VMA – An Outstanding Public Educational Experience for At-risk Boys in Manatee/Sarasota Counties
Visible Men Academy (VMA) is an educational influencer in the public education arena for underserved low-income boys K-5 grade.
VMA offers tuition-free A-rated education for boys in Manatee and Sarasota County, Florida, seamlessly incorporating character education into the curriculum. The strength-based educational environment values the boys’ notable courage, optimism, perseverance, and resilience. The five pillars of SHINE woven into the fabric of the VMA philosophy are selflessness, honesty, integrity, niceness, and excellence. Interestingly the boys are referred to as SUNS because they SHINE.
Neil Phillips, VMA’s co-founder, says, “We know that psychological dropout or disengagement happens in elementary school when students determine that school is not for them. They may have behavioral transgressions and disconnect; at VMA, we want our boys to love school, and they do. Daily attendance is 94% even with a longer school day from 8:00 am – 4:00 pm and two additional weeks in the school year.” Those impressive attendance statistics tell an inspiring success story.
Stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, social workers, educators, and community leaders, respect that most boys growing up in poverty may experience chronic stress induced by their environment. Sensitivity to the disadvantages many boys face academically and socioeconomically, informs their approach. The entire staff establishes an educational sanctuary where eye contact and a smile ease anxiety. Unique strengths, inherent talents, grit, and perseverance infused with a ‘can-do’ attitude fosters social and emotional growth while enhancing moral reasoning, critical thinking, and conflict resolution. Suzi Shea, a seasoned teacher from Pineview School for the Gifted, came out of retirement to teach 3rd Grade at VMA and says, “These boys are exceptional, they enjoy challenges taught in a comfortable environment. They are eager learners, and they know we care about them and believe in their capabilities well beyond test scores.”
I had an opportunity to sit down with a fellow social worker, Peg Hughes, and learn about her work at VMA, which includes casework, parenting education, family counseling, stress reduction, empowerment, and goal setting. Peg loves being a part of the VMA team and conducts a Women SHINE parenting class with VMA students and their families every Tuesday. VMA aims to promote active, committed fatherhood, and classes are offered by Cedric Hameed every Tuesday afternoon throughout the year, thereby providing peer support and goal setting for all fathers and father figures.
Educators, social workers, administrators, and the principal actively step outside of their assigned duties throughout the day to support one another, role modeling kindness, empathy, and compassion; behaviors they are proud to see the boys emulating.
Throughout the day, boys participate in classes taught in a supportive, nurturing environment, developing their character and self-worth through challenging academics while simultaneously focusing on psychological and social welfare that will ensure their long-term success. Saturday school occurs once a month. The entire family participates in a themed morning breakfast program with an inspirational speaker, creating a cohesive learning environment that empowers the whole family unit in intergenerational learning to SHINE. The invaluable skills gained socially and academically serve the boys well throughout their academic careers, fueling their ambition and the pursuit of higher education, ultimately shattering the cycle of poverty.
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Photos from Visible Men Academy FB