ST. PETERSBURG — Since it opened in 1997, the private Academy Prep school has churned out legions of college-bound students from the same neighborhoods where public schools teeter. Most of its students are black and low-income. Many come from single-parent homes. Many will be the first in their families to hang a degree on the wall.
It's the model.
Which makes recent events even more puzzling — and to some observers, worrisome.
Two weeks ago, the small school on 22nd Avenue S abruptly and mysteriously put its new principal on a leave of absence. School officials won't say why.
Meanwhile, the appointment of an acting head of school means the school has its fifth principal in nine years.
"Even with that relatively high turnover … we continue to graduate our graduates from the Pinellas County schools with an 88 percent rate," said Lincoln Tamayo, vice president of operations for the Academy Prep Foundation. "The mission does not deviate."
But there is concern the revolving door will eventually take its toll, said Ray Tampa, former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP.
"It knocks them off stride for a second, but if those seconds keep adding up, it becomes a major problem," he said. "Because you then have a situation where you can't get good leadership because they see the turnover … and no degree of continuity and job security."
Academy Prep, which serves 78 students in Grades 5-8, hired a new principal last summer.
DeVere Beard, 40, came with sparkling credentials: Ivy League degree. Former dean of a gifted school in Los Angeles. Ties to the headmaster at St. Petersburg's Shorecrest Preparatory School.
Academy Prep announced Beard's departure March 25, in a two-sentence press release that said he was "granted a leave of absence." His name is no longer on the school website.
"We wish him well," said Linda Marcelli, who chairs the school's board of trustees.
Marcelli and Tamayo said they could not publicly discuss personnel matters. Tamayo said they also could not say if a search is under way for a new head of school, or when a permanent replacement might be named.
Beard, reached through his Facebook page Thursday, would only say, "I have been laying low trying to decide what I should do. I will respond within a day or two."
Academy Prep has not been shy about touting its success.
According to its website, 95 percent of its alumni are in high school, college, or have started their careers. Tamayo said 60 percent of graduates go to college. Supporters credit a combination of a longer school day, a longer school year and an emphasis on character education.
The school is also not bashful about noting its support from civic leaders and major corporations.
Its board of trustees is full of movers and shakers, including Sembler Co. chief executive Greg Sembler and Tim Bogott, president of TradeWinds Island Resort. Over time, its corporate partners have included Beall's, Progress Energy and Raymond James, according to its website — although some companies listed on the site say they no longer contribute. And most Academy Prep students receive tax-credit vouchers, which are funded by corporate donations.
The big-name backing has continued despite principal turnover that even Marcelli and Tamayo conceded is high.
Before Beard, Keturah Mills was head of school from May 2006 to February 2010. She declined to comment. The two principals before her each served two years.
Why so much change in leadership?
"Can't explain that," said Tamayo.
"This is a subject we can discuss in the future," said Marcelli.
Tampa, the former NAACP leader, said part of the reason is an organizational structure that has Tamayo, who also heads an Academy Prep sister school in Tampa, overseeing the St. Petersburg school.
"He's not going to want (the St. Petersburg) principal to outshine him," Tampa said.
Tamayo said he doesn't see a problem with the structure, adding his relationship with employees at the St. Petersburg campus is good.
"I can tell you with 100 percent confidence, with the faculty in place now … we will continue to serve the mission without deviation as we have done for the last 14 years," he said.
Times researchers Tim Rozgonyi, Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.