The sun hits the pavement on Highway 55 in the Sumner-Glenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis. It is 10 a.m. Friday, August 17, and although other schools have yet to start classes, it is the first week of The Best Academy public charter school in North Minneapolis, where most students are of East African descent.
At the end of a line standing next to his classmates, a four-year-old boy with a bandaged arm shakes as tears run down his cheeks. “The first day is not easy,” his teacher explains. He’s one of 1,100 children in kindergarten through eighth grade who are enrolled in The Best Academy. For the children of the ghetto, not only the first day but every day is a challenge. 90% of all the students in this school live in poverty. For 30% English is not their first language.
His dream belongs to all of them.
Eric Mahmoud is so tall he has to lean every time he goes through one of the classroom doors. “You are walking in my wife’s dream right now”, he smiles. 20 years ago none of this looked possible. And now he is the founder and the president of the Best Academy. Michelle Obama’s picture hangs at the center of one of the hallway walls, next to at least 20 more remarkable African-American women. A sign on another wall reads: “It is our responsibility to graduate scholars who have a strong sense of identity, purpose, and emotional intelligence.”
“Starting two or three weeks earlier is part of our philosophy,” Mahmoud explains. At The Best Academy, the goal is to teach students what they need to learn, and also help them navigate the social and emotional challenges that come with growing up. The school offers open enrollment to interested students who meet the state’s public school requirements, and does whatever it can to support them, including “providing free uniforms, meals and other financial assistance to students in need.”
Mahmoud has had a strong sense of belonging for his community since his student days at the University of Wisconsin. At first, he wanted to launch a construction business to help develop his community. Then Ella, now his wife, who he met at the university in 1979, convinced him that “education is the foundation for community development” and changed his outlook. From there, the couple worked together to build what is now The Best Academy.
In 1992, they started teaching elementary school in their own home to 20 children. After that first year, an article in the Star Tribune newspaper gained the attention of music legend and Minneapolis native Prince, who donated $200,000 to the school. This donation – and others – helped fund the purchase of the school’s building.
The school follows a strict policy of reporting absences to the city education department. “There is a system in place to identify families that fail to send their kids to school on a regular basis and they can get in trouble if they don’t,” says Mahmoud. But he adds the strict policy has worked: 100 percent of students have graduated, and of those 80 percent have gone on to college.