PITTSBORO — When Valencia Toomer left her role as principal at Horton Middle School last June, she did so with the goal of starting a new school — School of the Arts for Boys Academy (SABA) — …
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PITTSBORO — When Valencia Toomer left her role as principal at Horton Middle School last June, she did so with the goal of starting a new school — School of the Arts for Boys Academy (SABA) — focused on using the arts and culturally responsive teaching to close the achievement gap and empower Black and brown boys.
Eight months of hard work and a lot of paperwork later, she’s one step closer.
“We have now been officially approved by the state of North Carolina to operate as a public charter school — so yay!” Toomer said, adding that SABA is the only all-boys charter school in the state. “And then for Chatham, to be the first art school-focused school, that’s also huge.”
As a public charter school, SABA will be open to all boys who wish to attend. The school had to submit a justification letter to the state in January in order to operate as a single-sex charter school.
“SABA will help them to be leaders in our community and our kids deserve it,” Toomer previously told the News + Record. “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.”
The school’s enrollment began in January and will go through March, and uses a weighted lottery for admission — meaning students with various education disadvantages are given extra weight, or consideration, for acceptance. There are no fees to attend, and Toomer said the school anticipates about 60% of its population will qualify for free and reduced lunch. The lottery also gives extra weight to siblings of those accepted.
SABA is set to open in August with 116 boys in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade — with plans to add a grade level each subsequent year to eventually reach the 12th grade. The school is in the final stages of securing an interim facility in Pittsboro to support them for a year or two while its “forever facility” is built in Pittsboro near the State Employee’s Credit Union on Industrial Park Drive. The school will host a live lottery for admission and will begin hiring faculty in March once it has a better understanding of student ratios.
“We are enrolling boys all over the county, so we’re excited about that,” Toomer said. “We are moving forward, obviously, to open in August, so parents are applying as we speak. We have been receiving wonderful support from the Chatham and surrounding communities for SABA.”
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.
SABA board member Mike Wiley told the News + Record in July that the pandemic 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.”
All boys can attend SABA, but the school will be specifically structured to serve boys of color by 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, despite a commitment to school equity by CCS in recent years, 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.
“We have to ask ourselves why is that? Why is that happening?” Wiley previously 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.”
“This is not necessarily a Chatham issue,” Toomer said, “this is a nationwide issue with the achievement gap and the discipline disparities that exist especially with minority boys.”
Toomer emphasized that she wanted to provide another learning choice in Chatham.
“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,” she said.
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 is partnering with the Golf Club at Charter Ridge to host its first golf tournament fundraiser on March 20. There is a $100 entry free and all of the money earned will go directly to SABA.
As the school enrollment period continues, Toomer will continue hosting her “Talk with Toomer” chats on Facebook, something she started at Horton Middle to allow students and parents to get to know her more, ask questions and discuss important topics. So far with SABA, she’s focused on featuring Black local artists and community members, such as Wiley, motivational speaker and performing artist Sandra Dubose and a former Chatham alum who now plays football for Appalachian State.
With another month of enrollment to go, Toomer said some boys may end up on the waiting list.
“We still are encouraging folks to please apply and I know the seats are going to fill up fast,” she said, “But we want everybody to at least have an opportunity at SABA if they so choose to.”
You can learn more about or apply to SABA at its website: https://www.sabacademy.org/.