This story has been updated.
Breaux Bridge is a small Louisiana town about an hour outside Baton Rouge. The average income among its 8,300 residents is less than $30,000 a year. Most graduating high school seniors don’t go to college. Many don’t even graduate from high school.
But the graduation rate is 100 percent at TM Landry College Prep, an independent school in Breaux Bridge that began in 2005 with five students labeled as “black troublemakers,” the school says. All students have been accepted at four-year colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford universities.
“In my community, most African American girls end up pregnant or not doing anything with their life,” 17-year-old Asja Jackson told The Washington Post. “My mom wanted a different opportunity for me. TM Landry was the way out.”
Critics have since accused the Landry School of faking transcripts and using physical and emotional abuse against students at the school.
Just 12 years after its founding, TM Landry, named for the couple who started it, Tracey and Michael Landry, has managed to launch students from this relatively isolated low-income town into the ranks of the greatest universities in the world.
Some schools have homecoming week. Others have spirit week. But for the 140 or so students at TM Landry, the highlight of the year is early decision week.
It is during this week in December when the school’s seniors, one by one, begin receiving the news they have spent years working toward — their college admissions letters. Each emotional moment is captured by video, and each video begins the same way. Nearly all of the school’s students — from kindergarten through 12th grade — hover around one senior as he or she sits hunched over a computer screen.
No matter how late at night the decision comes in, everyone gathers for each senior’s big moment in what they call the “Situation Room,” Asja said. This year’s senior class has fewer than 20 students, but is still the largest in the school’s brief history.
On Tuesday, it was 16-year-old Ayrton Little’s turn.
Wearing a Harvard hoodie and surrounded by dozens of his friends, Ayrton is seen on video sitting in front of a computer screen with a nervous look on his face. Then, the crowd erupts in cheers. The students mob Ayrton, jumping up and down, shrieking at the tops of their lungs. The camera shakes. Tears flow.
With their hands in the air, Ayrton’s classmates start chanting “three-peat, “three-peat.” For the third year in a row, a TM Landry student has been accepted into Harvard. On Friday morning, the video of Ayrton’s reaction to his acceptance had been viewed on Twitter more than 6 million times.
So far this year, TM Landry students have also been accepted at Tulane, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Brown, Wesleyan and Dartmouth. A few students are still waiting to hear back.
The night before Asja expected to receive her decision letter from Wesleyan University, she was so nervous her stomach hurt. She said she broke down in tears. The next day, she searched for the bold letters on the computer screen as the other students looked on, along with her mother and several friends wearing Wesleyan shirts. The room grew quiet, she said and then erupted.
“I covered my face because I knew they were going to jump on me,” Asja told The Post. “My mom grabbed me and she just hugged me so tight. She started crying and that’s when I started crying.”
The same scene played out on Thursday when 16-year-old James Dennis found out he would be attending his dream school — Yale. He plans to study applied math and physics.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Dennis told The Post. It wasn’t just his moment to celebrate, he said, “it was everybody’s. It’s something we all work for together.”
Indeed, TM Landry students have been thinking about this day since they first walked through the school’s doors. They wear shirts with the words “I am a college graduate” inscribed on the backs.
“I push all students to attend elite schools not for them to think that they’re better than anyone else, but to change their mind and their perception of who they can become,” Michael Landry, the school’s executive director said in a video on its website.
When Michael and Tracey Landry began teaching classes to five students in June 2005, they did not intend to open a school. Dissatisfied with the other schools in the area, they started home schooling their own children, and tutoring others, Michael Landry explained in the video. More students began showing up. For seven years, the school didn’t have a name.
Now, they enroll about 140 students. The average ACT score between 2014 and 2017 was a 27 out of 36. The average score in Louisiana is 19.5.
The school has a nontraditional curriculum based on a flexible, Montessori college-readiness program. They receive no federal or state support. They also claim to be the only school in Louisiana to offer year-round schooling.
This year-round schedule was crucial, Michael Landry said. “Many kids go to jail during the summer because they don’t have anything to do.”
Classes run from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but students get to the school as early as 7, and stay as late as 7 p.m. or even 10 p.m. some nights, Asja said.
It’s so dark when they leave the school in the evenings that students call their schedule “Dark 30.”
They stick around to do homework or seek assistance from their teachers. The school does not offer any sports, but they provide an investment club, a chess club, a math club, and a Young Poets Society. Students study Latin and Mandarin. They travel around the country on college tours and visit alumni.
Michael Landry likes to tell his students that they should try to be like “water,” Asja said.
“You put water into a pot, it becomes a pot, you put water into a cup, it becomes a cup,” Michael Landry said in the video. “Water can flow or water can crash. When you are water, you have an opportunity to find a way when there’s no way.”
“Water can move,” he added in the video, “and we want our students to move.”
Many graduating students are first-generation college students. Some, like Asja, were raised by single parents. Her public middle school just wasn’t clicking for her. But when she joined TM Landry, the tightknit classes and flexible curriculum made all the difference. Her teachers generally don’t use textbooks, she said.
“We stay on one concept and we master that concept,” Asja said.
But TM Landry isn’t for everybody, James said. Some students or parents are put off by the lack of sports at the school. Another barrier is the school’s cost — seniors, for example, must pay $675 for tuition per year and $525 for an application fee. The curriculum is tough, the hours long, the grading scale rigorous. The school relies on fundraising as well.
“Some students come and go,” James said. “It’s a lot of responsibility on the student. It’s a college prep, there’s not going to be a teacher holding your hand.”
Students are encouraged to apply to colleges through early decision plans, which are binding. They become set on that goal, announcing their college of choice to their classmates, and even buying the school’s apparel.
But some early decision applications lead to heartbreak. So far, the graduating class has had one student who was deferred from a college. It was a crushing moment, one that was difficult even for James and Asja to talk about. It almost felt like it had happened to them, the said.
“It’s like a gut punch,” James said. “It’s always a group thing.”
“I was crying, everybody was crying,” Asja said, referring to her classmate as her “brother.” “We were just all so ready. . . . We were all excited.”
But soon after, Asja said, “We talk about it. We shake back faster than ever. We come back with options of other schools. You can’t just pout about it, you have to find other options.”
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