By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Rev. Tammi Willoughby
Rev. Tammi Willoughby has steadily expanded her More Life Academy in Del Paso Heights and is seeing results with underserved students that others haven’t. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

With many of her students believing higher education wasn’t for them, a local principal purposefully took them to American River College (ARC) to show them that they do indeed belong there – or anywhere they set their sights on.

“I got on the bus with those babies, 30 of them. We filled up an entire [city] bus,” recalls Rev. Tammi Willoughby of More Life Academy. Many of the students had never been to ARC, even though it’s scarcely five miles from their own school in Del Paso Heights.

When they converged on the college grounds, Rev. Willoughby’s loving command of her students caught the eye of then-ARC President Melanie Dixon, who saw them from her office window. Dixon, the second Black woman to lead the college, was so impressed she paid for their on-campus lunch and asked what else she could do. Rev. Willoughby’s “make it happen” nature kicked in and with the largest graduating class to date, Rev. Willoughby voiced the need for a place to hold commencement ceremonies for the class of 2022 and Dixon obliged.

Those kinds of connections are important, Rev. Willoughby says, to help students make the connection between where they are and where they can go.

School Helps Youth Overcome Challenges

A lot of students come to More Life with few to no study skills, she adds. Others come wearing ankle monitors. Educators may have had low expectations of them that they then internalized. Most don’t have home lives that support good academic outcomes. Many simply don’t think they’re smart enough to attend a college or university.

Rev. Willoughby and her husband, Richard started the school in 2015 with just nine enrolled students. It has grown exponentially to 125 with nearly 3,500 on the waiting list.

There’s no secret formula, Rev. Willoughby says: “I believe it’s hard work, dedication and desperately trying to make sure that our children are treated their best. Our graduating classes are growing. To be honest, the reason that they’re growing is because the system is failing our kids, especially after the pandemic.”

More Life is a tuition-free private school accredited through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. As an alternative school, some are referred there after experiencing challenges in traditional school settings.

Many of the students succeed despite seemingly insurmountable personal struggles such as homelessness and losing parents to drugs and incarceration. Then came the challenge of educating youth during the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning. Some are still reeling.

“When I did the pandemic with my students, I still met with them every week,” Rev. Willoughby said. “I treated everyone like they were in independent studies and they had to meet up with me every single Friday with masks, gloves, you name it — whatever it took to keep them going because my students were challenged with other stuff.”

Rev. Willoughby is committed to meeting students and families where they are, literally. “I will go into the levee and teach you, if you’re homeless. Whatever it takes,” she says. “It just takes that.”

Some are sharing housing and others don’t have a roof over their heads consistently.

“They don’t allow that to stop them. I have babies [with mothers who] are still on the streets smoking crack and they’re coming to school. My husband and I, we refuse to allow them to live as victims. They continue to do what they do and work hard,” she says.

A Campus That Cares Comprehensively

The small school has grown from serving a handful of children to having 125 enrolled and a burgeoning waiting list. Many students have experienced homelessness and other challenges both personally and academically. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Rev. Willoughby found food, water and shelter for unhoused and otherwise vulnerable students. Some came to live with her — and still do two years later. One student was class valedictorian last year and another is a senior preparing to graduate with the class of 2023.

“Mama Tammi” couldn’t be prouder. “She’s been accepted to Spelman, Fisk — I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want her, she works her behind off. All of them work their tails off, the ones that have been accepted,” Rev. Willoughby says.

While some of the older students are getting ready to don caps and gowns, some of their classmates come to class wearing ankle monitors. “Probation officers love me,” Rev. Willoughby shares.

The students, too, need someone to educate and motivate them.

“The most beautiful thing about the school is I don’t teach them below standard,” Rev. Willoughby says. “I don’t disrespect them like that. I respect them enough to say, ‘You have the ability, we just have to find the glue. So after we find it, we’re gone.’”

Everything is a learning lesson at More Life. Rev. Willoughby wears many hats in trying to address her students’ multitude of needs. She recently said she needs to be cloned to get things done; that turned into a study of DNA and chromosome replication.

“I’m praying that this is contagious for someone,” she said of introducing advanced science concepts. “They know geometry, they know chemistry. I teach all of that to these children. If they were at the other schools, number one because they’re not [advanced placement] students, they’re not identified as AP, so they would not even try to teach them the subjects because educators already said they couldn’t.”

While “can’t” isn’t a word she uses, Rev. Willoughby knows some of her students still have work to do if they are to advance academically.

“I’m honest with them,” she says. “Some of them need to look back and say, ‘OK, wait a minute, what do I need to do between now and the next two years?’ Some are going to say between now and the next six months. I treat them as individuals to see where they are.

“People say, ‘Oh, your school is successful because it’s small.’ Well, I know schools that are smaller and they’re not successful because they didn’t take the time to really get to know the kids. You cannot be judgmental. You cannot look at the parents and say they would have done this because all of us have some stories of ‘if we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.’ So don’t try to look at them and say, ‘They don’t care about their kids.’ They do, but they have other issues.”

Rev. Willoughby knows that supporting parents benefits their children.

“You just have to know your community,” she says.

She also works to make sure boys see positive Black male role models and that students have basic needs like winter clothing and food on non-school days.

Before the Christmas break, nine of More Life’s 12 seniors either have been accepted to colleges with full-ride offers to HBCUs or Sacramento State, or have applications pending. Others are applying to community colleges now that school has reconvened.

The seniors all get assistance from community advocate Vicki Boyd. Boyd met Rev. Willoughby and her students five years ago as a member of the Sacramento Valley Section of the National Council of Negro Women. Boyd was impressed by their mission and tenacity, and decided to volunteer and started encouraging the students to think about continuing their education. “Once they became high school seniors, they were focused and ready to apply to HBCUs and Sacramento State after attending the U-CAN College Fair and the Black College Expo at Sac State each of the last few years, including before the COVID hiatus.”

“I’ve sat down individually with each student and helped them choose the best universities and fill out their college applications and we will begin FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] applications soon. After they receive all of their acceptance letters, Principal Rev. Willoughby and myself will then work with each student to determine the best school choice to attend that meets their academic and financial best interests.”

“All of these kids, despite adverse life obstacles, had the desire and willingness to reach for a better future by obtaining great grades while still participating in typical student activities, all with the hopes of a more successful and brighter future for themselves and their families. These kids are the ones that other districts wrote off but were saved by Principal Tammi Rev. Willoughby and the More Life Academy staff and volunteers, and now have an unlimited future.”

Seniors Speak

Okoye McDaniel
Okoye McDaniel wants to stay close to home and attend Sacramento State after graduation. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Okoye McDaniel, 16, plans to attend Sacramento State and study business management after graduating. “They support us going to college and they do everything they can to help us get there,” McDaniel says.

He has attended More Life all four years of high school. “Being at More Life has taught me a lot more. It’s definitely a good experience, a good school to go to. I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about the kids in my community being here. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.” 

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Zariyah Davis
Zariyah Davis will be the first in her household to attend college. With several letters from HBCUs, Davis plans to study criminal justice. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Zariyah Davis came to More Life five years ago after attending a traditional public school and having a particularly rough eighth-grade year.

“I came because I just needed to change my life around,” Davis shares. “When I was going to public school, I wasn’t so good and my grades weren’t working so good either. I think this was the best decision for me.”

Davis admits to having behavioral issues in the past, but hunkered down as she got older and saw that grades mattered. She’s now graduating early, she says. “It took me a minute, but I did everything I needed to do to graduate. I think that was good for me as well.”

Davis will be the first in her family to go beyond high school. “I’m very smart, but at first, I wasn’t going to go to college,” she says. 

Davis credits Principal Rev. Willoughby and Boyd with encouraging her to continue her education. She’s got options, having been accepted to several historically Black schools, including Claflin University in South Carolina, which offered her a major scholarship. Offers still pour in and Davis looks forward to studying criminal justice and “starting a whole new life.”

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Kyara Colbert
Kyara Colbert plans to attend an HBCU and has a few to choose from. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Kyara Colbert came to More Life in the fourth grade.

“I left public school, for one, because the environment just wasn’t good for me,” Colbert says. “Being there I had a lot of fights, I got bullied, teachers didn’t like me, so my mom just took me out and then I came [to More Life].

“ I’ve overcome being angry  I’ve overcome the lack of confidence I used to have in myself, the not understanding that I’m worth something. I learned that being a young Black girl coming to school and getting an education, there’s nothing wrong with that and now because I’ve come here, I’ve been accepted into a whole bunch of colleges; I have two acceptance letters and I got a full-ride scholarship to one.”

The full-ride offer is from Livingstone College, an HBCU in North Carolina. She hasn’t decided but says the religious school would be a good fit for her. “I can still do ministry and go to school,” Colbert says. 

She has applied to other HBCUs and can see herself at North Carolina A&T because of the reputation of its pre-law program. “The reason I want to do criminal law and justice is to help children more – more teenagers out because sometimes the teenagers don’t have a voice,” she says. “I can admit, most of us teenagers give off like we know all of it and we really don’t. Then we make decisions in our life that end up affecting us in the long run. I also want to help women. A lot of women get behind bars for things that they don’t do.”

There’s a few months to decide and in the meanwhile, Colbert keeps busy with duties as class president. She plans to continue in student government in college. “I see myself as a leader – not in a cocky way, but in growing, how I’ve become, walking with Jesus, and walking how I’m walking now, I see myself as a leader,” she says.

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Tajai Fortson
Tajai Fortson credits the school principal and volunteers for making college seem like a possibility. Fortson wants to follow others in her family into the medical field. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Tajai Fortson has been at More Life all four years of high school, having transferred after a short time at Encina High School. “When I was in middle school, I went to school with high schoolers,” Fortson says. “We were all together, so it was kind of difficult. I was with older kids and it was a lot of pressure. It was a lot going on.”

Her mother enrolled her and her siblings in the school before untimely passing away. The others switched schools, but Fortson stayed.

“I liked it,” she says. “It definitely affected me,” she says of her mothers death. “I was definitely unsocial for a minute. Then when I came here, it was definitely a big family. They were so welcoming and everybody was so nice to me. It definitely helped me academically.

“I was doing really bad. I was definitely getting maybe Ds, Fs, definitely in math and now I’m doing really good, a straight-A student now. Lots of college acceptance and everything, so it’s just been really nice.”

More Life offered more one-on-one interaction with teachers, she says. “At public school I was definitely in a class of 40-45 students. Now it’s a lot smaller. If I need help I can just go to her like, ‘I need help. I don’t get this. Can you go over this for me?’ That helped me a lot also.

Before coming to More Life, Fortson didn’t see college in her future. “When I got here and [Principal Rev. Willoughby] started kind of going over it and how much stuff college offers, then I definitely looked into it more.” 

Fortson has been on college visits and has a few acceptance letters, but wants to attend Sacramento State and possibly transfer to Texas Southern. She plans to pursue a career in health care. “It’s either between a pediatrician or ultrasound technician. I’m juggling those two,” she says. “I definitely want to help people.”

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Dezmond Brent
Dezmond Brent says More Life Academy made him want to succeed. The area senior plans to attend Sacramento State and stay connected with his More Life family. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Dezmond Brent came to More Life in his junior year as a transfer from John F. Kennedy High School. “I wasn’t doing too well in public school because it was like, six classes a day, [with] 30-some students, I got easily distracted,” Brent says.

The teen admits that at times he’d do the work and simply not turn it in. He also got in frequent trouble with teachers. “It wasn’t really working out. Then online school hit.”

“Online school” refers to the distance learning students worldwide were forced into when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020. Like many students, particularly those of color with already limited academic resources and support, Brent began to fail. He needed the structure of in-person learning, he says.

After transferring, he was behind, but worked to catch up. “I had to do credit recovery because my grades showed that I was still a freshman. I did all my work and got caught up and now I’m on track to graduate,” Brent shares.

Doing double the work for a whole year was a challenge, but he says he doesn’t think he would have gotten the motivation and persistence elsewhere. He didn’t think he was ready to move on and asked the teacher/principal to keep him an extra year. He since has changed his mind. “Ms. Tammi’s always going to talk to me. She doesn’t want me to fail.”

More Resources

Principal Willoughby has been called passionate and resourceful. She’s currently spearheading a campaign to help raise money for school supplies, books, STEM materials and playground equipment. Funds also are needed to cover teachers’ salaries and the cost of a new building for additional classrooms. She’d ultimately like to create an employee donation program similar to United Way’s in which individuals regularly give a portion of their paychecks. For now, she’s looking for supporters who can donate $100 monthly or $1,200 annually.

“There have to be some people that definitely see that this is something that is needed,” Willoughby says. “I need to make sure that this continues to go on because it’s the school that is working for these children.”

Earlier this month, the school was burglarized. Two heaters, valued at $500 each, were stolen from portable classrooms. They must be replaced, adding to a burgeoning list of needs.

For more information on how to help More Life Academy, call 916-571-4997.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.