“It’s not just a school. AJC is more like a community center where people really know you.”
That’s what Lorin Johnson has to say about her experience at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, an independent middle school serving low-income students and families in Richmond’s East End. Lorin is from the first graduating class at AJC. When she enrolled in August of 2009, she was one of twenty-five students who spent two years learning in what was quite literally a schoolhouse – a renovated residence – right next door to Peter Paul Development Center in Richmond’s East End, just down the street from Fairfield Court.
“They push us to go past the small boundaries that we are used to. It’s not just about passing the SOLs,” says Lorin. “It’s about developing your character and attitude.”
AJC has just completed its fifth year and graduated its third class. This fall, it will open its doors to eighty-four students in grades five through eight. Its current location on Twenty-Ninth Street across from Creighton Court, which was formerly used as a preschool facility, is well-equipped to handle its growing student body.
In the meantime, Lorin has plans to attend law school one day. She’s a rising junior at Trinity Episcopal School, one of many private and public high schools in the greater Richmond area in which fifty-one AJC graduates are continuing their secondary education.
But like many of her fellow graduates, Lorin frequently returns to AJC. “It’s a safe haven,” she says. “If you are having problems, you can come and get help. The staff really cares about us.”
The aim of AJC teachers, staff, and volunteers is to help change the trajectory of their students’ lives so that the opportunity for a better life becomes possible. “The mission is ambitious,” says Mike Maruca, who has served as head of school since its inception. “Many, if not most students come from challenging circumstances that are not easily overcome.”
Maruca says all students receive a full-tuition scholarship, although parents or guardians are required to “have some skin in the game.” This means parents or guardians must pay an enrollment fee, attend mandatory parent-teacher-student conferences twice a year, purchase their child’s uniform, and commit to supporting their child and the school to the best of their ability. For its part, Maruca point to elements of the school’s mission: to treat all families with respect from the moment they walk through the door; to provide the best education it can; and to not only help with high school placement, but continue to support students in the years beyond middle school.
Success stories from AJC are possible because of individuals and foundations that believe in the mission of the school and who are able and willing to help pay the cost of tuition for children who are not their own.
“Two things lie at the heart of that mission,” says Maruca, “creating a community of affection that students experience as different and that engenders hope – and then plugging away at times tables, writing effective sentences, teaching manners and social skills, and helping students take steps toward giving back to others.”
AJC graduate Kenneth Harris, who looks forward to his sophomore year at Trinity High School this fall, sums it up like this: “Words could not describe what AJC means to me. It is like a second home. They seem to always be there not only for me, but for my family as well.”