by Georgia Charter Schools Association
By Nina Rubin
So much has been written about the importance of strong, visionary school leaders, but probably not enough about the human problem of charter school burnout.
One of those visionary school leaders who may have simply burned out, is Dr. Gavin Samms. He was the founding principal of Fulton Leadership Academy for the past four years and is leaving the all-male, state chartered school this September. He leaves a legacy of success and big footprints for his successor to fill.
Dr. Samms is a powerhouse both on paper and in person. He earned his BS and MS degrees at Georgia Tech, and went on to complete his PhD and do postdoctoral work at Harvard University School of Education. His singular focus has been data-driven strategies to help close the achievement gap for students of color.
He certainly knew going in that charter schools pay less, have longer hours, shorter summer breaks, more lesson plans to prepare, and by necessity, a lean administrative and teaching staff that wears multiple hats. Anyone who leads state authorized charter schools in Georgia, which are funded at a lower rate than locally approved charters, learns this grim calculus immediately. Watch every penny, hire teachers and staff who can teach multiple subjects, be creative, be flexible, fundraise like crazy and pray that nobody is absent on FTE “count days” in October and March.
Even with all these factors, under Dr. Samm’s leadership, Fulton Leadership Academy’s academic achievement has been remarkable:
- A 2013 study commissioned by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement ranked FLA #1 among Fulton County middle schools in terms of “Value-Added” (the ability to raise test scores). The report also ranks FLA at the 97th percentile in the state
- In 2013, FLA surpassed the “meet/exceed” percentages of the following metro-Atlanta districts across all grades and subjects on the CRCT: Atlanta, Carroll, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale
- In 2012, FLA surpassed the “meet/exceed” percentages of the following metro-Atlanta districts for ELA, Reading, and Math on the CRCT: Atlanta, Carroll, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale
- FLA surpassed the Georgia “meet/exceed” percentages on the CRCT across all grades and all subjects in each of its first three years of existence
- 100% pass rate on the CRCT-M since the inception of FLA
- Based on Georgia Charter Schools Association analysis of 1800+ schools in the state of Georgia, FLA ranked 117th on the CRCT Performance Index in 2013, 57th on the one-year CRCT Gain Index, 15th on the two-year Gain Index, and 11th in the Gain Index Comparison (compared to gains made by schools in zone)
The stats speak for themselves, but I believe it was Dr. Samms’ many small acts of character and caring that also spoke volumes.
I first saw him in action at a parent information meeting for Fulton Leadership Academy, back in 2010, right before the school opened. The auditorium was filled with excited parents and students, unhappy with their zoned Fulton County public schools, who wanted to know about this new public school option. They wanted to meet this founding Principal from Harvard who promised an academic program that would help turn boys into thoughtful, respectful young men of character and achievement.
Dr. Samms had just arrived in Georgia from Boston where he had directed EdLabs at Harvard School of Education. There’s always that temptation, when you’re selling a dream, to come on like Harold Hill in The Music Man, promising band uniforms and shiny instruments to eager boys and hopeful parents. Dr. Samms, a slight and soft spoken man, was anything but a huckster that day. He promised hard work, academic rigor, a longer school day, and required a commitment from parents to support their sons. He did not sugarcoat what it would take to change the destiny of young men of color who might enter his school already grade levels behind in math and reading.
And then a baby started fussing loudly in the back of the auditorium. It’s the kind of distraction that can easily derail a public meeting. But here’s the thing — it was Dr. Samms’ baby making the noise! Without skipping a beat, Gavin Samms walked to the back of the room, scooped that baby out of his wife’s arms and onto his hip, then returned to the podium and continued taking questions about FLA. It was a quiet act that spoke more about manhood and responsibility than any words could say.
The father of four won my heart that day, and also another time when the GCSA Charter Schools Bus Tour visited Fulton Leadership Academy last fall. Dr. Samms showed a sobering set of slides about the academic roadblocks for young men of color. He talked candidly about how, when the academic progress of his high schoolers wasn’t what he had expected, he made a tough decision to push his students to excellence.
“I had to cancel football season,” Gavin Samms told the visitors. “It was really, really hard to do this, but our charter commits us to improve academic achievement, not win games.”
Stop for a second and imagine a principal at a traditional high school, or any high school, canceling football season in October! In Georgia!
That, my friends, is character education. That is leadership. That is what a great principal does. Thank you Gavin Samms for being the visionary leader every school needs. You will be missed.
Nina Rubin is Director of Communications for the Georgia Charter Schools Association