by Michelle Wirth
It’s been a busy summer for Susie King Taylor Community School board members and school leaders as they get ready for the first day of school. The school is opening its doors to students for the first time on August 3. GCSA spoke with Dr. Christen Clougherty, Governing Board Clerk for Susie King Taylor Community School about the realities of starting a new charter school. This is the second charter school Clougherty has helped start. Clougherty was a founding board member of Tybee Island Maritime Academy. Susie King Taylor Community School gained local approval from the Savannah-Chatham Public School board after participating in Georgia Charter Schools Association’s incubator program.
The school finished hiring core educators prior to the start of summer. In recent weeks, the school worked with members of the community and school parents to prepare the school building for the first day. Parents, community members, staff, board members and students spent several weekends painting walls and getting classrooms ready. Incoming students also painted items that will be used on the school’s playground (Pictured during a school workday above L to R: Teacher Heather Whitman, School Director Dr. Latrisha Chattin and Parent Rebecca Heyward).
Dr. Clougherty says the school was able to hire an amazing group of educators who are not only from Georgia but moving from states across the country including: Oregon, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
The school held its lottery in March. Initially, Susie King Taylor Community School was not at full capacity, so the school took a grassroots approach to recruit additional students and raise community awareness. The parents of incoming students also helped spread the word. By June, the school hit full enrollment at 180 students. Today, the school has approximately 50 students on its wait list.
The school is located in the city of Savannah at the corner of 34th and Bull streets but is open to students throughout Chatham County. Initially, the school will start with Kindergarten through fourth grade. In the fall of 2018, the school plans to add 5th and 6th grades and then 7th in fall 2019 and 8th in 2020. By 2022, the school hopes to open a high school. Dr. Latrisha Chattin will serve as the school’s director.
Question and Answer with Dr. Christen Clougherty
GCSA: What has been the most challenging thing about opening a charter school?
Dr. Clougherty: The biggest challenge is the multitasking that has to happen. You have so many balls in the air and they are all timely. It’s balancing facility needs and the checklist that comes with facility and the services that the school needs.
The single most important thing we did was hire a tremendous school leader, hands down. I’m glad that we took the time we did to find the school leader who is such a good fit for us…You know you’ve hired the right person when every time something pops up, she handles it with such grace, with such quick, insightful decision making that is even better than what we would have come up with.
GCSA: What has been the most rewarding thing?
Dr. Clougherty: The most rewarding thing is when you have an open house and you don’t know if anyone is going to show up and then hundreds of families show up just absolutely excited that there is a new school choice and full of questions and anticipation.
GCSA: You were a GCSA incubator fellow. How did GCSA help you in this process?
Dr. Clougherty: I don’t think we would have gotten this far with out them. I cannot sing the program’s praises enough. There are just so many different variables that pop up throughout the process, and just being able to call upon staff, even if it was a redirect of how to get a question answered, was tremendously valuable.
We felt very supported throughout the process. It was an incredible asset to us. I can’t think how to express in words how incredibly meaningful it was.
GCSA: Why did you decide to open this public charter school?
Dr. Clougherty: When I moved to Savannah in 2001, I told everybody that I knew that I wanted to start a school in Savannah, because I had a phenomenal education experience as a kid in a private school. I was like you have to be able to do this and make it more available. I’ve had this dream for a long time. I joined the Tybee group to help learn what that process was like and Tybee was such a great learning experience and such a tremendous school.
The other piece is that in my professional job I do professional development training for K-12 educators and I travel to schools all over the country and I see amazing educational innovation that’s happening all the time, and I want that for my community.
I appreciated the process. There were all these families coming to me, as someone who’s in education, saying, ‘we need something different. You said you wanted to start a school, so what do we do?’ We just held all these grassroots open community meetings for a year to listen to the community about what their needs are and what their vision of what the school could be and that’s what the model ultimately became.
GCSA: How important do you think this school is for Savannah?
Dr. Clougherty: We are really excited to go back to the original purpose of charter schools, which are incubators of innovation and then to share what we are learning with the district.
With our Place-Based Education we are developing curriculum that’s about Savannah and all of our curriculum should be relevant to all of our students here, so we plan to share what we develop with all of the other schools in the area. We will also hold professional development that educators across Savannah are invited to attend.
GCSA: What is the school’s mission and curriculum focus?
Dr. Clougherty: Susie King Taylor Community School is particularly interested in helping our students become stewards of their community. We are doing that through a Place-Based Education model where they will learn and actively have opportunities to engage in the history, culture and landscape of Savannah through projects. We will often do that through a Peaceful Schools model that encourages students to learn character education, or soft skills, the ability to collaborate and work across differences with one another. The last piece of innovation that we’re excited to explore is Competency-Based Learning and what might that look like in a public school model.
GCSA: What is your biggest hope for the school?
Dr. Clougherty: My biggest hope is that every student will love to come to school every day and that they are learning how to be engaged, meaningful citizens in our community.