Learning can be heard at Caring and Sharing school

Simon Johnson talks with some of the students in the hallway of Caring and Sharing Learning School. Simon and his wife, Verna, started the charter school back in 1998.

TRACY WILCOX/Special to the Guardian
Published: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 12:04 p.m.
Walking into Caring and Sharing Learning School, you will hear what Simon Johnson calls educational noise, or the sound of learning.
This ''noise'' translates into questions being asked and answered, reading aloud and classroom participation.
Simon and Verna Johnson made their dream of educating children a reality and started the charter school, located on SE 4th Street in the Sugarhill neighborhood east of Williston Road.
The school opened in 1998 with about 30 students in kindergarten through third grade. It has since grown to 107 students and fourth and fifth grade levels have been added. The Johnsons serve as school administrators. The average class size is about 18 students.
There are 27 employees, including six teachers and a host of teaching assistants and subject specialists. Students at the school wear mandatory uniforms four days a week that consist of navy pants or skirts and shirts in white, light blue, or navy blue.
But, who would expect two retired educators to start all over again? Verna Johnson retired from the Alachua County Public School system. Also during her career, she worked in Gilchrist and Hamilton counties.
Simon Johnson retired after 27 years from the University of Florida, where he served as the director of the Office of Recruitment and Outreach. While working in their separate educational careers, the two traveled around the country and outside of the U.S., holding education workshops on topics such as classroom management, motivational strategies, and diversity in the classroom.
"People told us, 'If you retire, you will take all that information with you,' " Verna Johnson said.
So instead of spending their retirement traveling as they had planned, the couple began the process of creating a charter school.
Simon Johnson said one of the school's goals is to help students who are falling through the cracks in public schools.
From working in the public school system, Verna Johnson said she can see how teaching practices at Caring and Sharing benefit students. The school puts an emphasis on students who need help in certain subject areas by doing what the Johnsons call pullouts. During pullouts, children are assisted by another teacher in a smaller setting.
The Johnsons believe that all students should receive this treatment and even stronger students are pulled out and given special attention so those needing extra help won't feel inadequate and think of pullouts as being negative.
"We don't think we do a better job than the public school system,'' said Verna Johnson. ''We have a concern for classroom size. In the public school system, there isn't time for a teacher to do everything that's needed. Here, not only are classes smaller, but there are two adults in each classroom. There's more time and better opportunities for students to succeed," she said.
"We want them to be successful and move up the ladder," added Simon Johnson.
Verna Johnson said students at Caring and Sharing are the same as those in any other school, where student's learning takes place on different levels of understanding.
Some of the unique practices at the school involve giving parents a voice and offering them benefits they can't get in the public school system, such as smaller classes and more one-on-one time with teachers.
Upon enrolling students, parents must agree to be actively involved by attending Parent Teacher Organization meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and volunteering at the school. The PTO meetings are open to all family members and a meal is provided.
"Eighty-five percent of our students are represented (by family members) at PTO meetings,'' said Verna Johnson. ''We tell parents this is their school. We make sure they feel comfortable, let them know they can come as they are and promise to only keep them for an hour," Verna Johnson said.
Simon Johnson's belief in the quality of education started when he was only in grade school. He credits an elementary school teacher named "Miss Nellie Green" for helping him believe in himself.
"She was a striking woman that was always elegantly dressed," Simon Johnson said. "She took me in at her desk one day and said, 'I see something in you.' Since then, I've been striving to show what she saw in me. In my career, I tried to emulate her teaching style. She's been my mentor."
He continued: "It's been my lifelong dream to see students progress after leaving our school. I look forward to helping children everyday, no matter what level they are."
The Johnsons plan to expand the school into an education complex where students can extend their education even further with educating parents to help their children.
For more information about the school, call (352) 372-1004.
Teresa D. Southern can be reached at (352) 337-0373 or at southet@gvilleguardian.com.

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