By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a Thursday evening in February, parents and kids piled into the pews of a barren brown-brick church on East Ann Arbor Avenue in Oak Cliff. This wasn't a religious service, but there would be preaching, and the adults in the room were focused intently on the man at the pulpit: former Cowboy and NFL Hall of Famer Deion "Prime Time" Sanders.
This steepled building was the planned home of "Deion's school," as it's often called. Officially it's Prime Prep Academy, a charter school scheduled to open to students from sixth grade and up in August. A campus in Fort Worth is scheduled to open at the same time.
Sanders wore a determined face, and his presentation was made even more grave by his deep, raspy voice and lingering silence at the end of sentences. "We're not up here playing," he said, fighting an enemy who was not immediately obvious. "We're not up here lying. We're not up here falsifying. ... Because we're not trying to sell you anything, because anything we present to you is absolutely free.
"The technology you're going to see is free," he went on. "The after-school program that you're going to hear about is free. Everything we present to you is ab-so-lute-ly ..."
The crowd was finishing his sentences now, and the room reverberated with parental hope. In this neighborhood, and ones like it across Dallas, any alternative is an alternative worth exploring.
"Everybody in here is dealing with something, but we're in here for one common goal, and that's our babies," Sanders went on, hinting that there might be people out there who didn't share that goal. "Just in case someone is in here to show up, that man" — he pointed to a big dude in back — "is going to escort you out, and we'll have other people scattered throughout the audience strategically placed, just in case you want us to focus on you. We've got some players in the house.
"We do understand," he said, "and we do underscore, there's some folks in here who came for the wrong reason. But I don't care, I never did care, and I really, really don't care, because I know my goal, I know my mission, I know my calling, and I'm right where I want to be. This is not about one dime for me because I'm not making a dime off your kids; they're getting this for free. Do you understand what I'm saying? This is not about me whatsoever."
It was a lovely sentiment, just what parents need to hear. But like other Prime Prep declarations, it would prove shaky. Aided by one nagging watchdog, journalists had by then raised the first of several red flags about the school, ranging from nonexistent corporate donations to blatant moneymaking schemes orchestrated by its founder, who even tried to lease the school property for profit. Meanwhile, not long after Sanders' this-isn't-about-me pledge, news would surface that he was in talks to star in a reality show about his role at Prime Prep.
What that role is remains unclear. He's described as a co-founder on Prime Prep's online "history" page, but his name doesn't appear in any official capacity in documents relating to the school, and he's not on the board of directors. Whatever his role is, and whatever missteps the school has made, the parents he preached to were ready to turn their kids over to "his" school.
"This is so fabulous," a woman in the audience said, verbalizing the promise that filled the room. "It's unreal. I can hardly wait."
After the town hall, Sanders emerged from behind the mic and spoke briefly with the Observer. But when the questions turned specific, he started to deflect. "That's a D.L. question," he said, and passed the practical matters to a decidedly less famous guy across the room.
D.L. Wallace, Prime Prep's founder and chief executive officer, manned the podium for most of that night, looking the part of bespectacled headmaster in a white dress shirt and tie, pleated suit pants and a crisp matching vest. He sold the school with the pitchman enthusiasm of Billy Mays hocking OxiClean, and what he lacked in specifics, he made up for in vague enthusiasm, promising the "best of everything."
"We're going to develop a PRIME philosophy that begins with preparation," Wallace said, making sure to remind the crowd of Sanders' involvement.
Most of his lecture focused on free computers the school would provide, but Wallace also promised arts, Advanced Placement classes, gifted-and-talented classes, special education tailored to students' needs, healthy lunches and a positive environment for character development. More recently, he and Sanders have said that the school would field a class 3A football team, and Sanders has bragged that area coaches are worried about Prime Prep siphoning off top players — although so far no coaches have publicly expressed concerns.
Prime Prep's Dallas campus, at that church building on Ann Arbor, will serve sixth to 12th grades; its Fort Worth campus will serve kindergarten to fifth grade. Both campuses will cater to inner-city students seeking an alternative to traditional public schools, and each can accommodate as many as 750 students.