Building Agency: How Akeem Brown Is Helping Kids See Their Strengths at Essence Prep

young students raising their hands in classroom

Akeem Brown’s purpose in founding Essence Prep is to create a school where kids can see their strengths. 

When Brown was in middle school in New York, he dreamed about founding a school. In the meantime, he earned degrees in political science and public policy. He worked in community engagement, focused on constituent work. He also worked to support small businesses and to improve public transportation. Two years ago, a bell rang inside him and he decided it was time to realize his dream. His friends said that they didn’t know, back when he was in middle school, that he was totally serious about founding a school someday. 

Seeing Strengths on the Eastside

The landscape where Brown wants to launch Essence Prep is the Eastside of San Antonio, specifically the 78202 zip code. This area includes neighborhoods like Dignowity Hill and Denver Heights that are rapidly gentrifying. San Antonio is one of fastest growing cities in America and is one of the most economically segregated. In a community where at least 64 percent of the population is Latinx and 6 percent of the population identifies as Black or African American, the data still shows that the schools are overwhelmingly failing students of color. And although most schools focus on high school graduation rates, a very low percentage of the students in the community are graduating college-ready. 

Essence Prep—or, to give its full name, Essence Preparatory Public School—aims to build both skill and confidence. “We want the city’s young people to feel confident in themselves and who they are but also feel ready and prepared to take on any challenges that may come their way,” said Brown. “These challenges will certainly involve racism, so we anchor our social emotional learning in the ability to become knowledgeable about self, including self-discovery, cultural identity, holding hard discussions in the classroom, and using a student’s power and voice to dismantle injustices.”

Peace mural at MLK March on the Eastside of San Antonio

Developing the Essence Prep Model

Brown said, “I wanted to start a school in San Antonio because I, like others in our community, firmly believe that words like love, justice, and peace, are synonymous with education.” But what messages are young people hearing about the Eastside? They hear that they should go to college, leave, and never return. Instead, students should be raised with pride in their community, and a feeling of belonging.  

Focusing on education is key to revitalizing the Eastside of San Antonio. Past efforts have focused on housing and economic development, but Brown believes there needs to be more work on the education side. There are bright spots like Young Men’s Leadership Academy in SAISD. Families have been telling Brown that they are concerned about transportation or needing to travel outside the neighborhood. But there are gaps in areas high-quality preschool, or middle school for girls. And there are still failing schools in the neighborhood. 

Brown and his board have been in the process of developing the Essence Prep school model through focus groups, video conferences with families, and recently in-person meetings. They are working with the community to identify needs.

Building Agency at Essence Prep

When Brown looks back at his school experience, he remembers what had a big impact on him: supportive adults and high expectations. What he hears from the Eastside community is that families need a school that supports the identities of all children, especially black and brown children. “Our school will connect students to the culture of literacy, which we believe is their birthright and civil right. We will engage students in critical reflection on their lives and racial identities in relation to power and justice. Research has consistently shown that positive racial identity matters for both Black boys and Black girls to be able to achieve academically and have the best shot at success in life.”

Brown stressed the need to get away from talking and thinking about deficits. Instead, he calls for having an active mindset and seeing the strengths that kids bring to the table. Kids with Spanish language skills are “emergent bilingual”—not merely English language learners—because speaking Spanish and being bilingual is an asset. 

Students need space to think about their dreams. They need knowledge of self and a sense of pride. Brown wants students to have a sense of agency and feel confident in their abilities. 

The Eastside is changing, and the new generation is learning about sharing space and gaining perspective on gentrification. From a young age, students can learn about their city, and community leaders can come to the Essence Prep campus to talk with students about how to solve problems.

Pittman Sullivan Park in Dignowity Hill San Antonio Eastside

Getting Connected with Essence Prep

Essence Prep’s charter application has been recommended for approval by the Education Commissioner, and if all goes smoothly they will open in August 2022 serving students in kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade. The school will keep growing, add a grade each year through 8th grade. The development of the middle school is a important milestone because it will create opportunities for school leaders to partner with local businesses to arrange internships for students.  

Families and community members can connect with Essence Prep. On the website, there is a link to schedule a call with Brown. Essence Prep is on Facebook and Instagram, and Twitter.

Essence Prep will be a school where kids can see their strengths and build agency. Brown’s early dream of creating a school is coming full circle.

Akeem Brown founder Essence Prep

Akeem Brown

Charter Moms Chats

Essence Prep founder Akeem Brown and board members Dr. Henrietta Muñoz and Brian Dillard join Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on June 8, 2021 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Essence Prep founder Akeem Brown (he/him/his) has dedicated his career to serving students living in San Antonio’s Eastside. By founding a school, he seeks to provide his students with the pathways to opportunity he feels are lacking in many areas of the city. His proposed school will utilize a project-based learning model that focuses on public policy. Students will grapple with real-world issues and develop the skills necessary to be effective agents of change. The school will also adopt community-building traditions like morning circle meetings and weekly family gatherings and will use a “whole self” curriculum to teach social and emotional learning skills. “Our school should be an environment where children learn the skills that they need to advocate for themselves and the needs of their communities after graduation.”

Essence Prep board member Dr. Henrietta Muñoz is currently the executive director of Texas A&M University—San Antonio’s Institute for School and Community Partnerships. Dr. Muñoz oversees the SB-1882 school partnerships within Edgewood ISD, whose mission is to design an equitable quality school pipeline for students in the south and west sides of San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Muñoz has over 20 years of nonprofit experience and 15 years of school-community partnership experience all within the west and east sides of San Antonio. Previously, Dr. Muñoz served as the senior VP for research and evaluation (2018–20) at the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County with oversight of all data collections, analysis, research and evaluations for the United Way and many private and public grants. Muñoz was also part of the design and backbone organizational role of a two-generational initiative on San Antonio’s Eastside, the Dual Generation Initiative with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. In 2012, she became the first director for the Eastside Promise Neighborhood, a $23.7 million Department of Education award for the Eastside of San Antonio, where a feeder pattern approach to campus change was designed and implemented within San Antonio ISD. Muñoz is a proud Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Families Fellow (2009–10), and is part of a Community Advisory cohort of the Dallas Federal Reserve. Muñoz received her PhD from the University of Texas at San Antonio in Culture, Literacy and Language in 2009, where she served as adjunct faculty until 2013.

Essence Prep board chair Brian Dillard, a third-generation Eastside San Antonio native, is currently the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of San Antonio. Mr. Dillard began his career in public service in 2018 as the Smart City Administrator. Prior to joining the local government sector, Mr. Dillard was a Cybersecurity consultant in the private sector working with Shell Oil, Chevron Oil, Lockheed Martin, and Delta Risk Inc. Mr. Dillard began his career as a member of the United States Air Force where he served a ten-year Active Duty as a Cybersecurity Operations Specialist. Upon returning to San Antonio toward the end of his military career, Mr. Dillard became a neighborhood advocate and community leader. Mr. Dillard is the former President of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association and has served as a board member of VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Ella Austin Community Center, the San Antonio Centro Partnership, and the Martinez Street Women’s Center. Mr. Dillard is an alumnus of Leadership San Antonio (LSA43), Leadership SAISD, and the San Antonio New Leaders Council. Mr. Dillard holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and currently resides in Dignowity Hill.

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