Ricardo Belgrave and Ruben Stewart aren’t going to let a little thing like rejection get in their way.
Despite falling short in getting the Frederick Douglass School for Boys approval as an Atlantic City charter, the childhood friends are still determined to bring a tuition-free all-boys school to their hometown.
Belgrave, a city teacher for a decade, got the idea years ago after seeing the gender gap in education — especially among black and Hispanic boys.
“I’m a firm believer in, you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” he said. “If people are passionate about education in general, we really have to start at the bottom and lift these young men up.”
While they plan to appeal the state’s decision, they are focusing more on making it a private school. It will be a little more difficult because they still want it to be tuition-free, but they also want to make sure the city’s young men see there are people who care.
“It’s very important,” said Stewart, a cook at the Golden Nugget. “We’re losing a lot of our youth every day to senseless violence. A lot of them don’t have the tools where they feel they can overcome that.”
When Belgrave first thought of creating a school, he said he wanted it to be private, but thought the fundraising would be too daunting. Now, he believes that the community support he’s seen so far can grow.
“We’ve been so, so grateful for the support we’ve been getting,” he said. “We’re asking people to stay strong with us and understand, this is still going to happen.”
‘You can come from these neighborhoods and be successful in other things besides drugs and what you see out your window.’
The two men have known each other since eighth grade. Belgrave grew up in Stanley Holmes Village. Stewart’s home was in Back Maryland.
“We don’t just care about them, we were them,” Stewart said. “When I say, ‘I heard gunshots out of that window right there,’ they can directly relate to that.”
It also shows “you can come from these neighborhoods and be successful in other things besides drugs and what you see out your window,” he said. “We’re not selling drugs. We’re not in the streets. We’ve never been in jail.”
Belgrave graduated from Atlantic City High School in 2003. Stewart, who was raised by his single mom, started out in Atlantic City, until violence impacted his life.
In September 2001, his friend Robert Williams, 17, was killed in an armed robbery as he walked a young mother and her 2-year-old son home.
Stewart’s mom had him move out of the city, and he went to live with his father in Mays Landing, where he graduated from Oakcrest High School in 2003.
“You don’t have to go the negative route just because you’ve gone through something negative,” he said.
That’s a message that he will pass on to the school’s students.
He and Belgrave will spend the next year and a half developing a business proposal, with an anticipated opening in August of 2020.
The two are hoping to partner with the Boys and Girls Club to use the James L. Usry Head Start Center on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The biggest is a facility,” Belgrave said. “If we would be able to collaborate with the Boys and Girls Club, that would help us out a lot financially.”
And they’re looking to start smaller.
Rather than the charter school plan of 180 students, they will start with 30 students split equally in to two grades — kindergarten and first.
If finances allow, they would expand another grade each year. If not, they will follow those original 30 boys.
“We want to have it as a private school, but we want to have it as free as we can,” Stewart said. “We want to raise as much money as we can because we don’t want to lose sight of who we want to help and those are children just like us.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up here and donations also can be made through the school’s website here.