CARE Elementary, situated in the troubled Overtown community of Miami, Florida, is an outlier of excellence. Providing a free quality private school education to disadvantaged minority children in Miami in a nurturing Christian environment, they empower their students with the academic and spiritual foundation needed to be successful. The school leadership believes that their focus on establishing a caring, respectful, and safe environment prepares students to be confident, lifelong learners and responsible citizens. Student success is the norm here, in contrast to the inadequate education offered by the public schools in the surrounding area. According to the Miami-Herald, “just 40% of Black students in grades 3–10 passed the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) tests in English in 2019, compared with 61% of Hispanic students and 77% of white students. Math scores showed a similar gap, with 44% of Black students passing, versus 63% of Hispanic and 78% of white students.”
CARE is an outlier. Recognized for its Outstanding Work in the inaugural STOP Awards Initiative, CARE has shown that no matter what the environment children are born into, an outstanding education is life-changing. This interview with CARE Principal Christopher Simmonds is a case study in how a school can succeed despite the odds, and what others can learn from it.
Simmonds earned his Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and a minor in Communications at Oakwood University in Huntsville, AL, all while working his way up to manager at an IHOP. His persistence and focus were formative in his landing several significant teaching and administrative positions, in which he guided new and struggling teachers to create and implement efficient teaching methods.
In his 8 years in leading CARE, the school has moved from good to great.”In 2015 when we opened, only 11% of our students were reading at or above grade level, Simmonds says. “In 2021, even in a year of learning loss, 72% were proficient readers,” he says, and achievement continues to soar. Sadly, by comparison, according to The 74, 43% of students in Miami who took the January diagnostic tests in grades pre-K-3 tested below grade level in reading and 54% tested below grade level in math. Simmonds is known for his charismatic nature, his raps and songs that excite and motivate the kids, and the morning welcome where he can be seen dancing and leading the full student body — across the classrooms using Zoom during Covid days — in uplifting, faith-based and confidence-boosting songs.
Jeanne Allen: How would you define the “outstanding” attribute in your own words?
Christopher Simmonds: CARE stands for the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence. In everything we do, we strive for that excellence. Being outstanding means being committed to the highest standards. It takes encouraging and motivating everybody in the building to give their best efforts each day and making sure teachers and students have the resources they need to thrive.
Allen: Is there a secret sauce?
Simmonds: An important factor is that we hire and inspire outstanding teachers. We want them to be passionate about making sure each child in their class is learning the grade-level material.
Allen: What are three ways that parents should use to determine whether a school is outstanding or not?
- Are the students engaged and excited about what they’re learning? Is this a school you would want your child or grandchild to attend?
- Are the teachers professional, dedicated and happy?
- Does the school incorporate values and character development every day? The mantra at CARE is love and respect and those are on display every day. That matters.
Allen: What should others know about why schools like yours excel, and others do not? Is it poverty? Money? What is it?
Simmonds: We believe that both progress monitoring and ongoing interventions are critical to a student’s success. We conduct daily fluency checks, bi-weekly benchmarks, monthly computer adaptive diagnostics, and quarterly Oral reading and comprehension assessments, which give teachers the best data needed to mitigate issues and plan for meaningful instruction. The use of technology in all aspects of instruction brings learning to life for our students. While we don’t believe a test score paints a full picture of student success, we help them build good habits and foster test-taking strategies as well that help them feel comfortable when exams are required.
These measures have proven to be X-factors to our students’ success.
Allen: How did the STOP Award help you in your development as principal of CARE?
Simmonds: The STOP Award gave me and the other cohort members a source of pride to know that CARE Elementary School is outstanding, not just by Miami standards but relative to schools all over the country. It gave us important resources and connections to expand to offer our OUTSTANDING education to more students such as preschoolers. The accelerator cemented the need to always have an entrepreneurial mindset, even as a professional educator.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CARE Elementary is one of thousands of examples that demonstrate the principle that outstanding learning environments create outstanding opportunities for students, transforming the lives of those around them by delivering one outstanding educational opportunity after the next, despite the enormous challenges faced by traditionally underserved communities.