Jacksonville Free Press | By Lisa Buie | July 8, 2021
Cameron Frazier didn’t attend a historically Black college or university, but the veteran educator recognizes their power, thanks to one of his former bosses.
“During my work in Nashville, my principal was an HBCU graduate, and she was the poster child for HBCUs,” said Frazier a first-generation college graduate who earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Florida and a master’s in educational leadership and administration from Lehigh University. “She said they produce the most Black doctors, Black lawyers and the most Black professionals.”
That’s why Frazier is using the HBCU model to prepare the youngest learners in his north Jacksonville, Florida, community for admission to these high-profile colleges, whose graduates include Martin Luther King Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Becoming Collegiate Academy, which is slated to open this fall, is among the growing number of Black-owned schools opening across the nation as more states adopt education policies that allow greater parental choice.
“My inspiration kept coming back to HBCUs. I knew that was where excellence lies,” he said.
Frazier, 31 joined the Teach for America Corps in 2012 and spent three years teaching English at a district middle school before moving from Jacksonville to Nashville to teach third grade at Rocketship Elementary School, a charter school whose stated vision is to “eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime.”
From there, he served on the team that brought KIPP charter schools to Nashville and was a founding assistant principal. Those experiences made him want to launch a school of his own aimed at helping to close the achievement gap for students of color. What prompted him to act sooner rather than later was a newspaper story he read about 34 children who had been shot or killed in his Jacksonville community in that one year alone.
“That broke my heart. That brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “That’s when I decided it was time to come home.”
Frazier, who also will serve as the school’s principal, worked with Duval County School District officials to get approval for Becoming Collegiate Academy. He said the authorizers strictly enforced all application rules but were fair as he sought to make his dream a reality.
“They were always very cordial and nice, but they always held the expectations high for me, and they made sure our charter application was exactly what it needed to be,” he said. “They were not going to cut corners, and they shouldn’t. They had high expectations and it was on us to reach them, and ultimately we did, because at the end of the day, we want to make sure we open up great schools for kids.”
Like many other charters, Becoming Collegiate Academy is using a slow-growth model, opening only to kindergarteners this fall, then adding a grade each year until it serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Frazier, who expects to start with 54 students, is leasing space at a church in north Jacksonville’s Norwood neighborhood but likely will look for a dedicated building as Becoming Academy expands. He hopes to serve 600 students once all grades are included.
A typical day will start with a personal greeting from staff as students arrive at school. After a schoolwide opening assembly, students will separate into their cohorts, each named in honor of an HBCU, where learning will begin. At both breakfast and lunch, Becoming Academy will participate in the federal school breakfast and lunch program.
Frazier, who is especially concerned with raising state reading scores, will devote twice the amount of time that school districts do, which is usually 90 minutes, to literacy instruction.
A study by 904orward.org, a nonprofit group that promotes diversity in Jacksonville, cited Florida Department of Education figures from the 2018-19 school year showing only 37% of Duval County third-graders passed Florida’s standardized English and language arts test compared with 45% of Hispanic students, 66% of white students and 74% of Asian students.
“An overwhelming number of Black kids are not reading on grade level,” Frazier said, describing the situation as “atrocious.”
Becoming Academy is an independent charter school as opposed to being part of a national network such as IDEA Public Schools or KIPP. Its board of directors include Audrieanna Burgin, a research scientist at Zearn, a nonprofit publisher of math curriculum, as well as an attorney, architect, engineer, and staffer for U.S. Rep. Al Lawson Jr., whose district covers a large swath of north Florida.
Frazier plans to draw on his experience KIPP and other schools to create the best environment to educate and empower children. The key to closing the achievement gap, he said, is to start as early as pre-school and kindergarten, which frequently is overlooked in many schools, where minority children are not expected to perform well – and are not celebrated when they do.
“They think, ‘I don’t feel like I’m smart. I don’t feel like I’m learning. I don’t get the things I need to be successful,’” he said. “I need to immerse them in the experience that is the HBCU culture so our kids can experience that as early as kindergarten and not have to wait until college. Education is the ultimate civil right of our generation.”