LIFE Academy, a Safe Learning Space for Children of Color


By Mikala McCurry

Located at the historic St. Jude Educational Institute, Leaders Influencing Freedom and Excellence (LIFE) Academy is a safe space of learning for children of color. Kia Debnam, the founder and principal of the institution, believes in educating the whole child through holistic, self-exploratory pedagogy.

LIFE Academy was established around the experience of black and brown children from urban settings.

“It was to validate their experience, to show them representation in their teaching and mentorship, and to show them themselves in the curriculum I chose,” Debnam said. “I provided an environment to speak to that urban child’s natural tendency to be hypervigilant about dangers, to be empathetic about the legal field around us, and to be protective with family and friends.”

To showcase representation for the students at LIFE Academy, Debnam surrounds them with people in leadership, staff, and executive committees who look like them.

“100% of our leadership team is black women. Over 85% of our Board of Directors are people of color. The school is 98% serving black, and 86% of our teaching staff is black,” Debnam said. “Our kids are able to see themselves at every level of instruction and leadership across the board and the organization. I am very proud of that.”

The vision of LIFE Academy is to create the next generation of civically responsible, global leaders through the execution of a culturally relevant, holistic educational program. The team at LIFE Academy believes all students deserve a learning environment that embraces their whole being.

Debnam’s vision for the school evolved from her personal experiences as well as her determination to prepare children of color to utilize their gifts and make a difference in the world.

“I knew the struggles children of color face in education from growing up in it. I wanted to address the problems I saw: How do I give my students a way to showcase the gifts often seen in an urban neighborhood but are not honored or grown? How do I see that gift, point it out to them, and show them how to use it to change the world? After addressing those needs, I wanted to be able to give them the ability and social connections to do so,” Debnam said.

As a graduate student at North Carolina Central University, Debnam started her teaching endeavor as a graduate assistant teaching Psychology and Psychological Statistics to juniors and seniors.

Kia Debnam

“I’m teaching these upper level adults, and I would still get asked ‘is this going to be on the test?’ I cringed. We are in college and you don’t understand the life you build for yourself and the world you surround yourself with all depends on how well you’re able to take information in and execute. At this age, they were still taking in information just for the test, leaving it and then going on to do the same thing,” Debnam said.

Rather than be angry and disappointed with the adults she was teaching, Debnam decided to create a solution that started at the beginning levels of education.

“After I finished my graduate degree in Psychology, I worked at Teach for America as a nontraditional member and taught every grade level, kindergarten through 12th grade, in over 30 different counties in Title I urban districts. I constantly saw how skills and gifts developed from being raised in the hood weren’t honored or celebrated. People didn’t understand how those gifts came to be. They couldn’t understand how this gift was going to help this child survive, let alone thrive later on in life. ” Debnam said. “I didn’t try  to beat up on the system currently in existence because I know teachers and principals in Title I schools are doing everything they can. This problem is much bigger than ourselves. Instead, I said I’m not making any excuses; I’m going to make a school that is going to honor students of color for who they are and the circumstances they come from.”

After leaving Teach for America, Debnam created her school model for LIFE Academy. As she was thinking of a name for the school, she was connected with Norma Lubin, the CEO and Founder of Ladies Influencing Freedom & Excellence (LIFE) Incorporated.

“She had the same vision as me. She also had experience in a school setting and knew what she wanted it to look and feel like when she walked into a school building. I said, ‘Norma, I have the perfect school for you.’ I connected with her, and she took on that name,” Debnam said.

LIFE Academy officially opened its doors in August 2021 and has a little over 200 students enrolled so far. Each day, students start their day as soon as they arrive on the campus.

“When they get to school, their school day starts at the carpool. When I open their door, teachers and leadership are outside greeting them with energy and love. We let them know they belong here, they’re welcome here, and encourage them to have a good day on purpose. After they come in, all of our students receive free breakfast. During the day, students are being exposed to grade-level English language arts, grade-level math and intervention for both math and english. During COVID, kids had been out of school for a year or longer, so while we’re exposing them to grade level education, we’re also giving them the support and the intervention to catch up to grade level.

“Children also work together in what LIFE Academy calls ‘productive fun.’ Our classrooms aren’t quiet. It isn’t a teacher talking to the kids and the kids sitting there quietly. You’re going to walk in and see a teacher posing a question and the students discussing with one another whether or not they agree, why they agree, citing their evidence, and having the chance to think out loud. There’s so much they’ll do in a day,” Debnam said.

Currently, LIFE Academy services grades kindergarten through 2nd, but they are growing out every year. By 2025, the school will service K – 8th grade. Next year in 2023, LIFE Academy will be applying for their highschool charter so they can eventually service all grades K – 12th.

Because LIFE Academy is a free public charter school, any child in the state of Alabama is able to enroll. Preference is given to returning students, their siblings and children who live within a five mile radius of the campus.

“We want to ensure we are serving the west side of Montgomery and we don’t mistakenly start having an enrollment that is more representative of areas like Pike Road or Prattville because people want to take advantage of it. We are very targeted on the students and families we interact and engage with,” Debnam said.

To enroll a student at LIFE Academy, parents can enroll their child online on the LIFE Academy website. Parents can also visit LIFE Academy on site any time between 9AM – 1PM on school days with two forms of identification, such as a birth certificate and social security card, and a record of immunization.

For more information on LIFE Academy, visit

All rights reserved, Gumptown Magazine, LLC. Copyright 2022.


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