NORTH SACRAMENTO – Given the low-income students she serves, a local principal is used to getting creative to provide supplies for them, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) school closures have left her scrambling to cover their most basic needs like food, water and shelter.

Tammi Willoughby, known affectionately as Mama Tammi, says she wants the children she serves to focus on what they have, not what they don’t. She’s teaching them college prep work despite detractors who say they can’t learn.

Tammi Willoughby started the More Life Academy in North Sacramento five years ago. Many of her students experience homelessness and for them directives to shelter-in-place are particularly problematic. Ms. Willoughby, known affectionately to her students and their families as “Mama Tammi,” has stepped in to help ease the pain of the crisis.

“It’s affected us tremendously because we lack some of the things (more traditional) schools have access to,” she said.

More Life Academy operates as a non-public, or private, school with some oversight from the Twin River Unified School District (TRUSD).

“I have tried my very best to make sure everybody has a roof over their heads,” Ms. Willoughby shared.

Before opening her school on the site of the church where her husband pastors, More Life Worship Center, she says she originally petitioned TRUSD to start a charter school at the empty North Avenue Elementary School, but was turned down. She recalls a board member at the time giving her a valuable piece of advice for doing it on her own.

“She said ‘start small.’ I left the meeting and two weeks later I founded the More Life Academy. I started small and I had 15 students. It taught me how to be the teacher, the cook, the administrator, the maintenance worker; you name it, I do it.”

Today the school has 60 students and a waiting list of 350 families. Every student, from kindergarten to 12th grade, learns in one classroom space.
“I teach them all. It’s something to see,” she said. “It’s just like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ I’m the Little House in the Hood.”

While she’s busy lining up resources for them, Mama Tammi admittedly misses not being able to see “her children” on a daily basis.

“I’m still calling, making sure everyone is healthy, as healthy as possible, and making sure that there’s food in everyone’s home.”

She’s arranged for students to bunk with her friends and members of the church. She’s taken several girls into her own home and has driven as far as Davis and Woodland to secure water for families because of shortages at local stores.

“I can get two here at this store and two there at another store. It’s a lot, especially when you’re talking about 60 plus students and that’s not including their parents. I’m probably serving maybe 200 people, and for one person that’s quite a bit.”

More Life Academy has a handful of volunteers and exists “100 percent on donations” on a regular day, but the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated its financial situation. The school was recently awarded a $5,000 grant by the Dr. King Dinner Committee at its annual event in January. With a $2,500-a-month bill for feeding students breakfast, lunch and snacks, the money was gone quickly. Ms. Willoughby receives no federal assistance to provide free school meals.

“It’s free to them (students), but it’s not free when I go into Smart & Final and Sam’s Club.”

School supporter Vicki Boyd put out an email message last week that the school was in particular need of help. Ms. Boyd has regularly secured assistance through local community-based organizations she’s involved in.
“I personally decided to help More Life Christian Academy after meeting the Principal Tammi Willoughby and a few of the girls and seeing how she and her staff were giving everything to make a better life for these kids and their families,” she shared.

“I, also, believe the kids deserve to have the same childhood as any kid that comes from a family with more resources. All children’s futures can go either way, no matter their background, but for kids that may have been dealt an unfair shake, we as adults who are able to help level the playing field, should do so.

“We all can help out either financially, through mentoring, resources or our connections. BAPAC Sacramento, NCNW Sacramento and members of the Sacramento community have all come together with food, backyard fruit, clothing,money, books, toys, mentoring classes and trips, a donated piano, playground equipment, school supplies, free tickets to events, a Girl Scout Troop and college outreach opportunities to benefit the students,” Ms. Boyd shared.

Others answering the call for assistance included Roxanne Taylor, who donated four tables full of canned goods last week through her non-profit CLIMB, which stands for community, learn, inspire, motivate, and build.
Grateful, Ms. Willoughby said, is an understatement.

“It’s the end of the month for my families,” she said. “They don’t have money, they don’t have EBT.”

Further, money promised from the federal government to working families won’t apply to them because they’re not currently working. The County has expanded its free school breakfast and lunch program during the crisis, which Ms. Willoughby has alerted parents to. She provided dinner last week to cover that gap, and hopes to do some again this week, depending on the amount of community support she receives. She has bought food boxes for students with recent donations and has sent money via Cash App to those who have had to relocate further out. She’s asking that they take photos of the food and other necessities to show donators that their generosity is being put to legitimate use. The Cash App was started to send parents gas money to get their students to class.

With personal needs being addressed, Ms. Willoughby can once again focus on her students’ educational ones. Many of her students were already battling socioeconomic barriers and challenges to success in school.

“We finally get them to where they’re all achievers and then this happens,” she said of the school closures.

“I’m teaching statistics to children that would be considered special ed,” she shared.

“And they’re getting it. Some people want to say that it’s because we’re small, but no that’s not why. The reason it is is because of my expectations. I do not allow income to be a reason why. The only reason we are all not achievers is because we don’t know how to seize our opportunities. With the school, what I’m able to do is never lower my expectations, I always raised my expectations,” she continued.

The children, she says, are engaged, building their confidence, getting the tools they need to overcome the challenges they face and have come to enjoy school and learning.

“These are students people said couldn’t last 10 or 15 minutes in a class and now they have perfect 100 percent attendance. The only thing that has messed up their attendance is the virus,” Ms. Willoughby shared.

More Life Academy was on course to have its first class of graduates this year. Keeping those five seniors on track is one of the main reasons Ms. Willoughby has taught herself how to teach classes online, has made sure all the temporary homes tapped into free Internet that Xfinity is offering during the COVID19 crisis and will start classes this week. Students will be expected to get up as they normally would and “come” to class on time.
“It’s important that they keep the routine and the mentality,” Ms. Willoughby said.

“I have a saying with all of them, ‘I’m not trying to turn you into an A student, I’m trying to turn you into a student.’ If I didn’t have my philosophy, this would be just like a vacation for them.”

It’s apparently working, because Ms. Willoughby says each of her students has contacted her about how they can turn in the work she gave them before the schools closed.

“They’re asking me instead of me asking them,” she said. “That’s huge in itself.”

Ms. Willoughby left her job to start her school after working within the Sacramento City Unified School District for more than 27 years. She started as a cafeteria worker, then moved on to being a hall monitor and substitute teacher at Kennedy High School and served as a basketball coach at the then Goethe Middle School. Over the years, she also acted as an unofficial vice principal at Kennedy, where she says she also worked on student outreach, truancy reduction and helped create an in-house suspension policy. She may not have understood why she took on those varied roles, but says she “gets it” now that she runs her own school.

“He was preparing me to be all of that,” the pastor’s wife said.
“It’s a lot,” she said of her efforts. “But it’s a good life. I love it. I really do. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Those wanting to assist the More Life Academy can do so by sending money via Cash App to $MamaTammi or by calling (916) 571-4997. Long-term funding goals include pay for teachers, uniforms, replacing a broken freezer and erecting a shed to create a library for students.

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Photo by Russell Stiger, Jr.