School is beacon of hope in struggling Baton Rouge neighborhood
The founding of Gardere Community Christian School in Baton Rouge by Nancy Zito and a concerned group of community leaders is like a map that can be used by anyone facing overwhelming odds in bringing help and hope to others.
At Gardere Community Christian School, no child gets left behind.
Nancy’s husband Daniel attended Louisiana State University (LSU) and, after graduation, moved to New York City where he and Nancy, a public-school teacher, met and were married. After three children and years living in a large metropolitan region, they took a leap of faith and moved to Louisiana.
Having experienced the challenges and benefits of working in struggling neighborhoods in New York City, they were drawn to the area of Gardere, a small community in the East Baton Rouge Parish that has one of the highest poverty rates in the region, with many people living on less than $10,000/year.
A lifelong educator, Nancy became a teacher in a nearby school, but was deeply moved when she found that the public schools serving residents were among the lowest-performing in the state and little was being done for those students attending from Gardere. She shared her vision for Gardere Community Christian School with people in the community and the positive response was overwhelming.
Together, they founded Gardere Community Christian School in 2011 with the goal of striving for excellence in three primary areas: helping students to master the core academic subjects that will be integral to their future achievement and success; providing instruction in spiritual and character development; and positively interacting with families and the community to bring about positive change for everyone involved.
Gardere Community Christian School receives support from Louisiana Believes, a tuition assistance program funded by tax credits designed to help families in financial need choose the best education for their children. ACE Scholarships is an official School Tuition Organization for the program.
“ACE Scholarships is an incredible partner in providing financial assistance so students are able to attend our school,” Nancy said. “The ACE Scholarships program truly is a life-saver for those students who attend as ACE Scholars.”
Nancy says that one of the strengths of the PreK-6 school is its student population comprised of 65 percent African American, 32 percent Hispanics, and 3 percent Middle Eastern (mostly children of Syrian refugees). 100 percent of her students are from families living in poverty and low income.
“One of my greatest joys each morning is to stand at the front doors and see the happiness and excitement on the faces of the students as they arrive for school,” Nancy said.
“Some of our younger students are recent immigrants and speak little or no English when they enroll in school,” Nancy explained. “Our teachers are trained in English Language Acquisition and within six months the students speak well enough to actively participate in school.”
Classes at Gardere test above state level for academic proficiency in core subjects. In recent state tests of the third-grade class, 78 percent in English and 89 percent in Math tested at the level of mastery and advanced.
“Our goal is that graduates of Gardere transfer to nearby high-performing magnet schools, and that is happening now as we raise them up through our program,” said Nancy.
Attendance hours at parent meetings are required as part of the admission process and continued enrollment of each student. Parents are also required to meet a set number of volunteer hours per school year.
“Our families love to get involved and want to be a part of their children’s academic and spiritual growth,” Nancy said.
“Our teachers also give 150 percent,” Nancy said. “It is a demanding job — teachers are required to participate in professional development during the summer, and all either have, or are expected to earn, a Master’s Degree.”
While Gardere Community Christian School does not have the resources for an athletic program, students are encouraged to participate in the nearby Istrouma Community Sports Program that offers opportunities for year-round athletic competition.
“Taking part in athletic programs offers our students the opportunity to learn discipline, teamwork, and good sportsmanship,” Nancy said. “Our teachers take an active role in organizing transportation for students to get to practice and games, and where no options are available they work with the parents to provide the transportation.”
Each summer a group of Gardere students attend Camp Ozark, considered one of the top recreational outdoor camps in the nation. Located on 400 acres in the Ozark Mountains, it features more than 100 activities focused on building leadership, character, and a commitment to service in young people who attend.
“Spending time in the mountains in a positive and uplifting environment is something that most of our students have never experienced,” Nancy said. “It is a life-changing experience as it provides our students with the opportunity to spend time with other young people in a beautiful environment with supportive and encouraging staff.”
“Seeing the difference Gardere Community Christian School makes in the lives of students, an overwhelming number of families apply for scholarship funding,” Nancy explained. “We could triple the number of ACE Scholarships we receive and still have a waiting list so I hope people will be generous in supporting the program,” Nancy said.
For more information on Gardere Community Christian School, visit www.gardereschool.com