Founder of Georgia’s First Start-Up Charter School Shares Recipe for Success

The story I will tell you sounds like it could not possibly be true, but it is, because it happened to me!

From 1974 to 1986 I was food editor of The Savannah Morning News. Then I gave up my wonderful job to become a stay-at-home mom for our two little boys. But we really needed money, so I agreed to teach preschool at the church less than a mile from our home on Isle of Hope.

I made $700 a month, but I got to take my children with me to school and come home at lunch time, so I thought it was the perfect job. Time went on, and suddenly I had a third-grader and a fifth-grader who attended Isle of Hope Elementary School, a public neighborhood school.

A friend who was president of the school board called me in 1997 to serve for a year on something called the Middle School Task Force.

“Our middle schools are awful,” she said, bluntly.

After serving for a year on this committee, I told a fellow soccer mom (and a middle school teacher), “I know so much about middle school, I could start one myself.”

“You should,” she replied. She told me she taught at a conversion charter school.

At one Middle School Task Force meeting, I brought up charter schools and got into a heated argument with the school superintendent, Pat Russo.

“OK, I’ll give you a struggling middle school,” he said in exasperation. “Let’s see what you can do with that.”

“I don’t want to take over a school,” I shot back. “I want to start one from scratch.”

“Well,” he said, “that’s illegal.”

A Plan of Action

My journalism training kicked in. I went home and called the Georgia Department of Education to see if, indeed, a start-up charter was illegal in Georgia. I wound up having a lengthy, frustrating conversation with Dr. John Rhodes, head of the charter school division. He patiently explained that there was no way that Georgia was ever going to have start-up charter schools. He passed me along to someone in his office, Beverly Schrenger, who may really be the mother of charter schools.

“We can’t do it now,” she said encouragingly, “but if the law were changed, we could.”

“Well,” I asked, “how do you change the law?”

“Who do you know?” she asked.

“I have a cousin in the Legislature,” I responded.

“Let’s ask him,” Beverly said. We had a plan of action.

I called my cousin, Bob Lane, who served in the Georgia House of Representatives from Bulloch County for 25 years. Lo and behold, he was serving on the education subcommittee.

“We don’t have anyone in the state interested in that charter school legislation,” he said.

“Well, we are interested in Savannah,” I responded.

One morning in February 1998, during the Valentine party at the preschool, I received a call on the phone in the preschool hallway. Cousin Bob was on the phone.

“I have DuBose Porter here with me,” he said, “and we want to know how you want that charter school legislation to read.”

I can’t remember really what I said, but the gist was that we wanted to be able to accept students who wanted to come to the school from throughout the county, and we wanted the freedom to teach our own curriculum and to hire and fire our own teachers.

“Now, we can’t build you any buildings,” he said.

“That’s OK. But can we use the ones the county doesn’t need any more?” I asked.

The legislation actually read something about the school board providing facilities, if feasible. The charter school act of 1998 was finally out of committee and was going to be debated on the House floor!

Our little group in Savannah, primarily a steering committee of 10 people – a former school board president, several teachers, a banker, a lawyer and three or four go-getters – began calling legislators to tell them we wanted this new legislation to pass.

Legislation passes quietly

I’m not sure who the charter school cheerleaders were in Atlanta, but the legislation passed … very quietly. When our group presented our petition for a start-up charter school to open in 1999 before our local board in the summer of 1998, one board member said, “What you are proposing is illegal.”

“Oh, no, it isn’t,” responded the board attorney. “There is new charter school legislation that allows this petition to move forward.”

I think the whole board was shocked. Oglethorpe Academy’s petition worked its way through months of board meetings, private meetings and in-the-basement meetings. I made and received a jillion phone calls – from potential parents, potential teachers, potential supporters, and lots of naysayers. Who were we – nobodies with no real experience – to think we could start and run a school was a frequent question.  Much later, I learned that the BOE administrative staff actually visited board members at home to lobby against our petition.

When it was time for the local board vote in November 1998, it was 4-4, and my friend, the school board president who had asked me to serve on the Middle School Task Force, had to cast the deciding vote. She did, in favor of the petition, and the room erupted in shouts of joy from our supporters.

Our next step was approval at the state level, and that required our little group to fly to Atlanta to meet with the state Board of Education in January 1999. I brought a peach pound cake to serve to the board members; my mother taught me to take a gift when you are asking for something.

I had no idea the board meetings at the state level are filled with lobbyists, legislators and parents, and I felt like a country bumpkin standing there in my little pants suit with my pound cake.

The vote was 9-1 in favor of the charter.

We had the green light, and I was scared to death! We had no staff, no students, no furniture, and no experience.

Neglected Building, Old Furniture

We were awarded by the local school board with a neglected school in the inner city and provided with furniture that we had to retrieve ourselves from the fourth floor of an old school building. The windows of the building had been left open and pigeons had pooped all over everything on the fourth floor. We hauled all of the furniture into the school yard, hosed it down, scraped the gum from the bottom of the desks and set up school.

We interviewed teachers in the back room of someone’s insurance office because we couldn’t get into our building until the alternative school operating there vacated in June. In August of 1999, we cut a red ribbon and opened our doors with 167 sixth- and seventh-graders.

That first year, without teaching the state curriculum and with our lack of experience, we outperformed all other Chatham County middle schools in spring testing.

The board sat up and took notice.

I served as governing board chair for two years, then returned to college to become certified to teach and earn a master’s in education. I was hired by the school and worked as director of instruction for 12 years before retiring in 2013.

Our school employed a number of innovative practices, and in 2004, we were selected as one of “eight great” charter schools in the nation by the National Charter Schools Association.

In reflecting back, I don’t think we did anything special back in 1998, and I don’t think it was anything that I did that caused the legislation to pass. But legislators do respond to constituents. Voices and passion do matter. Had we never expressed interested in the legislation, it surely would never had gotten out of committee for a floor discussion, at least not in 1998. And look at you now!

Are We Doing Better for Less?

When we were talking with legislators 20 years ago, trying to convince them to give charter schools a chance, we told them we thought we could do better with less. Twenty years later, are we the hotbeds of innovation we promised we’d be? Are we doing it better for less?

  • Are we cutting out the waste in education?
  • Are we focusing on what matters – relationships with students and their parents, expert teaching, and a clearly outlined curriculum?
  • Do we have high expectations for everyone associated with our school – our parents, administrators, teachers and support staff, and students?
  • Do we use the Doing What Works federal education website to see the research on a particular program before it is proposed and implemented?
  • Is everything about our school transparent?
  • Do we regularly seek input about our operation from all constituents – our teachers and staff, our parents, our board members, the communities we serve, and most of all, our most important stakeholders, our students? Most of the important innovations we implemented at our school were due to feedback provided by our students – something as simple as having a five-minute period at the end of class to allow time to properly record the homework and ask questions about the assignment.
  • Are we spending money on the things that we know are important to student welfare and success, such as school nurses and counselors and media specialists?
  • Do we provide diagnostic testing at the beginning of the year so that student academic needs can be addressed early through small group tutorials, held during the school day?
  • Do we hold social events during the day for students who have no transportation to attend nighttime events?
  • Do we follow our students after they leave us to find out the long-term effects of having spent time at our school?

These were just some of the ideals we hoped to provide through a charter education. As I run into our students throughout Savannah, I see them in a variety of settings and always ask them if their experience at Oglethorpe was a good one.

“I felt cared for, and I felt ready for high school,” are the two responses I hear most. Isn’t that awesome?

In today’s educational and political climate, it is even more difficult to operate a charter school. There is way too much paperwork and way too much testing, and the nay-sayers have definitely not gone away. So today, listen to your mother: Continue your good work. Hold your standards high. Fight for your autonomy.

I’m so proud to have been a small part of the charter school movement in Georgia. I challenge each of you to strive for excellence in every facet of your school.

May 7-11 is National Charter Schools Week. This commentary, celebrating Georgia’s first start-up public charter school and the 20th anniversary of the state’s 1998 legislation, is based on remarks by Martha Nesbit at the Georgia Charter Schools Association Annual Conference on March 7, 2018.

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