On more than one occasion over the last 13 years, interested parents have refused to let their kids go to Oglethorpe Charter School once they got a look at the place. Based on appearances alone, it's been understandable that some might have wanted to turn and run away as fast as they can.
The award-winning institution -- by most benchmarks the best middle school in Georgia -- has been located in the most unlikely and least aesthetically flattering setting possible: the dilapidated former Pearl Lee Smith Elementary School at Stiles and Gwinnett, in one of the more impoverished areas of Savannah's Westside.
Those days are over, however. Oglethorpe Charter School will move lock, stock, and barrel into a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility near Bacon Park this fall.
But my family's memories will forever remain in that beloved old dump.
Like thousands of other 14-year-olds all over Chatham County, my daughter recently graduated from middle school. But only she and the rest of Oglethorpe's Class of 2012 can say they were literally the last students ever to graduate from the site -- to close the place down, as it were.
When it became clear the big new Oglethorpe building was going to become reality, I confess at first I felt kind of dumb for having conscientiously overlooked the school's painfully obvious physical shortcomings for three years, only for my daughter to have no opportunity to enjoy the brand-new building at all.
Fortunately she had a different perspective. Sophia and her classmates decided to take pride in the fact that they were members of the final graduating class from that scary Pearl Lee Smith school. Not only that -- but members of the highest-achieving graduating class in the 13-year history of Oglethorpe Charter School! Not too shabby, for having done it all in such a shabby location.
My daughter entered sixth grade at Oglethorpe a somewhat reserved, somewhat introverted girl with high academic aspirations, but all the usual social uncertainty of any incoming sixth-grader.
In that all-too-short three years we witnessed Sophia and her ever-expanding, ever-impressive group of friends blossom from uncertain and tentative sixth-graders into well-rounded, confident, empowered rising freshmen undaunted by challenge, able to write an original poem or do high-school level algebra with equal aplomb.
Credit for this goes not only to the dedicated students themselves, but to the faculty, staff, board and administration, including but not limited to Principal Kevin Wall -- the most laidback highly efficient person I've ever met -- driven and dedicated Governing Board Chairman Jay Self, and of course Director of Instruction Martha Nesbit, an original founder of Oglethorpe back in the mid-'90s.
And also, it must be said, credit must go to the particular model upon which the school itself is based.
(Full disclosure: I've served on the Governing Board at Oglethorpe, so I have a bias in addition to being a parent there. Because of my Board membership I was able to sign my daughter's diploma, a rare and special honor indeed for any father.)
Unfortunately there's a lot of negative propaganda out there about charter schools in general. I'm not sure why the disinformation flies so fast and so far, but it's a shame, especially in the case of a local and state treasure like Oglethorpe.
By far the most egregious untruth is the mistaken idea that all charter schools are "elitist" because they get to select only the best students. In the case of Oglethorpe Charter School, this is 100 percent wrong.
Literally any child regardless of achievement or background can get into Oglethorpe as long as they meet the general eligibility rules for all public middle schools in Chatham County. There are no other criteria.
While it's true that students must maintain a good disciplinary record to stay at Oglethorpe -- and their parents must fulfill their end of a family contract -- there are no academic requirements for entry at all.
If there's only one spot left and the mediocre student's lottery number gets called and the excellent student's number doesn't, the mediocre student gets that last spot -- though it's highly unlikely that the mediocre student will remain mediocre.
The Oglethorpe model is a small-school model, which doesn't just mean small class sizes (though that's certainly part of it). By small school they literally mean a small school, i.e., one of manageable size where each student in each grade has class time with each teacher at that grade level.
For example, an eighth grader will in the course of a week be taught by each faculty member of the eighth grade teaching team. Not only does this ensure that each student gets exactly the same learning opportunity, it has the not-trivial side effect of creating a real sense of family and shared community.
The other key part of Oglethorpe's model is math and language instruction being split into two classes each. The doubling of related instruction in these critical core areas has a compounding effect which more adequately prepares students not only for the usual gamut of standardized tests, but for what's obviously much more important in the long run: The ability to problem-solve and use critical thinking skills.
This not only prepares students to be more productive and successful, it also makes them more well-rounded people.
So if you hear someone say, "oh, only the smart kids get into Oglethorpe," they're misinformed -- though it's true based on test scores and subsequent achievement that apparently a lot of smart kids graduate from Oglethorpe, from all possible socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds.
Please forgive the infomercial, but some things just need to be said. And credit -- along with a parent's heartfelt thanks - should always be given when due.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.