When Valencia Toomer started her education career in 2002 as a fourth grade teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she was quickly troubled by the frequent moving of one of the students between classrooms. He was Black, 9 years old with behavioral concerns and known to be in a gang.
When the principal said it was “her turn” to have this boy in her classroom, Toomer was determined to reach him. It was a growth process, but she built a relationship with the student and learned something the other teachers had never found out — he was an artist.
Toomer moved up with him to the fifth grade, but they lost touch once he went to middle school. A few years later, she found out that this boy killed someone, claiming self-defense.
He was 14 years old at the time.
“We lost him, and there were very special things about him, but he needed special people in his life that could see him, that could love him, that could value the contributions that he had,” Toomer said. “And not look at the exterior. And his exterior was sagging pants, floppy shoes, hair unkempt — that was his defense mechanism for the life that he was living. And my job at the time was to see through that, see past that.”
And so began a long-standing vision for Toomer: to embolden vulnerable boys of color and help close the achievement gap between them and their white counterparts.
As a 19-year veteran in the education field, Toomer’s goal culminated this year with the founding of The School of the Arts for Boys Academy (SABA), a Chatham-based charter school focused on using the arts and culturally responsive teaching to empower Black and brown boys.
As a charter school, SABA will be an independently operated public institution — publically funded and open to all students who wish to attend. There are no fees to attend, Toomer said, but there will be a weighted lottery for admission. Though the school will receive federal and district funds, it will also depend on grants and donations to help provide creative learning and meet accessibility goals such as providing free meals to all students during the school day.
“SABA will help them to be leaders in our community and our kids deserve it,” said Toomer, who was previously the principal at Horton Middle School for the last four years. “They deserve to have a place that will nurture their cultures, nurture their multiple ways of learning, nurture their love of the arts and that’s what we anticipate SABA being about.”
Pending state board approval, the school is set to open in August 2021. There’s no building for the school yet, but the plan is for it to be in Pittsboro once it does open, Toomer said. The school’s board of directors, made up of eight members who live mostly in Chatham County, is currently distributing an interest survey to families in Chatham.
Offering a culturally responsive, arts-based education, the school will partner with two instructional organizations: Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a nonprofit focused on closing the opportunity gap to prepare all students for college and careers, and A+ Schools of North Carolina, a whole-school model that views the arts as foundational to teaching and learning.
Because of limitations on in-person meetings to limit the spread of the coronavirus, SABA’s leadership has faced challenges in promoting the school meeting with potential investors. Being able to talk with families who don’t have access to social media or the internet is also more challenging without the availability of traditional meeting spaces.
“All of our work has been done via technology, so we’ve not had the ability to meet and engage one another as we develop a plan,” board member Robert Logan said. “That’s been a big drawback. It slowed our process and finding a facility because we cannot get out and move around as we’d like to. So it’s had an impact and it’s slowed the work — it hasn’t stopped but it has slowed the process. But we’ve persevered; we’re pushing through it.”
SABA board member Mike Wiley said the pandemic has also helped bring to light the lack of equity in schooling — particularly when it comes to access to technology.
“There are students, many of them, predominantly Black and brown, who don’t have access to the minimal technologies that they need to survive in a virtual world,” said Wiley, a local performer and playwright. “Having a school that is forged during a pandemic will give us experiences that enable us to understand what our students will need, because we’re seeing ourselves what we need to be able to survive through this.”
Logan, a former superintendent at Chatham County Schools, is the eastern division director for AVID, serving the eastern region of the U.S. With 44 years in education, Logan said the current structure of schools don’t allow for all students to reach their highest potential.
“Chatham County Schools is not just a good school system, it’s an excellent school system,” he said. “And I’m not saying that because I was the superintendent, I’m saying that because now I work for an organization that I’m in 22 states and over 300 school districts. But there’s a need for special services for children who aren’t doing as well as we want them to do because of the structure of school districts.”
SABA’s doors are open to any boys who wish to attend, but the school will be specifically structured to serve boys of color by cultivating knowledge of self and exposing students to rich and diverse culturally responsive learning opportunities.
This structure and emphasis on the arts is meant to help address the achievement gap — any significant and persistent disparity in education performance — found between Black and white students in Chatham County.
“In Chatham County the achievement gap is with our minority boys, particularly our Black boys,” said Saundra Gardner, a former CCS social worker. “We have tried and tried to figure out how to close that gap, and I’m excited about SABA making the attempts with the arts to see if that’s the thing that can close the gap in Chatham County for these boys.”
In her experience as a counselor, Gardner heard from many students’ cases of being the only Black person in an honors or AP class, or feelings of being disciplined more harshly than their white peers.
“Oftentimes teachers have to teach and they teach so that their test scores are where they need to be, so they’re not going to take the time to hear the stories of their students,” Gardner said. “I want SABA to hear the stories.”
In Chatham, students of color — particularly brown and Black boys — are suspended at higher rates than any other group and their test scores are consistently not reaching those of their white counterparts, Wiley and Toomer said. In recent years, CCS has emphasized a commitment to equity within its schools to address and eventually reverse these gaps.
“We have to ask ourselves why is that? Why is that happening?” Wiley said. “Why does it continue to happen? To be able to combat that, it is important that SABA succeed, it is important to have a SABA that particularly teaches Black and brown boys from a pedagogical standpoint that nurtures the difference in them.”
As a playwright and artist in residence at multiple schools, Wiley has seen the positive impact arts can have for students.
“Here’s an opportunity to really focus on those young men who, perhaps without the kind of focus that SABA could give them, may not get up in the higher echelons of boardrooms or be doctors, lawyers, film directors, artists, visual artists, performing artists,” he said. “They may not see themselves in those roles until someone shows that is a possibility and that’s not always apparent in a traditional public school setting.”
The school will submit its charter application to the state on July 24, Toomer said, and expects to hear back about its status by next spring. SABA expects to have 110 students its first year. The school will start with third, fourth and fifth grade and gradually increase over a five-year period until it reaches the 12th grade.
“This is not necessarily a Chatham issue — this is a nationwide issue with the achievement gap and the discipline disparities that exist especially with minority boys,” Toomer said. “For me, it was recognizing that I want to provide Chatham County students and families with another option for learning. SABA is another option for students and families within Chatham — I started in Chatham, I was born and raised in Chatham and I still have work to do in Chatham.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com.