Manatee County Visible Men’s Academy Passes Founder’s Exit

Louis Parker didn’t have much in common with his classmates at Phillips Academy Andover in 1969.

The child of an uneducated facility manager, Parker went to the country’s most elite boarding school after growing up on a diet of government cheese and powdered milk.

His father could not read. His boyfriend Jeb, meanwhile, lived in the same dormitory and would become governor of Florida, while Jeb’s father and brother would both become president of the United States.

Parker had been awarded a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, and it was a gift that drastically changed the course of his life, opening doors unimaginable for him as a poor child growing up in Pittsburgh. Those doors would lead to the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and then the tops of American business.

“Obviously I see what education has done for me,” he said.

After:Neil Phillips, founder of VMA, finds his own American dream

Parker wants the boys at Visible Men Academy, a boys-only elementary school in Manatee County next to Pride Park and Duplex City, some of Manatee’s poorest neighborhoods, to have the same opportunities as he does.

His mission is to save the school he helped establish in 2013 – a school that had been one of Manatee’s success stories until recently as declining enrollments, constant turnover and a fundraising model. broke fueled rumors that not everything was going well at VMA.

Amid the turmoil, Parker, a former corporate executive at General Electric, stepped into the role of the school’s interim CEO.

Now he’s leveraging his corporate background to attract new donors and rebuild the leadership of the school, bringing in top-tier black educators and business leaders, and he’s using his contact list of company to attract new donors, hoping to take a step forward at VMA.

“I’m just like those boys you see over there,” Parker said of his past. “I was like them growing up and I want them to have the same opportunities as me. It’s very personal for me.

2014:Charter school is for young boys

Top turnover

Nelson Mandela’s grandson Adaba Mandela was supposed to be the guest speaker at VMA’s 2020 fundraising gala last spring before the event was canceled due to COVID-19.

VMA co-founders Neil Phillips and Louis Parker at the school's 2019 annual fundraiser. Phillips resigned from the school in February and Parker is now interim CEO.

VMA is one of the smaller schools in the region with one of the highest poverty rates, but there has been no shortage of influential men touting the school.

In 2019, Shaquille O’Neal paid a visit and two weeks ago the fourth graders did a zoom session with Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. School co-founder Neil Phillips has regularly presented the school’s mission at elite educational conferences.

Phillips’ emphasis on “visible men” meant providing role models for black and Hispanic boys who look like them, and Phillips himself had become one of the “most visible men” in the Manatee-Sarasota area. , collecting millions of donations and garnering national attention for VMAs. character-based education.

But in the past two months, Phillips has been missing.

In February, he and his wife, Shannon Rohrer Phillips, resigned from the school they had founded, leaving in the middle of the school year with little public explanation except to say they were going to focus on a National Visible Men Program, showcasing the accomplishments of black men.

Phillips declined to comment for this article, and many of those with ties to the school also declined to comment, saying they were unsure why Phillips had left and that others had not responded to calls for ask for explanations.

His departure, along with the lack of responses, has left the community that has supported the school for many years wondering, but it also marks a change in leadership, as Parker steps in.

“Yes, a lot of us are obviously surprised, but the school just keeps going,” Parker said. “Whenever you have change, you have questions. I bring people back to our mission, which is our boys. The VMA boys are 100% our mission, to take care of them. It is not about a person, but about the mission. “

After:VMA students featured at the film festival

Sea of ​​changes

Visible Men Academy has built a reputation as a small but formidable haven for some of the poorest boys in Manatee.

Visible Men Academy founder Neil Phillips, seen here at the 2019 Visible Men Impact Awards at the Art Ovation Hotel, unexpectedly resigned his post in February.

Every VMA student is entitled to a free and discounted lunch, and many are the children of migrant workers who do not speak English and move with the harvest.

Despite these challenges, the school’s grade went from an F to a C in 2017, then to a very famous A in 2018. The school went to a B in 2019, the grades for the last year were allocated. It consistently outperforms Daughtrey Elementary, a mainstream public school with similar demographics that sits right next door.

Much of the school’s success rested on Phillips, the school’s visionary leader. He enlisted the support of external donors, whose contributions funded the school’s ‘complementary’ services, which include an extended school day and school year, weekend programs, parenting classes and childcare. eat.

Although Phillips has long been the face of VMA, Parker has been around from the start as well.

2015:Visible Men Academy focuses on low income boys

Parker co-founded the school with the Phillips and development consultant Cindy Cavallaro Day, but he’s said he’s happy to stay behind the scenes.

“I spent my day in the sun,” he says.

But last August, Cavallaro Day died of cancer. When Phillips stepped down in February, Parker was left as the head of a school that relied heavily on a list of local donors and philanthropists who had loved Phillips and Cavallaro Day but didn’t really know Parker.

With only 82 students this year, up from 120 a few years ago, the school does not receive enough funding per student to cover its costs. And donors who normally write checks to make up the difference always ask, “Where’s Neil?”

According to the latest tax returns available, the school has received approximately $ 840,000 from the state and almost the same amount in grants and donations. It is a funding model that Parker wants to change.

“(Public funding) only covers 50% of our costs… Is this a sustainable long-term strategy? No, Parker said.

Louis Parker, the new interim CEO of Visible Men Academy, visits third-graders working on iReady English on their laptops.

To be sustainable, the school needs to nearly triple enrollment, from 82 students to 232, Parker said. Before the school can expand, it must build a larger facility on a four-acre lot that VMA already owns. And before they could build, Parker said the school needed to raise more than $ 10 million.

The goal is to raise enough money this year so that construction can begin in December. If all goes as planned, the new facility will be ready to open in fall 2023.

According to the school’s March financial report for submission to the Manatee School District, donations have more than doubled from last year, with the school reporting just over $ 1 million in donations. until now.

“The majority of our donations are local, but we have now expanded and continue to expand our network in the corporate environment as well,” he said. “Many of our donations this year came from New York… now we are also gaining notoriety with certain companies.”

Parker said he was reluctant to think it was “too much of a business right now, not enough of a non-profit”.

And he’s ignored some of the school’s longtime supporters as he focuses on board expansion and business relationships.

“I have worked closely with Visible Men Academy since the very early days,” said John Annis, senior vice president of collaboration and impact for the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation on Wednesday. “I was totally surprised to learn of the change in management. I didn’t hear anything about it beforehand and haven’t had any contact with the school since.

2016:Visible Men Academy students find their voice

But Kirsten Russell, vice president of community impact at the Sarasota County Community Foundation, said the missteps in the transition should not distract from the school’s expanded potential.

“The focus of VMA should be on the boys,” Russell said. “… No one abandons them; they have been the constant since the launch of VMA. Changes in leadership should not diminish the mission or the vision. “

Parker is recruiting high-level leaders from the black community to sit on the board of visible men, hoping to recruit up to 15 influencers who can run the school, while increasing the number of people who can fundraise. fund for the fundraising campaign and promote the school to their various circles.

In recent months, five prominent black education and business leaders have joined the board, which now includes Gerald Bruce, Tomeika Hunter-Koski, James Stewart, Naiema Frieson and David Wilkens.

“This is the black and brown community, and (the new board members) are very involved in community affairs,” he said.

‘Look at me’

It’s a lonely job at times, being the only founder left in school, with the Phillips leaving and the tragic death of Cavallaro Day, Parker said.

But as he struggles to raise funds, attract new students, and fight rumors that the school is floundering, he reflects on the challenges his father overcame.

Unlike many of the boys at VMA, located in a neighborhood with the highest rate of single-parent manatee homes, Parker had a father who was a powerful and positive role model.

“I watched him toil, toil and toil, work his butt,” Parker said.

His father may never have learned to read, but that hasn’t stopped him from providing, Parker said.

He took his wife with him when he took a state exam needed to get promoted for his work in facilities management for the Pennsylvania office of mines. She would read the questions aloud to him, he would answer and she would write down the answers.

His father refused to let the family receive social assistance and he made sure his children had opportunities that he did not have. It’s a gift that Parker wants to pass on.

“Look at me,” he said to the boys at VMA. “I’m like you, and look at what I was able to do through education.”

Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at [email protected] or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.

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