Commencement exercise will be an in-person handoff By Chris Felker
PAHOKEE — The three dozen graduates of the Everglades Preparatory Academy Class of 2020 will have an actual, not virtual, commencement exercise this year.
The unique school stands out in Palm Beach County not just for that reason, though; it’s different from most public or its fellow charter schools in lots of other ways, too. A young institution, it’s educated more than 200 kids who have graduated since 2012.
But this year’s graduates — many of whom play sports for various other high schools including Glades Central and Pahokee — will receive an EPA Class of 2020 diploma in person on Wednesday, June 10, at 11 a.m., witnessed by two family members each.
Principal Linda Johnson-Earsley is proud of each and every one, but wanted to highlight how many of EPA’s student-athletes will be going on to play college football. “Of my 10 football players: two are currently enrolled in Syracuse University, and one enrolled at the University of Maryland; (others will attend) Florida A&M University, Alabama A&M University, Florida Atlantic University and the list goes on from the Marine Corps to security guard academy,” she said.
Even though it’s been a very trying time for educators in general since the coronavirus pandemic became urgent in this country in early March, she said they’ve been able to anticipate and transition well to “distance learning,” as they’ve been conducting classes online since March 13, shortly before the governor’s first stay-at-home order.
Interviewed by phone May 28, Ms. Johnson-Earsley said of their upcoming event: “We’re not calling it a graduation, but it is just a step down from a graduation. We will be distributing high school diplomas to our students … in the courtyard at our school on the 10th of June. I hope the weather cooperates. We will have safety measures in place; we will be social distancing with masks; and each graduate’s parents, two of their family members but mostly parents, will be invited just to witness them receiving their diplomas.”
Everglades Preparatory Academy (or EPA) is an alternative middle-high school geared toward local students, and especially athletes, who need a more intensive, closer learning experience than is available in large public schools. It aims to prevent high school students who may be having trouble from dropping out of school altogether.
The principal described the EPA student body as “a diverse population … running the gamut from athletes and scholars to individuals who are interested in enlisting in the services.
“As you know, in the Glades, we’re known for athletes and we happen to be a small school with a big mission, and that is to make sure our students are afforded not only an opportunity to attend a college, but with a scholarship specifically for their athletic ability, and also to attain and receive a scholarship for academics,” she stated.
“So I’m proud to say that out of all of our students, 90 percent … have attained some kind of confirmation for continuing their education at an educational or vocational training institution.”
Ms. Johnson-Earsley said all their students are from the Glades region. But EPA is different for another reason.
“Our students are the top athletes from both high schools here in the Glades. They play for Glades Central and Pahokee high schools. A lot of times what happens — after football season, or at the beginning of the school year — is, if a student feels as if they cannot reach their academic goals, they then make the choice to come to Everglades Prep. That’s, I would say, over 60 percent of our population,” the principal explained.
She said by doing that, they are opting for smaller class sizes and “the ability to have more individual consultation and support from their teachers and administrators.
“It’s a small school, but we don’t minimize that. Everything that is required from a traditional public school is required of us as well,” Ms. Johnson-Earsley went on.
“We have students who were enrolled in our school and graduated from our school who play for schools like Wellington, Seminole Ridge, Palm Beach Central and the Glades schools. But one thing they’re missing when they (the public schools) talk about them — and I understand because we don’t have a football program — a lot of the credit is given to the schools where they play football. But we’re the school where they attend, they get the academic part of their life completed, so basically that is the ability for us to serve kids within our community.”
The EPA has educated over 1,300 children since its inception in 2002, and has been recognized for having the highest graduation increase rate among African American students in Palm Beach County. Its charter has been renewed until 2027, and over 430 of its students have participated in Anquan Boldin Foundation and Florida Crystals Summer Camp since 2010.