Katie Spry assists her 4th and 5th grade students with a lesson at Innova Prep in Hattiesburg, Wednesday, August 11, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

At first, school staff at Kimmi Farrell’s kindergarten thought she might be autistic. 

Later, one of her teachers said ADHD. By the end of the first grade, teachers were saying that she needed to be held back because she couldn’t read. It was then her family took her to get tested and found out she had dyslexia. 

She was enrolled in South New Summit School in Hattiesburg to receive dyslexia therapy and instruction specialized for students with learning disabilities. 

“She found her place. This child who was beaten down by the public school system because of her inability to keep up with others — she blossomed,” said Wendy Farrell, Kimmi’s grandmother.

Along with the specialized resources that the school provided, Farrell said that being in community with other students who are struggling with similar issues helped Kimmi believe she could succeed. 

“They were all the same. Not that they all had the same diagnosis, but they had all been through the wringer,” she said. 

The school, founded in 2015 as The Institute for Diverse Education (commonly referred to as TIDE school), was sold to Nancy New’s private for-profit company, New Learning Resources, in 2018. A grand jury indicted Nancy New and her son Zach New in February 2020, alleging they embezzled federal welfare dollars through their separate nonprofit. The charges resulted in financial ruin at their four schools, rendering them at times unable to make payroll.

A subsequent federal indictment in March of 2021 assured the schools’ collapse: authorities charged the News with filing fraudulent claims with the Mississippi Department of Education to pay the salaries of teachers, including teachers at South New Summit.

The charges left many parents at New Learning Resources schools stunned because they knew their students would struggle to receive the specialized education anywhere else.

Steven and Wendy Farrell, Kimmi’s grandparents, were among those concerned and felt compelled to save the school because of the positive change they saw in their granddaughter. They took over in February of 2021, renaming the academy Innova Prep.

“We didn’t want to let this school go by the wayside because we didn’t think (Kimmi) was ready to go back to public school,” Steven Farrell said. “We decided to take it on and fund it until we could get it working…and then hopefully pass it on to a younger generation.”

Before the News, Christie Brady founded TIDE school to serve students like her son, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and anxiety. She had been homeschooling him for a few years, but they felt it wasn’t the best situation. 

“A best situation didn’t really exist for him, so we set out to create it,” Brady said. 

Two special purpose schools already existed in the Hattiesburg area, the DuBard School for Language Disorders and the 3-D School, but both only serve elementary students. Brady, who had worked as a professor of psychology at a community college, originally founded her school to serve the middle and high school aged students of the same population. The school later expanded to serve elementary students who had learning disabilities or disorders that did not fit into the specified missions of Dubard and 3-D. 

“I think those other two programs being here really helped the development of the school because the community is already so supportive of these special purpose situations, so it was not a novel idea for there to be a school for middle or high school for students with learning challenges,” Brady said. 

Special purpose schools like TIDE can be very expensive to run because of the individualized attention they provide to students, a challenge that was exacerbated by TIDE’s commitment to serving students regardless of their financial status. When New Learning Resources approached Brady about buying the school, it seemed like a great solution to their financial difficulties since the News had a seemingly successful track record running other schools like theirs. 

The Farrells first learned of financial difficulties at the school in the fall of 2020, meeting with Nancy New and Roy Balentine, executive director of New Learning Resources. When New began talking in January about closing the school, the Farrells decided to take over immediately. 

They started a new nonprofit school, but are still waiting on their 501c3 status to be approved. After finishing out the 2020-2021 school year, they moved the school to a newly renovated campus. Steven said they have already invested over half a million dollars into the school and expect to spend another $300,000 this year.

“We’re learning by the seat of our pants,” Steven, the chief medical officer of Forrest General Hospital, said. “We’ve got good educators and administrators with us, but those of us who are on the board haven’t worked in schools before so we’re learning something new.” 

Fifty-six students currently attend Innova Prep, with the goal of gradually bringing that number up to 100 over the next two years. Steven said that at 100 students, the school will have enough tuition funds to be self-sustaining. They are currently enrolling new students year-round.

Innova Preparatory School founder Steven Farrell in the library where thousands of books are being sorted and cataloged. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Attempts were also made to save New Summit School in Jackson and North New Summit in Greenwood. A group of parents attempted to save New Summit School in Jackson through a corporate custodianship, but that effort was not successful. According to court filings in July, Gary Herring, the court-appointed custodian, had not been able to secure any financial backers to keep the school open, but had been counseled by the News’ attorneys not to expressly say that it would not be open. 

Herring told Mississippi Today that they are in the process of closing the custodianship. North New Summit in Greenwood has reopened as Leflore Christian School, also turning into a non-profit.

Parents like Sasha Barnes are extremely grateful for the specialized services that these types of schools provide. Both of her kids attend Innova Prep, starting last year while it was still South New Summit. 

“They were very into knowing who Mason and Erin were, what problems they had at their other schools, and what they could do to help them when they came to South New Summit,” Barnes said. 

Barnes felt that the school did a good job of compartmentalizing and keeping the things consistent for the students and parents. She was not aware that there had been issues at the school until the meeting when she found out the Farrells would be taking over, but said she almost appreciated this because it kept her from panicking. 

A school automatically loses its accreditation status for at least one year if it changes ownership, according to Mississippi Department of Education regulations. For students like Mason and Erin, this means that they can no longer receive the dyslexia scholarships that they are eligible for, since those scholarships must be used at an accredited special purpose school. 

In order to offset this burden, the Farrells chose to personally cover the portion of tuition — more than $5,000 of the $9,300 it costs to attend Innova Prep annually — that would have been paid for by the scholarship, leaving the parents of eligible students with only the remaining tuition balance. This option is open to all currently enrolled students with dyslexia scholarships and any dyslexic prospective students. 

“We have no doubt we will be accredited in 12 months. In the meantime, we just need the kids,” Steven Farrell said. 

Barnes said she was very grateful the Farrells made it possible for her kids to, in effect, still receive the dyslexia scholarships, particularly because of the positive growth she has seen in her children since transferring. 

“We’ve gone from teachers thinking Erin couldn’t talk to her being the class clown and Mason crying because he couldn’t do his schoolwork to receiving the golden owl award. It’s a major difference,” she said. 

Barnes also said that the open communication style of the teachers of Innova Prep is a welcome change of pace from her son’s previous experiences. 

“If there’s anything he’s struggling with, I know I could contact any teacher here… and they’re on it, telling me why he got that grade and what can be done to help,” Barnes said. 

That open communication style has been part of the culture since the school’s founding, a culture that Sharon Ladner has worked to develop. As principal and executive director of Innova Prep, Ladner is in her fifth year at the school. With nearly 40 years of experience as a teacher and administrator, Ladner champions the specialized teaching styles that the school uses. 

Ladner offered up the image of a Venn diagram, with one circle being traditional students and the other being special education students, explaining that the area in the middle is larger than people realize.

“Many students that we have, because of size and opportunities in larger schools, those students get lost. Because of our size and the way that we provide instruction, we are able to help students in the middle of that Venn diagram have more of an opportunity for a diploma than they might have had at a public or private school of a larger size.” 

Ladner said they do not give away any diplomas or skip any requirements, they just present the information in a different manner. She believes that for their students, it’s never a question of cognitive ability, but of environment and presentation. 

“We have the ability to pick the best staff that we possibly can,” Ladner said. “These are people who really love this type of learner, and are willing to go above and beyond to make those lessons come alive.”

Ladner said she is a public school advocate, but she also understands the realities of large schools and the challenges they face — some students just need more time and attention, which larger schools can’t always provide. She does not see Innova Prep as being in competition with any other schools, but rather working to fill in gaps. 

“Everyone has their niche, and this is ours,” Ladner said.

Physical Education instructor Jeremiah Creagh (second right), leads his class through the basics of soccer footwork at the Innova Preparatory School in Hattiesburg, Wednesday, August 11, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Gabby Holm has been a student in a special purpose school since fourth grade for speech and language processing disorders and high functioning autism. When she was about to age out of the Dubard School, her mother, Lenora, considered placing her back in the public school system, but they ultimately found her a home at TIDE school. 

Lenora Holm explained that she believes the population of students that the school serves are some of the most vulnerable in the state, because they have the ability to be independent and productive citizens, but if ignored, are going to become dependent on the state. Because of this, she felt it was particularly essential for the state to provide more scholarships, and more control over those scholarships, for the education of students like her daughter. 

“I understand the struggle of having a child with different learning styles,” Lenora Holm said. “That struggle is real, and if I had to, on top of that, see something that I knew would be best for my child but just know that there was no way I could bridge that gap financially, that would be devastating to me as a parent.”

Lenora Holm is one of the parents who has seen the school through each iteration of its leadership. She felt that there was a lack of involvement and care during its time as South New Summit, but clarified she wasn’t referring to the teachers. In her eyes, all of the benefits that were supposed to come from joining New Learning Resources just never transpired. 

“We’ve had more energy, enthusiasm, and hope again in these past six months than we had for years, and seen more progress,” Holm said. 

Steven and Wendy Farrell undoubtedly bring the energy. Steven had a lot of ideas for the future, including a scholarship program to send low-income students to any special purpose school in the area and improving protocols and lowering the cost barrier to dyslexia testing in public schools. But for the moment, they’re focused on keeping the doors of the school open.

“Sometimes you find a second purpose in life,” Farrell said. “Our mindset is ‘What can we do to contribute to everyone living their most independent life?’”

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.