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Executive Preparatory makes great strides on and off the court

Executive Preparatory's basketball team is having success at balancing academics and athletics. (186408)
Executive Preparatory’s basketball team is having success at balancing academics and athletics.

Executive Preparatory Academy of Finance (EPA) was founded in 2013 with a small group of ninth graders. Two a half years later, every member of the school’s first graduating class is on track to attend a four-year college.

Omar McGee, who founded EPA in Hawthorne on Imperial Highway near Crenshaw Boulevard, has been the driving force behind a high school that took young people with low test scores and behavioral issues, and turned them into high achievers who have succeeded at an outstanding academic level.

“We had kids coming in with super bad behavior problems, and we had kids coming in with second grade reading levels,” McGee said. “We got all of the kids that schools from the surrounding areas didn’t want. But that was my goal.  I wanted those kids.”

McGee visited a number of inner city schools. Based on his experiences growing up in Flint, Mich., and his work in inner cities, he simply thought that he could do better.

“I’ve been in the inner city my whole life, and I know what these kids go through,” McGee said. “I had a non-profit when I was 19 years old called Inner City Outreach at Howard University. I got 57 kids (in)to college. I would pair a kid up with a small business or major corporation, and after four years they would have a lump sum of money to go to college with.”

Part of EPA’s mission is to close the financial literacy gap for minority children living in low-income areas.

“We’re based on finance,” McGee said. “Our kids understand finance. They understand everything about money. We give them instant gratification. We basically are making education cool again.

“In our environment, we need instant gratification. I don’t tell them that they have to wait. We can make money now. Let’s sit down, let’s come up with a plan, give me your long-term goals, give me your short-term goals.  Once you get a kid dreaming, the dysfunction is small in comparison to the dream.”

Halfway through the school’s third year in existence, EPA has a zero percent dropout rate, students are rarely suspended for behavioral problems, and every student in the 11th grade, the founding student group original class, is college ready.

“You can’t pull a kid to the side here and ask him or her about a junior college or a trade school,” McGee said.  “It’s four-year college.”

EPA has smaller class sizes than typical public schools, with about 20 per class. Courses are 90 minutes long, compared to the typical 50-minute session. And EPS has a Four by Four Mester System, where students complete 80-credits per school year as opposed to the 60-credits that they would complete in the traditional two- semester calendar; typically there are six classes per semester. In the Four by Four Mester System, students take four classes per “mester,” with four “mesters” per school year. That gives the students a total of 16 five-credit courses, as opposed to 12 five-credit courses in the semester system.

“In two mesters, we do more than the average school does in a year,” McGee said.

EPA uses technology to a greater degree than a typical public school, says McGee. Each student performs the bulk of their work on laptops that they are able to take home.

“We give them the information fast, just like they get in their everyday lives,” McGee said. “(Using) their phone they look up something quick. They don’t have time to go to the library. They have Google right here. It’s like if I gave you a map and told you to go to Oakland. You’d look at me like I’m crazy. That’s the same way these kids look at education. We have to speed it up.

“Today our kids are smarter than we are because of technology,” McGee continued. “We have to adjust our school system to that. It’s not that our kids are slow; it’s that we’re slow. We’re doing the same thing that we did 50 years ago. If you’re teaching kids old methods, obviously they’re going to lose interest and start misbehaving because they’re bored.”

The staff at EPA closely monitors every student at the school, and gives struggling students extra help immediately.

“When a kid is struggling, we have tutors to take them out of class,” McGee said. “We tutor those kids right there on the spot, get them caught up, and then put them right back into class. The beauty of that is, no student falls through the crack. And we assess them every two weeks to make sure that they know that material within that two weeks.

“I make sure that everybody on staff has an individual relationship with every child,” McGee continued. “So, if I ask somebody on staff, ‘what about him?’  They’ll know everything about that student.”

Afterschool tutoring is mandatory for all students, where they all take SAT prep classes.

EPA prides itself on giving their students something of great value, and making them understand how important it is to get an education.

“If there is light at the end of the tunnel, it makes sense,” McGee said. “We make education make sense. Before you tell a kid to stop selling drugs and get out of the gangs, you have to give him something to replace it. We fill that void.”

The success has not only taken place in the classroom, because the same principles have been used for afterschool activities, such as basketball.

“It’s just by coincidence that our basketball team is this good,” McGee said noting. “These kids were all low-performing (during the first year of the school). They’d beg me for a team, but I’d tell them that until we get (improved) grades, we’re not even talking about sports.”

With that motivation in place, it was not long before the students held up to their end of the bargain by improving academically. McGee made good on his promise as well. EPA started their first basketball team last year, and this season the team has taken off. The boys have a 22-4 record, and are 12th in the state in the 5A division.

Head coach Rossi Valentine credits the school for supporting the basketball team.

“The school helps out a lot with the mandatory tutoring after school,” Valentine said. “That kind of sets the tone for everything else. Before they do any basketball they have to go to tutoring, and SAT prep classes. Then after that we go into two hours of practicing.

“We just stay on them,” Valentine continued. “The administration, the coaches, we just keep reminding them what’s important. School is first, books are first, basketball is second.”

Valentine has coached at various schools, and he can see the difference between EPA and the other places that he has worked.

“Executive Prep is more hands on,” Rossi said. “There is more teacher involvement, smaller classes. In a big school, you can get lost. They give you the assignments, tell you what to do. If you don’t do them, that’s up to you. But here, there is more attention to detail.”

Smarter students can make for smarter players, which Rossi is enjoying.

“Academics and sports work hand in hand,” Rossi said. “You have to be disciplined in class to take the time to learn what the teacher is teaching. That kind of discipline transfers to the court. When you’re in a tough situation on the court, you can keep your calm and think. You can think out situations, and be more affective on the court.”

EPA is enjoying a great basketball season playing against older students. The juniors who are leading the team are appreciative of the education that they are receiving, and the academic resources at their disposal.

“Academically they help you focus,” said Christopher Goosby a ??? at EPA. “At (his former school) they didn’t really care about you. Over here, they give you all the tools that you need. They give you extra help through mentoring and afterschool programs. They always stay on top of you, showing you what’s right. There are so many opportunities that you don’t get at other schools.”

Goosby also points out that at EPA, the students do not have to worry about gang violence, like he did at his previous school.  And he said that the teachers allow the students to interact with them to a much greater degree.

Goosby wants to attend either Morehouse or UNLV, where he plans to study kinesiology, and obtain an EMT license to become a firefighter.

Akil Johnson also benefits from the interaction that he engages in from the staff at EPA.

“Here, they focus more on you, instead of hoping that the whole class will understand the first time,” Johnson said. “They make you go to tutoring over and over to make sure you pass.”

Johnson, who is interested in attending LMU or UNLV, also points out that the use of technology is much greater than at other schools he has attended.

“We weren’t really good enough to use the computers (at his former school), because they weren’t used for academics. Here, since we don’t have that many books, we use eText, which is our source for our classes worki???. We have tutoring sites on the computers, and we always use the computer to check our grades.”

Tawrence Shoffner changed his outlook on academics, when he started to attend EPA.

“As soon as I got here, my whole attitude changed,” Shoffner said. “I’m starting to focus more because of the guidance that I have (which) I didn’t have at other schools. Everybody helps you out. Teachers, coaches, staff, making sure you don’t slip.”

These basketball players are student-athletes, with an emphasis on the student part, McGee said.

“Nothing happens without good grades,” McGee said. “I don’t care what it is. Without grades, nothing happens.  When I first opened the school, kids were begging me for a basketball team. But until they get good grades, and until those grades are consistent, we can’t even talk about sports.  If you’re on a fourth or fifth grade reading level, there is nothing to discuss. It’s too much work to pick up.”

Beyond grades, McGee and Valentine have strict rules for their players to follow to prepare them for the real world.

“They can’t curse,” McGee said. “If they forget a shirt, they’re not playing. If they mess up there are consequences. We don’t give them room to mess up because life doesn’t give them room to mess up. I’d rather they make mistakes here and learn than make mistakes outside these gates. Especially as young Black men; they don’t have the options and the second chances.”

EPA has been extremely successful with the 240 students currently enrolled at the school, and they have a 400-student waiting list. In the future, McGee said that he will have to move the school to a larger campus to accommodate the number of students who need what the school has to offer.