By Jeffrey L. Boney  | Houston Forward Times

The new school year is already upon us, and with it comes the task of teachers and administrators preparing to welcome new and returning students to their campuses.

After celebrating over ten (10) years of exemplary growth and accomplishments, the leadership at the Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men (MLCPA) is excited about returning to in-person learning and continuing their trend of being one of the most highly respected 6th through 12th grade magnet school campuses in the country.

Originally named the Young Men’s College Preparatory Academy, MLCPA is proudly named after Mickey Leland—former U.S. Congressman and anti-poverty activist who proudly represented the 18th Congressional District before his untimely death in a plane crash.

Leland grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward community and graduated from Phillis Wheatley High School—the very spot where MLCPA’s new campus now sits.

Located in the Fifth Ward community, MLCPA isn’t the new kid on the block, and not only develops students academically, but also fosters leadership skills and helps them with the ability to make healthy and responsible decisions.

Upon taking on the role as the founding principal, Dameion J. Crook knew exactly what he wanted this school to be for the Fifth Ward community, and beyond. Dr. Crook helped get the school off the ground after serving as the principal of the historic E.O. Smith Education Center before the launch of MLCPA.

Originally from Baton Rouge, LA, and born in New Orleans, LA, Dr. Crook is a lifelong educator. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree and a Master of Science degree in Biology from Texas Southern University. In 2016, he earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Houston. This is his 24th year with Houston Independent School District (HISD) and his twelfth year as a principal.

“I am deeply invested in improving the lives of young people in the Houston community,” says Dr. Crook. “Education is the most impactful way to improve our community and our young people.”

Since the founding of MLCPA in 2011, the school has dedicated itself to Dr. Crook’s vision of having a single-gender secondary school that academically prepares young men for college, while building their leadership skills and moral character.

MLCPA proudly boasts that they serve a population that is 74% economically disadvantaged but are able to offer their deserving students a top-notch, rigorous education that is usually only afforded to students who receive a private education.

As stated, Dr. Crook has been at the helm since the school’s founding and is seeking to address the biggest challenge he believes the school is facing in the community they are located in.

“We really want more African American kids to attend our school, especially those who live near our school,” Dr. Crook states. “We are challenged with exposing families in the Fifth Ward to our program, mostly because many families assume they can’t attend our school because we are not considered a neighborhood zoned school.  That is a myth we want to change.”

There have been many accomplishments at MLCPA and some challenges as well—one of the primary challenges has been dealing with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that every school has had to deal with and navigate through.

Dr. Crook states that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the overall educational landscape at MLCPA and the community in so many ways, but they have remained resilient, while working hard to adjust to the new normal.

If you ask any teacher at MLCPA, they will probably know and tell you exactly where they were on March 12, 2020—the day HISD announced that Spring Break would begin early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Laforet, MLCPA’s robotics coach, remembers that day, and how it impacted the school.

“The robotics team was in our workshop preparing for our second First Robotics Competition event, Mr. Laforet recalls. “After the announcement over the intercom, I saw them drop their tools to cheer and high-five. What kid wouldn’t be excited to start their Spring Break early? But then, we never returned to school.”

That moment marked the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic for MLCPA, and other schools just like them. No one could have predicted that students would not return for in-person learning until the following school year, and even then, most students elected to learn from home, virtually.

Nicole Walker Laforet, MLCPA’s high school English teacher acknowledged that everyone—students, teachers, and staff—all felt lost during those lonely months that they spent in their homes away from school, trying to make sense of our new normal.

“No one was immune to the shock,” says Mrs. Laforet. “We adopted the whole-child philosophy as the cornerstone of our program. We envisioned a boy-friendly learning environment that would foster the healthy development of every young man we served, as well as a principled approach to the competitive spirit. Committing to this approach has set us apart from other all-male schools across the country, bringing our visions to fruition: our school has paid dividends upon dividends for the young men and families we serve.”

Even after mask protocols and vaccines allowed students to return to in-person learning, MLCPA and schools across America continued to grapple with the emotional, mental, and spiritual consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We came back together as new people,” Mrs. Laforet reflects.

To put things into context, the entire incoming 2021 sixth grade class at MLCPA had last been in a normal, pre-pandemic classroom, as fourth graders. The freshman class had spent most of their middle school careers at home or in a virtual classroom.

Mrs. Laforet recalls her shock when discussing this year’s high school awards ceremony with a junior, with the student asking if that was really a thing.

“We have those?” marveled student Joaquin Castaneda.

Due to the safety protocols, typical high school events such as award ceremonies, field trips, and school dances, hadn’t happened in the last few school years—a lifetime for any adolescent boy.

Though there will be many traditional hallmarks lost to the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MLCPA community has been committed to pushing past any obstacles to get back to work, and return to celebrating student accomplishments, no matter what the world’s new normal might look like.

It isn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic that MLCPA is charging against. The school is also seeking to navigate through a national and global community that is heavy with political disunity, pervasive racial inequity, and all the physical and cultural violence that stems from that.

MLCPA’s teachers and staff take their mission of fostering tomorrow’s world innovators and leaders seriously, holding their duty like a radiant torch each day they walk into the school.

MLCPA’s academics maintain a rigorously high bar.

Middle school scholars take exclusively HISD Advanced courses, which prepare them for the AP courses they’ll take in high school. While other schools offer a tiered selection of courses to choose from, juniors at MLCPA, for example, don’t have the option to take an “on-level” English III option. Every student takes AP Language & Composition. Consequently, graduates face the rigors of college and the workforce with agility and grace.

MLCPA has sent graduates to MIT, University of Virginia, UT Austin, A&M, Oklahoma State, Northeastern University, Vanderbilt University—the list could roll on for an entire article in and of itself.

As an established institution, each school year promises a predictable rhythm with a clear intention for both the students and staff—focus on both individual and collective success, stay driven, and keep growing. Important dates—both academic and extra-curricular—serve as goal posts throughout the year. Athletic tournaments and championships, midterm exams, STAAR and AP testing—but the cycle of the school year in the midst of a global pandemic has proven to be unpredictable and at the whim of forces out of the control of anyone within the perimeter of the school.

MLCPA’s Athletics—a program that was only reserved exclusively for the middle school in the beginning, has since exploded, now serving middle through high school.

Over the years, MLCPA athletes have brought home a plethora of awards, including but not limited to cross-country district championships, basketball district championships, and track and field district championships.

Head of MLCPA Athletics Coach Byron Shelton has marveled at the rapid growth and athletic accomplishments at MLCPA.

“In the five years since we’ve added high school athletics to our program, our varsity basketball team has qualified for the UIL state playoffs two years running,” Coach Shelton reflects. “Our track and field team has produced multiple regional qualifiers and our cross-country team has claimed two district championships. Our baseball team has qualified for UIL state playoffs twice, and our soccer team is growing more competitive and is becoming quite the force to be reckoned with.”

As a college-preparatory magnet school, the union between academics and extracurricular activities provides the opportunity to teach students the importance of balance and focus.

“Here at MLCPA we have worked hard to build our athletes up on a foundation of character, commitment, compassion, and growth,” Coach Shelton states. “We look forward to making our school district and community proud for years to come.”

MLCPA’s highly competitive robotics program is also no stranger to success, qualifying for state tournaments yearly and even hosting robotics competitions on campus.

Mr. Laforet, computer science teacher and robotics coach talked about the growth of the program on the MLCPA campus.

“When I stepped in to lead the robotics program several years pre-pandemic, we went into a full rebuild, as I wanted to cultivate a culture of excellence through a program that met the needs of the students while remaining competitive on a regional and state level,” Mr. Laforet states. “We did that. Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, we find ourselves rebuilding again, but with more confidence than ever in our future success. We have a large group of dedicated and passionate students ready to exceed expectations.”

MLCPA also fosters the competitive spirit in countless ways.

Christina Frascino, social studies teacher extraordinaire, who is also known as Mrs. Fresh by students, has dedicated herself to growing MLCPA’s up-and-coming debate team.

“Debate provides a challenging opportunity for students to develop their higher-order thinking and research skills to build a formidable case,” says Ms. Frascino. “But more than that, each student develops confidence in their unique perspectives and voice, taking that powerful energy into debate tournaments. There’s nothing like the moment when a student witnesses the fruits of their labor come to life while competing against other schools from a variety of different backgrounds.”

When young men come to MLCPA, they don’t just become a student on campus, they become a part of a thriving and life-long family and community. Graduates remain members of the MLCPA family and legacy.

“Graduates come back to campus all the time during their college vacation periods to visit us,” Mrs. Laforet shares. “I love the look of confidence and pride they have when walking into my classroom and seeing current students in the same chairs they once sat in. Anyone who sits in those blue chairs becomes my son, and to see them years later, thriving and now honoring where they came from, is a feeling absolutely unmatched. It makes everything we do as a staff and community feel that much more crucial and necessary.”

The mission and legacy of the Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy community continues to persevere and prosper despite any obstacles that come their way.

This year, that legacy comes full circle.

Nahome Mekonnen, graduate of MLCPA’s Class of 2016, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from John Hopkins University, and knew exactly what he wanted to do next.

He wanted to become a teacher at MLCPA, the school who grew his mind and commitment to excellence.

This month, Mekonnen will step into his middle school social studies classroom at MLCPA and carry forth everything he learned, growing each new MLCPA scholar with commitment, passion, and the certainty that each student in his classroom can and will thrive and succeed in the world, no matter what that new world looks like.

MLCPA has been ranked as high as second on The Washington Post’s prestigious annual “America’s Most Challenging High Schools” list, which ranks schools by the number of AP classes they offer and the number of seniors who graduate.

Dr. Crook wants the community to help them continue growing.

“We are looking for community partners to support our campus mission of creating a High performing boy-friendly environment,” states Dr. Crook.

Congratulations, Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men and Dr. Crook on establishing an over 10-year stellar reputation as a beacon for young men with bright minds.

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