HATTIESBURG, Miss. (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.