During National School Choice Week, we’re highlighting CARE Elementary, a truly unique school. CARE is a free private, nonprofit school serving grades K-3 students in the heart of Miami’s urban Overtown community, one of Florida’s most impoverished communities.
Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program is a dominant factor in CARE’s ability to offer quality education at no cost to families. Parents are not charged to send their children to CARE, but students are required to qualify for the tax-credit scholarship. CARE sponsors and donors contribute to make up the difference between scholarships and actual tuition costs.
CARE opened its doors in the fall of 2015 with a mission of bridging wide literacy and technology divides for Overtown’s children. We asked the principal, Chris Simmonds to share how this new school plans to make a difference in lives of Overtown’s at-risk youth.
1) How did CARE Elementary come into existence?
The Miami Rescue Mission Board of Directors felt having a school of excellence dedicated to literacy and character development in a nurturing, Christian environment would most benefit at-risk youth in the Overtown community. The Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence (CARE) Elementary School was formed, and in August 2015 the school opened its doors as a nonprofit, free private school for up to 120 children in grades K-3. Miami Rescue Mission donated its Community Activity Center to serve as facility space for the new school.
2) What are the demographics of the students enrolled at CARE?
The student population is a beautiful tapestry of diverse students: 37 percent are African American, 42 percent Haitian American, 18 percent Hispanic and 3 percent mixed race. All students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Illiteracy and poverty are rampant in Overtown, where 54.5 percent of households have annual incomes of less than $25,000, and 37 percent have incomes of less than $15,000, according to U.S. Census data. Nearly half of the adults in this community lack a high school diploma.
3) How is CARE changing education in the community you serve?
CARE is first changing the game by proactively serving under resourced students so they can overcome their life’s circumstances. The programs offered at CARE provide tools to transform lives through quality education and Christian guidance. In addition to the basic curriculum aligned to Florida state academic standards, all students have access to iPads equipped with digital software designed to help them build 21st century technological skills and enhance their learning with individualized programing.
CARE has a school-wide daily reading block where students are grouped by reading ability, rather than by age or grade level. Students who master material early are advanced ahead keep them challenged and engaged, while struggling students are allowed extra time to master material and receive additional individualized attention and remediation. Students work through reading programs on their iPads to receive even more personalized learning adapted to their individual level.
CARE also provides free after-school instruction. Teachers provide homework help, volunteers incentivize reading immersion with a reward program, and community partners host hands-on STEM activities. Students are encouraged to use digital reading and math programs during these hours, further taking advantage of technology to build on their academic foundation.
CARE understands parental support is a vital component for student success. Parents are required to sign a contract committing their involvement in their child’s education as a condition to their child’s acceptance in the school. The Parent Square app is used for regular communication with parents via email and text messages. While we have not been open long, school events have been attended by 85% to 90% of the parents so far.
Last, CARE encourages Judeo-Christian work ethic and values through weekly nondenominational chapel services, led by school principal Christopher Simmonds. There, students are given encouraging words of wisdom and inspiration from visiting community leaders and role models.
4) You opened in the fall of 2015. Have you seen real gains in student achievement yet? If so, please explain.
We have seen great progress based on the reading assessments from student baseline placements to current levels. Kindergarten improved from 56 percent working on grade level material to 94 percent; first grade improved from 11 percent to 78 percent; second grade from 9 percent to 42 percent; and third grade from 5 percent to 40 percent!
CARE regularly and consistently monitors student progress through assessments because they enable us to track student strengths and weaknesses.
5) What do you want readers to know about your school, and the potential impact it can make in your community?
Readers should first understand why CARE places immense emphasis on reading and literacy. CARE believes the key to breaking the cycle of generational poverty is ensuring all children are reading on grade level by third grade. Research says 89% of low-income students who read proficiently in third grade graduate from high school on time (Hernandez, 2011). This proves that demography does not have to be destiny. When a student can read, a student can learn anything he or she wishes to learn. This ability opens doors, breaks down barriers and empowers students to achieve their dreams.
With increased student reading proficiency will come higher graduation rates, growing college prospects, enhanced income and boosted self-esteem, all of which we hope and pray will be lifelong benefits for students who attend CARE. Our Board of Directors wants CARE to serve as a model for pursuing academic excellence in urban neighborhoods and work to educate and equip future leaders for the community.
6) Why are school choice options like the tax credit scholarship so important to the work you do at CARE, and in the lives of the families it serves?
Foundations, businesses and individuals have been generous in supporting our school, but CARE could not exist without the tax-credit scholarships administered through Step Up for Students. The families we serve struggle to meet basic needs such as food, clothing and housing, so paying private school tuition is out of the question. These corporate tax-credit scholarships empower struggling families to have choices in their child’s education.
One mother said, “Care Elementary is a truly special place. What initially impressed me was the way in which the students were so actively engaged in their learning, and I knew I wanted my son to be a part of that world.”
Another mother of two of our students is currently working three jobs. She told us how receiving the Step Up For Students scholarship award and being admitted to CARE was an answer to her prayers. All children in our country deserve the opportunity to receive a great academic foundation and school choice options provided through the corporate tax credit scholarships are helping to make that possible.