When Nancy New and her son Zachary New were indicted in 2019 on state charges of misusing public welfare funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services that were earmarked to help some of the poorest people in the nation, five of their schools in the state that were designed to help students with learning disabilities – including South New Summit School in Hattiesburg – were in danger of shutting their doors.
That’s when Steven Farrell, chief medical officer at Forrest General Hospital, and his wife Wendy stepped in to prevent that from happening. After meeting with Nancy New in December 2020, the Farrells were able to take over the Hattiesburg location – formerly known as the TIDE School, or The Institute for Diverse Education – which at the time served approximately 60 students.
Now known as Innova Preparatory School, the school at 1000 Broadway Drive in Hattiesburg is a K-12 non-public special purpose school for students with dyslexia, language disorders, anxiety, ADD, and other learning differences. Innova Prep is aimed at providing a safe, co-educational learning environment that balances gifted education with remedial education while integrating social, emotional and behavioral support for the elementary, middle or high school student who may not fully express personal gifts and talents because of a specific learning disability or related health impairment.
“TIDE School sold out to South New Summit because they couldn’t manage the school well, so my wife and I got together and decided we were going to try to save the school,” Steven Farrell said. “So far, we’ve saved the school, and it’s cost a little more than half a million dollars out of our pocket, and it still takes some money to run the school.
“These are very expensive schools to run, and you can’t run it just on tuition alone. But we just went through our recent accreditation survey with the Mississippi Department of Education, and we expect to get that answer from their board meeting on May 19, and I think we’ll be accredited again. Once you become a new owner of a school, the accreditation has to happen again; you have to get re-accredited, and we just went through that last month, and I think we did quite well.”
Innova Prep is run by Wendy Farrell, who serves as business manager, and Sharon Ladner, who serves as executive director and principal. The school currently serves approximately 60 students, and officials are hoping to expand to about 100 in the next two years.
Currently, officials from Innova Prep are working with Grace Kent Johnson – founder, owner and senior director of Bread – for a social media campaign to get the word out about Innova to help the school grow. Bread, based in Lamar County, fuses branding, business strategy, and organizational health to help businesses find balance and grow.
“It’s a word-of-mouth kind of thing – we try to tell our story and get people to see it,” Steven Farrell said. “It’s amazing how many children go to public schools who probably shouldn’t – they would probably do much better in a private school.
“Sometimes it’s because of cost, and sometimes it’s because they can’t find a place to go to. You have schools for dyslexia – like the 3D School in Petal, which is kind of the gold standard for dyslexia schools – but we don’t try to compete with them, because that’s not really our forte.”
That’s because the majority of Innova Prep’s students are not dyslexic – rather, most of the children have issues with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety or behavior. Many of those children perform better in smaller school settings.
“And our class sizes are small; no more than 10 students per class,” Steven Farrell said. “That’s kind of what we’re working on.
“I think that people here in the Pine Belt need to understand that these services are available here. They know we’ve got great private schools like Sacred Heart, PCS and Lamar Christian, and usually they’re faith- or religious-based. Ours is not a faith- or religious-based; we’re open to all.”
Innova Prep officials are also working to cooperate with local universities such as William Carey College, which boasts the biggest school of education in the area.
“Once we’re accredited, we’ll be able to take their teachers in and do student teaching,” Steven Farrell said. “They also make up a large number of the dyslexia therapists and special education teachers, so they have enormous resources at William Carey.
“We met last week with them to see how we can partner together to give all kids the same opportunity.”
The Farrells also have somewhat of a personal stake in Innova Preparatory School as well, as their granddaughter attends the school. While she was attending school in Sumrall, she was having trouble reading, and after being screened, it was determined she was severely dyslexic.
However, she has an IQ of approximately 135, which Steven Farrell said is common for dyslexic students.
“The way they get through life, if they don’t get dyslexia therapy, is their brain actually overcomes it and works on it,” he said. “So we got her tested and looked around for a place to go, and she looked like she could fit into (what was then) South New Summit.
“We enrolled her there, and she was in it for two years when we took it over, and it’s her home now. So the initial motivation (for us taking over the school) was to make sure she had a place to go, although she probably could have gone back to public school, and she probably still could. But what we saw as a need beyond (her) having a place to go to school, was that if this school went away, there was 57 other families who just had no alternative.”
For more information on Innova Preparatory School, call (601) 909-6605 or visit the school’s Facebook page or www.innovaprep.org.