by Georgia Charter Schools Association
By Dr. Elizabeth Kuipers,
Most of Georgia’s charter movement has happened in metropolitan areas, yet Furlow Charter School will be in Southwest Georgia. Allow me to paint a picture. Imagine acres of cotton and peanuts. Our tallest building is the new hospital, which is four floors. Sumter County is the birthplace of Jimmy Carter and of Habitat for Humanity International. The Civil War prison camp at Andersonville houses the National Prisoner of War Museum. In our county, 48.9% of our children live below the poverty level. All of the children in our public schools receive free breakfast and lunch because of the income level of the county as a whole. Socially and in religious institutions, segregation is still a very real part of life.
When the Furlow Charter School founders began our journey, there were many naysayers. “That’s been tried.” “It’ll never work!” “Don’t waste your energy, honey.” All the while, the student population of our public schools declined every year. People moved out of Sumter County to attend public schools in neighboring counties, and the homeschool population grew fast.
Furlow Charter School’s board has a vision of a truly diverse school environment with high academic standards. We met with much suspicion from the African-American community who feared the school would set admissions criteria that would result in a public school that looked like the local private school. Correcting misinformation has been one of our biggest challenges. The progress we have made is a direct result of grassroots efforts to visit churches, civic organizations, and local businesses. As a middle-aged white woman, I have received very curious looks as I walked into an African-American barbershop just to “hang out” and talk! Imagine my surprise when I was offered a headset at a local Hispanic church so that the service could be translated for me and I could participate more fully. The experience has made me grow enormously, and I’ve met genuine, kind people at every turn.
The journey to district approval has been a long one. The governing board knew that student enrollment would tell us how successful we have been in conveying our message of inclusivity and public school choice for all the citizens of Sumter County. Furlow Charter School’s capacity enrollment will be 410 for the 2015-2016 school year. We will offer kindergarten through eighth grades. Applications are still coming in, but we currently have 380 students slated for enrollment.
Our big news is that of those students, 25% of them are coming back into the public school system in Sumter County. This will mean approximately $670,000 new dollars for public education in our community, one that desperately needs every education dollar it can get. We are pulling our students back into our public schools from eight neighboring counties, from the Georgia Cyber Academy, homeschooling, and the local private school. Our message of diversity was heard in our community! Currently, our racial demographics are as follows: Asian 5.8%; Black 32.3%; Hispanic 5.5%; Mixed/Unknown 7.9%; White 48.4%.
The governing board understands completely that much hard work is still to come, but we are proud of our work thus far and look forward to working with our district and community stakeholders to create an educational environment that makes Sumter County students excited to learn and capable of imagining incredible futures for themselves. This charter school will make a measurable difference in the lives of hundreds of children in Sumter County.
Dr. Elizabeth Kuipers, who chairs the board of Furlow Charter School, has lived in Americus, GA since 1998 and is a professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University. She earned her BA at Wesleyan College, majoring in English and minoring in Business. She earned her MA and PhD at Auburn University.
The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.