Some people only dream. Others chase after them. Mercedes Morrison not only chased her dream, but captured it.
After more than 30 years as teacher and principal, Mercedes Morrison is doing what some teachers only dream of: she started her own elementary school.
Morrison wanted to provide education the way she knew in her heart students learn: through individual attention, dedication and Christian beliefs.
"I just realized it was time to leave … and that I was going to start my own school," Morrison said as she sat in the entranceway of her school just off Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. "I had standards and goals that I wanted to obtain my own way, things I knew I could do if I had my own school."
At great financial risk and with a little planning, Morrison followed her heart and started her own Christian elementary school in September 1999. She named it Agape Christian Academy. Agape means unconditional love in Greek. That first year, Morrison started the school from an empty warehouse in Springfield, Virginia.
Having realized her dream, she now needed everything from blackboards to chalk to desks. At the time, she had no idea where she would get them. In the end, they came almost like her faith: as an unconditional gift.
With donations from her former student's parents and even her own parents, who helped with about $200,000 of the initial funding, she was able to pull together the school with an astounding 190 students that first year. Many of them were former students who followed Morrison to her new educational perch.
By June 2000, Morrison moved her thriving school to Alexandria's Mount Vernon area, where the 69,000-square-foot, three-story building is located.
"Here, we get to know our children," said Morrison, who grew up in Richmond and moved to Alexandria in 1970. "There is a strong family atmosphere. Here, student's deficiencies are embraced. We see children with learning problems. It's not their problem; it's our problem."
THE TEACHERS HELP students overcome their deficiencies, one by one, and teach them that their lives are not just happenstance. "We tell them that their being is for a reason," said Morrison. "What they do now is of great importance."
The ability to talk about religion and Christianity is one of the things that drew teacher Sharon Cerce to Agape Christian Academy.
"I have parents who want to see their children excel academically, socially and spiritually," said Cerce. "They wanted to see their children reach their full potential. We have a very high level, challenging curriculum. It takes a lot of work from children and their parents. It's a lot like an extended family."
Students get a great deal of individual attention at Agape, where the student-teacher ratio is 23. Having smaller classrooms has paid off.
Students' test scores averaged in the 80th percentile last year. Just like public schools, the students take the Stanford 9 test of achievement.
FORMER STUDENT Ashley McNeil, 19, who is now in her second year at Spellman College in Atlanta, where she is majoring in economics, remembers Morrison well. Morrison was Ashley's principal at Christian Center School in Alexandria.
"Mrs. Morrison is open to all questions and willing to explain things when we didn't understand," said McNeil. "She's very warm and caring and dedicated to education and to her students. She was concerned about our overall well-being. She doesn't want to see any of her students fail. She will create extra programs to help them and provide tutors or after-care programs with their teachers, or herself if she has to."
Morrison took those same principles and educational beliefs to her own classrooms at Agape Christian Academy.
There, bursts of student laughter erupt as children walk through the hallway to computer classrooms, science lab, art, music, physical education, Spanish-language classes and other classrooms where core subjects such as history and math are taught. Lessons on public speaking, how to read a textbook and how to effectively use library resources are part of the curriculum.
The K-6 school, which has a choir and a computer club, also has preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-olds. To meet the busy lifestyles of today's parents, there's before-and after-school supervision.
BUT LIKE OTHER new ventures, the school struggles with financial funding. Enrollment dropped to 143 when Morrison had to raise tuition, which starts at $4,300. Even so, Agape's tuition is still well below other private schools'.
As Morrison seeks financial support through donations and grants, she is committed that her faith will help see her through these financially rough times.
"There's a passion that keeps me going," Morrison said. "I wouldn't be comfortable doing something else even if I wanted to stop. I can't stop. I enjoy and believe in this school even when things get rough. When I see the progress that children make from day to day, it gives me the inspiration to continue."
For more information about Agape Christian Academy or to make a donation, call the school at 703-360-1996.
Carol Castaneda is a free-lance writer who resides in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.