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Opening a school, and unlocking doors

Thirteen-year-old Nuwoe sat in a small classroom, his bright eyes intently focused on the assignment before him.

"Vivacious," he said haltingly, struggling to pronounce one of 10 words on his vocabulary list.


"Can you think of someone who is vivacious?" Nuwoe was asked.

"If it's one person, it's gotta be Mr. Dixon," the eighth-grader replied with an enthusiastic smile. "He just walks up and down with a smile on his face. That's the first person you could say is vivacious. He just smile for the fun of it. He happy every day."

It was Saturday morning, and Nuwoe was one of about 10 Trenton middle school students being tutored by volunteers from the University.

The questioning continued. "How about virtue?" Nuwoe was asked. "Do you know someone with a lot of virtues? Can you think of someone who is a very good person?"

"That's Mr. D," Nuwoe replied instantly. "If you do anything that impresses him, he got to reward you for that. If he see that you get picked on and you just walk away, he gonna reward you for that."


Dallas Dixon '74, known as "Mr. D" to his students, is the founder of the Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton and the man who coordinates Saturday morning tutoring sessions with University students.

"He's fun," Nuwoe said. "He treats the kids fair. The old principal at my old school, he just yelled all day. He would find an excuse to yell at you. Mr. D, only time he yell at you is if you did something real, real bad."

Nuwoe worked diligently for almost an hour on math problems and vocabulary, mastering every one. It was hard to believe that he had a history of academic troubles.

"My dad said my old school was troubling," Nuwoe said. "I got bad grades. There was a lot of chaos. My dad read about Fisher Prep in the paper, and he came to visit. They had a lottery. Me and my sister were picked to come."

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Emily Fisher Charter School is one of 67 charter schools that have opened in New Jersey since January 1996, when Gov. Christie Whitman signed legislation permitting members of the community to start them. Charter schools are funded with public money but operated by a private board of directors made up of parents, educators or community members.

Though Dixon had no professional teaching experience when he filed the proposal for Emily Fisher Charter School, he had always been drawn to education. At Princeton, Dixon was a Wilson School major and wrote his thesis on juvenile justice.

"I got a teaching certificate, then went to grad school in education," he said. "It was always a passion, never a profession."

For almost 20 years, Dixon worked as a criminal trial lawyer.

"I was tired of trial work," he said. "When the charter school law came through, it was the same time I was looking to make a move."

The charter school legislation allowed someone who had not previously been an educator to start a school. "There was the opportunity to make the transition, to create and run one's own vision," Dixon said.

But it was primarily a religious revelation that motivated Dixon to found Fisher Prep.

"In the early '90s, after trying a million other things, I discovered that when people were talking about Jesus Christ, He wasn't just a historical entity that was merely to talk about," Dixon said. "When I came to the startling discovery that He was real, I had very little choice other than to follow what He taught. It came into conflict with being a criminal trial attorney. Truth wasn't the first and foremost goal."

So in 1998, Dixon created a school that aimed to introduce the principles of Christianity to its students, and named it after his grandmother — the "first real Christian" Dixon said he ever knew.

"Every school has rules," he explained. "We don't go all day thumping the Bible. Honesty is real important. Treating your neighbor as yourself is real important. We really defined a whole set of principles that just happens to be biblically-based."

What distinguishes Fisher Prep, however, is the type of student for which it was designed.

"Charter schools have a reputation of just skimming the best kids off the public school system," Dixon said. "We made an effort to turn that equation upside-down. When we started, we went to the junior high schools and said, 'Give us the 15 most difficult students you have. What kids are driving you crazy?' "

Kim Rogers '03 is the Student Volunteers Council coordinator for the Fisher Prep tutors. "The kids that get Dallas' teaching would not get this attention at other schools," she said. "Dallas gets to know each one of them. He knows their academic history and their personal history. That is individual attention they wouldn't get in other schools — especially if they are identified as problem kids. It makes them feel special that someone knows, someone cares."

Fisher Prep teaches grades six through nine. It has 80 students and a staff of 20. The projected enrollment for next year, when the school will move into a new building, is 120. Next year, Dixon also plans to start a Christian high school, which will teach grades 10 through 12, and will occupy the top floor of the Fisher Prep building.

Dixon is not the principal of Fisher Prep, nor is he officially a teacher. "I'm the guidance counselor," he said. "I'm also the government relations guy."

In truth, Dixon does a little bit of everything.

Nuwoe listed some of Dixon's projects: "He got his prayer club. Every Friday at 7:30 in the morning, we all sit down at a table and give a prayer . . . He got a JV basketball team. Mr. D, he got early bird. They come to school early once a week, about 6:45."

Then, of course, there are the Saturday morning tutoring sessions, when Princeton students drive to Trenton to work with some of Fisher Prep's special education students.

Nuwoe was just finishing his vocabulary list when Dixon poked his head into the small classroom in which Nuwoe was working. "If you feel like working on the poem, I'm going to give out McD's for the best poem," Dixon said.

Dixon knows how to motivate his students. He also knows how to join their conversations, which are a constant stream of debate, jest, commentary and nonsense. "You're the best, you're the west, you're the best," he joked boisterously with one student in the hall.

"Rock and roll!" he called. "In the library, please."

After their one-on-one sessions, students and tutors assembled in the library, a small classroom with builtin bookshelves and a large table encircled by an assortment of well-used chairs. As students and tutors found seats, Dixon stood in the doorway wearing a baggy black sweat shirt, sweat shorts, a knee brace and running shoes. He held a basketball under his elbow and a copy of the day's assignment in his hand.

The kids were itching to see who would win the coveted prize of the day.

"My poem's better than yours!"

"My poem's better than yours!"

"My poem's better than both of yours!"

It took about five minutes for Dixon to settle them down. Two boys were arguing. One was extremely rambunctious. Dixon spoke to them firmly, but not condescendingly. "Are you going to be able to sit next to each other without controversy?" he asked. "I don't want to fight you for the next 15 minutes."

When the group was calm, Dixon turned his attention to math. The children could not contain their excitement. They waved their hands frantically and yelled out the answers. Another teacher might have harped on them for speaking out of turn, but Dixon did not become frustrated. It was obvious they had worked hard, and were desperate to gain his approval.

"You have a monthly budget of $1,250 when you have your first job," Dixon said, arriving at the last math problem for the day. "How would you spend it? Don't forget savings and church." Dixon asked each student how much he or she had decided to save. "Five hundred? Good . . . A thousand? Great!"

Fisher Prep teaches more than math, English, social studies and science. It teaches life skills.

"We think the time that passes when kids are not in class is just as important as the time they're in class," Dixon said. "We have a character-building piece within the school. It's time-intensive, as much a priority as English and math. For a period of a month you learn truthfulness, for a period of a month you learn sincerity, for a period of a month you learn orderliness. You learn what these words mean and try to incorporate it into your life."

Finally, it was poetry time. Students read their works out loud shyly, enthusiastically, jokingly. Some asked their tutors to present them.

"I see God trying to give me another chance," read one tutor. "To try not to be a drug dealer like all the rest. He gave me the chance to bring me into Fisher Prep."

Daniel, the boy who composed this poem, cannot read or write.

"He's 13 and in the sixth grade," Dixon told the tutors after his students had left. "He's been held back two years. He's really vulnerable to gangs because in a standard school situation, he's the kid who people will pick on."

Daniel hopes to grow up to be a doctor. He has a long way to go to catch up to his peers, but at Fisher Prep, he at least stands a chance.