‘Excellence personified’: The school where 3-year-olds learn to read

Brownsville Preparatory Institute founder Rita Brown, center, with her students. The private school focuses on teaching kids to read at age 3.

Benjamin Crump, one of the most prominent lawyers in America, aka “Black America’s attorney general,” obviously could send his daughter to any school he wanted. So, it says everything that he and his wife, Genae Angelique Crump, chose a little private school that’s known as the place “where three-year-olds learn to read.” 

This gem is Brownsville Preparatory Institute. It was founded 20 years ago by Rita Brown, a retired businesswoman, former homeschool mom, and force of nature who taught her own kids to read by age 3. 

Brownsville Prep is “excellence personified,” Crump says in an audio recording on the school’s website. “And that’s why we chose to send our little princess … to be a proud student at Brownsville Preparatory Institute. And I would encourage you to send your brown, Black and beautiful little children to Black excellence.” 

In school choice-rich Florida, about 140,000 Black students – fully one in five across the state – now attend a charter school or use a state-supported choice scholarship to attend a private school. That’s according to data from the Florida Department of Education and Step Up For Students, the nonprofit scholarship funding organization that administers nearly all of Florida’s K-12 school choice scholarships. 

For context, 140,000 Black students in non-district choice schools is more than 31 individual states that have Black students in public schools.   

Schools like Brownsville Prep are among the reasons why. 

Rita Brown began her journey in education entrepreneurship in 2003, running a learning pod in her home for six kids in preschool. Now Brownsville Prep serves 80 students in PreK-3 – with more than 200 on a waitlist. All the students in K-3 use choice scholarships. 

Rita Brown in her tiny office at Brownsville Preparatory Institute.

“We don’t advertise. You know how we advertise? These children,” Brown said from her tiny office at the school, which may be smaller than Harry Potter’s Cupboard Under the Stairs. “The other parents hear them talk – and they know. They know something is happening here that isn’t happening in other places.” 

Brown is the daughter of a New York City police officer and a homemaker. She owned a beauty salon and beauty supply business in Rockland County, New York, before she and her husband, also a New York City police officer, retired and moved to Florida. 

Early literacy is something she emphasized with her own children, using a phonics-based program to get them started. When her oldest began soaring past grade level in public school, Brown decided to homeschool. Today, all three of her children are Florida A&M University graduates. Her sons are the CEO and CTO, respectively, of the tech company Breakr. Her daughter is an international business consultant. 

“It’s all because they were able to read early,” Brown said. “When you can read early, you become a self-taught person. Information is available. You just have to be able to read it and digest it.” 

Besides early literacy and core academics, Brownsville Prep emphasizes Black history and culture. It’s important, Brown said, for her students to see people who look like them finding success at the highest levels in every realm. 

At the same time, she said, parents know if a school is truly putting its students on that path. 

“They’re sending their kids here because of the level of academic excellence,” she said. “They couldn’t care less about the Blackness if their kids weren’t learning.” 

Brown didn’t set out to create a buzz. 

Until 2010, her operation served only children in pre-school. But year after year, the parents of more and more of her former students grew frustrated, their kids no longer accelerating academically as they had at Brownsville. So, Brown decided to expand into the early grades. She moved to bigger digs in an office complex, and then, in 2019, expanded again, this time leasing space from a church. 

Florida’s private school choice programs are key to Brownsville Prep’s mission. It has helped the school become an anchor for the whole community, Brown said, because it gives families from all walks of life the opportunity to access a high-quality option. At Brownsville, the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers sit side by side with the children of working-class and lower-income families, and nobody knows the difference. 

Kindergartner Kyree Thomas has attended Brownsville Prep since he was 3. His grandmother, Michelle Melton, said she chose it over his zoned school because it had the features she knew would help Kyree succeed: Smaller class sizes. A family-like atmosphere. No distractions with behavior issues. And more than anything, the highest expectations. 

“I was like, ‘You expect them to write at 3? And read at 3?’ ”said Melton, a former home daycare operator who now works as a delivery driver while she cares for her mother. “Guess what? He did it, and he’s excelling.” 

Every day, Melton continued, the school sends the message that the sky’s the limit. 

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have,” she said. “You can do anything. You can conquer anything.” 

Brownsville Prep has had its challenges, mostly in meeting demand. 

Brown has been looking to expand again, but she’s had trouble finding a facility within the predominantly Black neighborhoods she serves. 

Moving elsewhere isn’t an option. 

“These neighborhoods need it more than other places,” Brown said. One way or the other, “we’re going to find a way to meet the needs of the people we serve.” 

For more on Black families in Florida migrating to school choice options, see our 2021 special report with Black Minds Matter and the American Federation for Children. 

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director of Research & Special Projects at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).

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