With wealth and values, investor founds school for needy
By Meir Rinde
Feb. 26, 2011
Among the ranks of multimillionaire bond managers, few have quite the profile of Christina Seix.
Seix grew up poor in New York City, raised by her mother, a Puerto Rican immigrant who worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. She made it to Fordham University and won a scholarship to the State University of New York in Stony Brook, where she received her master’s degree in math.
Seix entered a training program at an insurance company, rose through the ranks, worked at two other investment firms, started her own company and in 2004 sold it to an Atlanta bank for about $260 million, according to the bank’s financial statements.
Now Seix, who has a home in Lawrence, is using part of that windfall to take a woody 64-acre lot on the Ewing-Trenton border and build a top-flight private residential school for severely underprivileged children 3 to 13 years old. The goal, she said, is to surround them with a rich environment of love and support -- and the same tough work ethic that her mother instilled in her.
“Somehow, you build that message in at the dinner table,” Seix explained last fall at a Ewing zoning board meeting. “When I talk about core values, that’s exactly what we’re going to replicate.
“One of the top values is: Kill yourself. Just work like a dog. Nobody’s smart. Everybody has to work hard,” she said. “That’s the grit we want to have these kids absorb in this program. Even more than, you know, Milton, or Shakespeare, or Machiavelli -- grit. So nothing can stop you.”
Seix declined interview requests, but people who have worked closely with her said she visited dozens of private schools around the country to understand their programs and develop her own. The Rev. Darrell Armstrong of Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, who first met Seix in 2006, said that included two visits to the Milton Hershey School in central Pennsylvania, which provides a free, high-quality residential school program to needy kids.
“When I first met Christina I was absolutely struck by her laser-like commitment to getting this project done,” Armstrong said. “She has an amazing focus that in my mind is unusual for a philanthropist. Her heart and her spirit are really in this.”
Another inspiration was The Lawrenceville School, where Seix and her husband, Robert Dow, sent their daughter Lindsay. Seix recruited Lawrenceville academic dean Nigel Furlonge as her director of admissions and residential life. She also hired Rob Connor, a private school administrator from Boston who recently earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, as headmaster.
But Armstrong said the new Christina Seix Academy will stand out from other prep and charter schools. In addition to being sponsored by a single wealthy donor, it will be near a struggling urban center, admit children in kindergarten and prekindergarten, and offer a very high quality education, he said. The school will also give preference to children being raised by single grandparents who face economic, health or social challenges.
“That’s one less kid that’s going to be exposed to the life circumstances of generational poverty and given the best chance in the earliest parts of lives,” said Armstrong, who was raised by his grandfather after living in a series of foster homes. “I have great respect for Chris because she wants to give kids that opportunity and she wants to locate it, not in the heart of Trenton, but pretty darn close.”
Seix bought the property at 1600 Stuyvesant Ave. from the state Department of Children and Families for $2.25 million in December 2009. Last September, the project won a variance from the Ewing zoning board, and in December, Trenton’s zoning board approved the small portion of the project that falls inside the city. Armstrong said Seix has committed $60 million to the school.
The first phase of construction is expected to begin later this year, with the school scheduled to open to kindergarteners and prekindergarteners in the fall of 2012, according to zoning and planning documents. The academy will add a grade every year until 260 children are enrolled in pre-K through eighth grades. Fourth through eighth graders will live on campus.
Including both phases of construction, the school will have a main academic building, an administration building, a field house and gym, cottages for boarding students, faculty residences, an athletic field, an environmental center and a field of some 70 solar panels to help power the campus. The buildings will be designed to meet environmentally friendly LEED standards.
The campus will include a recharging facility for electric-powered carts and other vehicles, and paths throughout the complex will be designed to accommodate them.
As Seix described it last fall, the school and its faculty will serve as extensions of the students’ families, giving them the whole spectrum of education, support, discipline, values and safety that children need to thrive, and which they might not be able to get at home, living with their grandparents in tough neighborhoods.
“What we would like to do is basically tap that population — where there’s just need, there’s just poverty, there’s sickness or age or whatever, and we would bring in these kids at pre-K and shape them through the entire process so they will make it into the finest schools,” she said.
“And why not? Why are the boarding schools just for the kids that are better off?”
Seix’s philosophy is deeply rooted in her experience growing up with her mother, who she continues to visit frequently in New York, Connor said.
“She speaks of sitting down every day with her mother and having these wonderful conversations. Her mother, despite all the things she had to do to maintain the household, made time for her and had high expectations,” Connor said. “There was this alternative curriculum happening in the house day to day. From watching her mom work long hours and never complain, she learned the importance of hard work and resilience.”
Seix decided to recreate that same intense focus for a select group of children, rather than use her wealth for a broader educational effort, he said.
“I think her goal was always to spread the benefits of that kind of relationship to deserving kids,” Connor said. “And you can’t do that when you’re 50,000 miles in the air and just kind of sprinkling. Hence the idea of having faculty on campus and giving kids access to those mentors the way she had access to her mother.”
Another person Seix consulted with is Donna Pressma, president of the Trenton-based Children’s Home Society of New Jersey. Pressma said her organization runs a number of programs that help grandparents and other relatives who are raising children, and she helped Seix and Connor understand how to best serve those families.
“This is taking the passion and determination of the school and matching it to the passion and determination of a grandma who wants her child to be a good learner, to have the ability to get all the way to college,” Pressma said. “It’s a really unusual commitment the Seix Academy makes to the child, understanding the child is part of a loving grandfamily that wants them to become successful adults.”
For more information on the school, visit ChristinaSeixAcademy.org.
Article also available on NJ.com.
Copyright © The Times of Trenton 2011