Saturday, April 1, 2023

This School Was Founded in the 1800s for Emancipated Slaves and Is Still Thriving Today

Ramona Wilder is the Chief Executive Officer and Administrative Director at Wilder’s Preparatory Academy—a school that has a lot of history behind it. Back in the 1800s, her great-great-great-grandfather started a school in an old church building. Due to white opposition, the school was burned down several times, and the Wilder family, full of resilience, would rebuild it time and time again. From that point on, education has continued to be the most important thing in the Wilder family. Serving the families in their community, Wilder’s Preparatory Academy has ranked number one in educating African American students. 

 You can watch the full conversation below.

Introduce yourself and tell us what it means to you to be the daughter of Black school founders?

It is an absolutely amazing feeling to be the legacy of parents who founded an African-American school that has been ranked number one in educating African American students! For me, it is personal to be able to continue the work they started.

Having the opportunity to continue to work with the families in the communities, to make sure that the kids are receiving a superior education, and ultimately seeing the success of the students is what excites me. We are able to hire a staff of color who are able to educate students of color. Most importantly, we are able to contribute to the well-roundedness of all of the students. It is an absolutely amazing task.

Wilder’s Preparatory Academy has five generations of educators. Can you tell us about that history?

Back in the 1800s, my great-great-great-grandfather started a school in an old church building. The school was for African Americans who were mostly freed slaves. This was when education was not guaranteed as a civil right to oppressed peoples. The school has a lot of history behind it. Oftentimes, once the Caucasian Americans found out that African Americans were learning in that building, they would burn the church down. So, my family would have to rebuild the church to have a school again, but it gave determination that this is something that was definitely needed.

So that is how it all started. From that point on education has just been the most important thing in our family. Our family has always strived to ensure that our community and the families within our community received an education. 

My father was an electrical engineer by trade and my mother was a college professor. My father wanted to fulfill his dream to give back to his community through education. That dream is how Wilder’s Preparatory Academy Charter School started. My father passed away about eight years ago and I took over his legacy. Since his passing, I have had the pleasure of being able to educate African Americans and help close the academic achievement gap.

What was your father’s vision for the school? How did the school transform from a daycare to a private school, and ultimately to a charter school?

Their first school was a daycare called Tender Care Child Development Center. [After children had aged out their] parents did not want them to leave. They were ecstatic about their progress and wanted more. So, my parents decided to create a first grade, and then second grade, and then from there, they turned into a K-5 elementary school. Eventually, Tender Care Elementary was renamed “Wilder’s Preparatory Academy” which now educates children K-8.

What children need is an environment where they are pushed and guided towards learning.

My father’s vision and philosophy for Wilder’s has always been to provide a private school quality education—but for free. Together he and my mother changed the school from a private school to a charter school, in order to serve and give back to the community. Any child is capable of learning as evidenced by successfully teaching kids to read and write before kindergarten. What children need is an environment where they are pushed and guided towards learning. Now, we have graduates coming back to tell us that they have gone to medical school, started acting, or are in law school. Whatever our students’ desires were, they have been able to accomplish them.

We now have kids of our former students attending the school; it is turning into a generational thing. It is such an amazing place to be, and to have the opportunity to be able to contribute and give back in such a way. For me, it is a wonderful thing to uphold the legacy of my parents.

What advice would you give to others who are thinking about founding a school? What would you say to potential Black founders?

To found a school you have got to have the heart and the passion to want to do it because it is full of so many challenges. I think that in today’s times, we are going back to where we were before. Right now, the importance of education is dire; it is needed now more than anything.

Black students can be educated anywhere; it does not have to be a Black school educating Black individuals. However, students love to see people that look like them, it is a matter of representation and shared understanding.

Black students can be educated anywhere; it does not have to be a Black school educating Black individuals. However, students love to see people that look like them, it is a matter of representation and shared understanding.

I think that it is an important factor to be able to have an African American founded, African American supervising school, and a staff that has a good percentage of African Americans on their faculty. They can share more than just education; They can relate to the culture of African American students. The ability to be able to understand the child, what they are going through, knowing how to motivate them, and the opportunity to share your experiences makes a huge difference.

Do you think black-owned schools have a special flair and flavor to them?

I think they do, honestly. I think all races have a unique, special flare to them. So definitely, yes.

What are your hopes for your students? What is your school motto?

Our school motto is, “We build the future!”  We want every one of our students to be able to build a future for themselves. We truly want them to be able to go out into the world, contribute, and make their own history. When you graduate from Wilder’s, you graduate with a sense of pride that you can be anything you want to be. You get to make that decision. We teach them that failure is simply not an option and that there is an expectation for them to achieve what they know they can. We offer support for them to do so. 

How do education reform and the battle for school choice relate to you as a Black-founded school?

It is a little disheartening to me. It does help the drive to want to push and do more. However, it would be my hope that we get to a point where there is one type of education and all of that is a great education. I hope that the education system can offer that regardless of what the race is, but while understanding that there are distinct differences among cultures. Once we recognize that we can move forward.

Denisha Merriweather
Denisha Merriweather was a tax credit scholarship recipient in Florida, the Founder of Black Minds Matter and is the Director of Family Engagement at the American Federation for Children.


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