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Class Distinction

After a year or two at a most unconventional school, five seniors are ready for college.

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School officials are now focusing on catching kids young, bringing them in early to save them from the frustrations of rigid public school routines. This year’s seniors are the pioneers. Each chose to come to the academy for only the last year or so of their pre-college career.

Was it worth it? The answer seems to be yes.

William Fell Jr., a fast-talking 18-year-old with a ready smile and animated left eyebrow, arrived at the academy last spring with three weeks left in his junior year at Henrico High School. He did well there; yet when a B marred his report card, “I would just get mad, because I wanted all A’s.”

So Fell decided to enroll in the academy, even though it meant leaving his love — basketball — behind. He says he knew Henrico would make the regional tournament this year, while there’s not even a team at Brook Road. It would take two entire grades to fill the roster. But education came first for Fell. He’ll be playing on the team at Hampton University when he starts college in the fall.

An 18-year-old with broad-framed glasses and fiery red hair, Nuckols looks as if he has always aimed to be noticed, from the words “ANTI-WAR” scrawled on his right ankle to the twin silver circles embedded in his ears.

Yet he, like many other students, was shy and withdrawn when he arrived at Brook Road, says teacher and senior class adviser Frances Kenyear. Nuckols came here in the middle of his junior year at Tucker High School. He wanted to get better grades but he needed more help than his teachers could offer. “They didn’t really care,” he says.

So he came to Brook Road. Here, “it’s small,” he says, cupping his hands to show school-as-fishbowl. But that size means students never go ignored. “This time of year, I feel like giving up,” Nuckols admits. “… I want to put everything down.” But his teachers don’t let him, he says. And he’s glad.

Nuckols is headed to J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. He found that the school offers free tutors, and “I’m probably definitely going to have to have that,” he says. And since it’s hard for him to take notes quickly, he says, “hopefully I can use a recorder.” That may be the most important thing Brook Road has taught him, Kenyear points out — how to figure out for himself the ways he can learn best.

Classmates Allison Bruce and Erica Purcell are also going to J. Sargeant Reynolds — Bruce considering a career in elementary education (she sometimes taught Kenyear’s middle school social studies classes) and Purcell with an interest in criminal justice. Preston Cottrell Jr., who has told Kenyear he might become a firefighter, is planning to attend Brevard College in North Carolina.

The year, for these five seniors, has been all about the push to college acceptance. It was a challenge corralling five energetic teenagers, making them write letters, visit colleges and complete exhaustive forms. “Sometimes we had to close the door,” Kenyear says with ominous emphasis, “because we had some words. In the end, it all worked out.” By the spring, every senior was college-bound. They graduate June 13.

It hasn’t been easy. Kenyear, who taught in Richmond Public Schools for 30 years, came to Brook Road last year. She calls the experience “horrible.” Her students “had some little game,” she says, “to see how many teachers they could run away.” Kenyear almost quit — but something drew her back.

This year, she says, things have run much more smoothly. Students often solve their own quarrels, Kenyear says. “I’ve seen one student take another student and just walk around here,” she says, pointing out the window to the Villa’s tree-shaded campus. “Just walk and talk it out, before it ever gets to us.”

Discipline is “constructivist,” meaning students help determine consequences for misbehavior. When girls were caught lighting up in the downstairs bathroom, a shower curtain replaced the door so they couldn’t hide the smoke. It was a solution the students came up with themselves, an alternative to losing the door entirely.

Sometimes, Kenyear says, a student new to the school will ask another, “Are you LD?” — learning disabled. Before a teacher can say anything, she says, an older student will tell the first that the language of labels isn’t allowed.

And academy students place learning first. Once, Kenyear was sick and during a break, fell asleep with her head on a table. When she woke up, she says, her students had placed a blanket around her shoulders and begun their classwork.

A few weeks ago, teachers and parents hosted the end-of-year alumni dinner for the seniors, complete with gag gifts. Nuckols, who smoked during nervous breaks in the five hours it took him to complete his SATs, received an ashtray and “a long, old-fashioned cigarette holder” so, one teacher told him, his fingertips wouldn’t turn yellow. “A public school wouldn’t be doing that,” he says.

It’s not that Brook Road encourages smoking exactly, but the school treats each student as an individual, and each senior as an adult. At the dinner, the English teacher gave them blank journals, notebooks and pens — so they could write their own stories in the four years to come. S

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