children, we also partner with parents in a very caring way. We teach our children their history, we instill pride in them, and we focus on their educational needs. We teach them that they can do and be anything. The principles of our faith tell us to not only love one another, but love our neighbors as ourselves. When our children are taught t to love, to forgive, from an early age, we have a generation with the morals and principles we need to change our community’s outlook; a generation that is compassionate, less prone to violence.
Study after study show black children fail in schools much more frequently than their white counterparts. We can’t cure all of society’s ills, but we can ensure that our students have a strong foundation on which to build. I think the focus on learning is only the beginning. Social learning is also important. It's an area that's often taken for granted. When conflicts arise, we walk them through scenarios--was that appropriate? What's another way you could have handled the situation? These scenarios often turn into group discussions that have to be revisited periodically, but are happening on a regular basis. Teaching empathy and conflict resolution to school-aged children is one of the most important ways to curb violence. They also need outlets and opportunities when they are outside of school.
DE: How did you come to start Kingsway Prep?
TH: I taught high school at Kenwood Academy for several years and also elementary school more recently. I became aware of some of the struggles black students encountered academically and I determined that the problems they were experiencing happened early on. They went unaddressed for years and finally, when the students reached high school, the issues culminated in an inability to read and write at appropriate levels. I decided my knowledge and experience would be put to better use heading off the students’ academic issues instead of trying to correct them later.
There was a faith-based school program at Faith Temple that closed, and I was approached by parents to consider starting a new one. I considered running a school from my basement. The parents brought up Marva Collins who started a school in her home in Chicago as an example of starting small, with what you have. After a lot of prayer, thought, discussion with my husband, and support from family and friends, I decided to do it. Once the decision was made, it was just go, go, go. We didn’t even advertise. The focus was on getting ready to start the school year.
I had to research starting a school. I started to file paperwork and seek out other people who had business expertise. After the school was up and running, I went through the Sunshine Enterprises 12-week program that Robin Simmons runs for people who want to start or grow a business in Evanston.
I’m grateful to Alderman Holmes for letting me know there was space available at Family Focus building and to Robin for guiding me through steps with the City.
DE: Why is Kingsway different?
TH: Kingsway provides the same quality learning as at better funded schools. At Kingsway, we give children a head start, rich after-school and summer programs, emphasizing learning beyond the school day, and early exposure to community outreach.
Although we are faith-based, we place a lot of weight on academics. We use a classical model of education. Kids are exposed to a rigorous academic experience and a high level of differentiation, so that we can meet kids where they are. And the faith-based aspect encourages children to learn empathy and the power of community.
At Kingsway, we are in constant communication with families about how they can best help their students. We have a small student to teacher ratio, so there's lots of individual attention and we frequently assess our students' progress. We expose our kids early to academics to build a strong foundation and we're able to relate to our students. We provide a positive environment, teach a culture of learning, and we emphasize empathy and conflict resolution.
DE: Is the school only open to African American families?
TH: We are here for anyone who needs us. We aim to serve students from various economic backgrounds whose vision for scholarship and citizenship is in line with ours.
DE: How much is tuition?
TH: Tuition is $6,060 per student. We set our price low because we want to be affordable and accessible to those who want/need us. We are much more affordable than some daycares. We work with families that can’t pay full tuition to find ways they can volunteer. Most of our students are lower income. We hope to partner with churches that want to support one of their families to attend or community members who are willing to create a scholarship fund.
DE: Do you have plans to expand?
TH: Yes, we plan to expand and go up to fifth grade or eighth grade. We’re still discussing that. We have some room to grow right here in the Family Focus building for now, which is great.