Financially pressed since the recession, Zion Preparatory Academy closed down at the end of August, after 33 years providing a Christian private-school education at an affordable price in Seattle’s Central District.
Academic miscellany peppered the floors of empty classrooms at Zion Preparatory Academy in Seattle’s Central District on Thursday: One abandoned pink polka-dot right boot. A miniature construction cone. Half a purple plastic Easter egg.
The only students left were pictured in laminated photos hung from the light in an upstairs classroom.
After struggling economically for about a decade, Zion Prep closed its doors for good Friday, shuttering what many in Seattle’s African-American community consider a foundational pillar of early education.
“Zion Preparatory has been a blessing to the community, to the world, and to the city of Seattle,” former teacher Yolanda Parker said. “The kids who came through here are so successful — just in life. And that’s the best success you can have is to be a positive influence on society.”
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Zion Prep was founded in 1982 by Bishop Eugene Drayton, two decades after he first envisioned the school, he said Thursday, while seated with his son-in-law, Doug Wheeler, in a packed-up office.
Wheeler, who served as Zion’s director off and on since the first day, explained that children in their church congregation couldn’t read or write and many were having problems at school and getting kicked out of class or suspended as a result.
The issue was compounded by the crack-cocaine epidemic that hit the inner city in the early ’80s and took a toll on some families, he said.
“It was just a vision God gave us to start a school because the kids weren’t learning,” Drayton said. “Seattle Public Schools were calling them ‘at risk.’ Do you know what ‘at risk’ means? We never found out. But we don’t use those words in our school.”
Zion’s mission was to provide a faith-based education for Seattle students in need. Families, mostly from the African-American community, paid what they could in tuition, and dropped their kids off with the understanding that they would not just be safe, but treasured.
“We were the extended family of every child enrolled,” Wheeler said.
The school was a hit. Zion started with six students in 1982, and by the turn of the century had grown to 550 from preschool to eighth grade. The school offered door-to-door pickup, food for those who were hungry, and enough teachers per classroom to try to make sure no student fell behind, Wheeler said.
Rita Green, education chair at King County NAACP, sent both of her children to Zion.
“Zion really taught them that they can do anything they want to do,” Green said. “Kids who had challenges were still taught to have very high standards for themselves. That’s something those kids — particularly kids of color — do not really get.”
The backbone of Zion’s funding was donations from businesses and individuals, including John Meisenbach of MCM, Costco and Starbucks. The grants helped cover operating costs and allowed Zion to tailor tuitionto a family’s ability to pay. The school also covered the costs for community members to become teachers.
Damian Joseph, now a third-grade teacher at West Seattle Elementary, got his start teaching kindergarten there.
“I learned almost everything I know working at Zion,” Joseph said. “The expectations were very high and the students performed very well and we made sure we kept it that way.”
Wheeler said “everything started to fall apart” when the recession hit.
Families had less money for tuition, donors stopped giving or cut back on their grants, and child-care subsidies from the state Department of Social and Human Services were more difficult to secure.
Zion sold its campus in 2009 and scaled back how many grade levels it served. But even moving locations and cutting back to just preschool classes wasn’t enough to keep the school financially stable, Wheeler said. He opted for it not to become a charter school, both because of financial-stability concerns and the fact the school would have to renounce its religious affiliation.
The remaining funds will be used to cover closing costs and to develop a scholarship program.
“It’s not that we didn’t do what we should have done,” Drayton said. “But that we did all that we could do to educate our children.”
Tearing up, Wheeler agreed.
“It’s the grieving process,” he said. “But we had our season.”
The day before Zion’s doors swung closed, Preschool Director Carol Brown was on the phone giving job references for former teachers amid boxes and packing tape stacked in her office. Though it’s hard to leave the school she fell in love with 24 years ago for its Christian morals and family dynamic, Brown has hopes Zion’s influence will last.
“We have touched many lives — thousands of children and families,” Brown said. “If they can just pick up that mantle, that would mean the most to us. To know that effort, those sacrifices that we made were not in vain.”