By Tanya Giraldo
Immediately upon entering the doors of the Prism Learning Center, there was a noticeable difference in the atmosphere compared to a public school’s. For one, it felt more laid back; children were playing a team building exercise outside while others stayed indoors and chatted with their teachers.
As Misty Newcomb, executive director of the Prism Learning Center, guided a tour of the facility, she would greet every child by their name and would stop to converse with them and ask them about their day. Newcomb used to work in pubic schools with children who were at risk with emotional or behavioral challenges and come from families of low income. At the same time she began working in the public school system, she sent one of her four children to kindergarten.
“It gave me a very broad perspective of some of the real challenges that students were encountering and that families encountered,” Newcomb said. “We just really wanted something different.” Not to be negative about public school, Newcomb said, for a lot of families it works out fine, but her daughter really struggled.
“One of the things we saw for her was that there needed to be more of an emphasis on other aspects of development than just her own academic abilities,” Newcomb said. “As I would talk to families, I would see that a lot of the families I worked with had some of the same concerns I had and some of the same needs, but not the resources.”
“Prism kind of came out of a core group of us having conversations at church and at birthday parties about what we wanted for our kids,” Newcomb said. “As a result this is the utopia world that we created.”
Prism is not just a school with content-rich academics, Newcomb explains. They emphasize a holistic education.
“Some of our kids show up at 7 a.m. and don’t leave until around 6 p.m. If we have a child for that long and all we are teaching them is to read and write then we have really failed at a major piece of human development,” Newcomb said. “We also want to teach these students to be good people and to be caring and considerate. We don’t ever think that we can see systematic change in the world unless we start with developing people to think differently and to have values.”
As a private school, tuition at Prism varies on each individual family’s income and everybody pays something based on ability to contribute. Newcomb explains that everyone, regardless of income, is invited to come to Prism.
“Parents do pay tuition but they pay on a sliding fee scale. We look at household income and we look at the number of family members,” Newcomb said. “Some people come every week and they give me $5 in cash and some people pay close to $6-7,000 a year.”
Teachers are trained and hired based on the core values of Prism and some classes even have mixed age groups so students can learn to interact as equals.
“We have what we call a value-based education. It is not political. It is not religious,” Newcomb said. “We have classrooms that are economically integrated. We put a uniform on them and everyone comes to school and they look the same.”
Mallorie Spielmaker, an eighth grader has been attending Prism for two years.
“I learned so much about respect and how to be who I am,” Spielmaker said. “I don’t have to be pressured by other people to do things. I learned about what it is to be a good friend and how to interact with my peers.”
Spielmaker attended public school before she transferred to Prism on January 2012.
“Public school was more focused on what I learned,” Spielmaker said. “Prism is more focused on who I am and the sort of environment created here.”
Lindsey Wall, a teacher of Prism, started at Prism before the school opened. She did student teaching at other schools as well and found a notable difference between the two.
“The things that stands out is the support that we have here and the leadership,” Wall said. “They are really consistent about making sure that everyone has the resources they need.”
Wall explains that all the teachers are free to work with all the students and they aren’t just left to care for one age group.
“It’s not just my class, we all interact with them,” Wall said. “It’s a collaborate environment. We don’t operate on our own.”
Casie Shreve, mother of three, has two children at Prism and a son in public school. She said that Prism is not for everyone, but has become a great choice for two of her children.
“Our son was really thriving in public school, but for our other two, as a family we looked at their personalities and took a leap of faith,” Shreve said. “As a family you need to look at your family dynamic and what you are willing to sacrifice for your children’s education.”
A specialization of Prism is having programs for students of special needs. According to Newcomb, 23 percent of their students have special needs.
“We work really hard to build a community identity so that despite those distinctions, they also don’t have a lot of those filters that we see those distinctions with,” Newcomb said. “We are able to start from scratch and it’s a really beautiful thing to see them be accepting of their peers and be very inclusive.”
Although Prism is considered a private school, Newcomb said that it has never been about the money, but of the core values of Prism that matter to her and her staff.
“The teachers honestly embody these values. We have very high standards for the people we bring in here,” Newcomb said. “All of them have taken pay cuts to come here. All of them could make much more elsewhere and they do this because they love it and they do this because they want to see this developed in NWA.”
Prism has now expanded to eighth grade and Newcomb plans to expand all the way through high school in the future. “I wanted to see systematic change. I wanted to see options for everyone,” Newcomb said. “If you make something high quality and you give access to it, you are giving back to the community itself.”
For more information, visit their website, www.prismeducationcenter.org