Gardere Community Christian School was featured in Baton Rouge’s 225 Magazine.
By Jeff Roedel
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
The cough spewing from the oncoming exhaust pipe nearly drowns out the distant drone of a weed wacker and the passing, carnival melody of an ice cream truck making its after-school lap around the neighborhood. One by one, 1990s model sedans—some dusty, some dented—turn off Gardere Lane and into the nearly empty parking lot behind Greater Sixty Aid Baptist Church, a modern sanctuary whose tan stucco edifice and sprightly water fountains announce novelty to the surrounding blight. In the late, still sunny afternoon, parents in work clothes walk their children to the back door of the church. Some go hand-in-hand, others side-by-side. At the door, or just inside of it, kisses are planted on cheeks or foreheads. Hands are squeezed, then let go. There are a few quick hugs, a “See you later” and a “Be good.”
Leaning against her car in white scrubs, Olinda Morris talks of Quardrell Clark like he is a changed child. She ought to know. As Quardrell’s grandmother, she watches him every afternoon while her daughter works. As the cafeteria manager at Kenilworth Science and Technology Magnet School—a charter that is busy resurrecting a failed public middle school in the heart of south Baton Rouge—she interacts every day with teachers and students who are eager to look at education differently.
“This is a healthy surrounding, and that is so good for him,” Morris says. “He was an anxious child. Now he’s much more calm.”
Quardrell’s reading skills are up, but once inside, he is anything but calm.
High-fiving each volunteer tutor down the hallway, this lean 9-year-old in a schoolyard-rumpled maroon shirt and baggy navy pants strolls into the church like a star quarterback jogging onto the field through a thundering drumline and a tunnel of cheerleaders. His smile grows wide below a pair of expressive brown eyes and a head of tight cornrows.
Quardrell is pumped.
“Hi, Miss Nancy,” he says, slapping hands with Nancy Zito, a veteran New York City teacher and founder of this, the Gardere Community Christian School. The school is a vision of hers, a calling, she says, and it starts right here with a modest, but growing, tutoring program of 45 registered students and almost as many volunteers.
“Hello, Quardrell,” Zito says to the boy in a soft voice overtaken by the bright blue eyes beaming back at him.
They banter a bit, just like family might, but Quardrell is too excited to socialize. “Reading those right there,” he says, pointing to Psalms handwritten on large sheets of penmanship paper and taped onto the walls. “That’s my favorite part about coming here. I get to work on my words.”
Quardrell pulls out a schoolbook from the backpack slung low around both shoulders and, led by a reading tutor, heads into a room marked “1st, 2nd, 3rd grades.” Zito walks back to the door to greet a new family that has arrived.
Zito and her husband Daniel arrived in Baton Rouge from New York City five years ago. She was less than enthusiastic. Daniel had attended LSU. Some friends from his collegiate Bible study were still in town, so it seemed like a good move for friendship. But Nancy had spent more than 30 years teaching in elementary schools in Brooklyn and Long Island. It was all she knew. The East Baton Rouge Parish Public School System confounded her almost immediately, but she did not intend on retiring. “I didn’t know God had this in mind,” she says.
Shortly after the move, she was on Burbank Drive and says she was struck by the poverty and the absence of an academic outlet in the stretch near Gardere Lane.
She pulled her car into the lot at Ben Burge Park, a strip of green space and a gymnasium in the middle of a neighborhood known mostly for the airtime it gets in crime reports on the nightly news. There, for the first time, she prayed for the patch of town she now works in every day. When she finished, she felt a strong conviction, a calling from God, she says, to help educate the children of Gardere.
Before she raised a single dollar or recruited her first tutor, Zito returned again and again to the neighborhood with one thing in mind: prayer. “Certain people told me I shouldn’t do that,” she says. “But I thought, ‘I’m praying, how bad could it be?’”
Next, she took her vision to her pastor, Rev. Dr. Gerrit Dawson at First Presbyterian Church downtown. Dawson told her to continue praying, but to wait two years. If she still felt strongly about it after that time, then she ought to proceed.
“She’s fearless, for one thing,” Dawson says of Zito. “She has worked in New York’s inner-city schools, so she doesn’t mind going to difficult areas. But she’s also tenacious when she gets a hold of something. She believed in more than anyone else could see at the time.”
Zito went to work teaching first grade at The Dunham School for three years while incubating her vision for Gardere. With a loyal group of supporters, she launched the tutoring classes in 2009. Now Dawson and his wife Rhonda volunteer in the church’s sanctuary reading storybooks and playing games with preschool-aged kids. “A lot of parents were asking about activities for their preschoolers, so—” Zito shrugs. Meeting needs has become second nature to her group.
Older students are coming, too, though—students like Melissa Weber, whose kids attended tutoring sessions for months before she began sharpening her math skills here. Weber is studying to get her GED. She is confident, she says, and professes love for her tutor, Elizabeth Novak. Even more so, she appreciates seeing her children so excited about learning from their schoolbooks and from the Bible, too.
“They get mad on the days they don’t have tutoring,” Weber says. “That’s how much they look forward to coming here.”
Zito’s group earned non-profit 501(c)(3) status in March and plans to officially open the Gardere Community Christian School with a pre-K in August. The goal is to add an additional class each year. Volunteers were scouting locations and developing the financials all spring. In three years’ time, she envisions a newly constructed campus. There will be tuition, but also tuition assistance in August, Zito says.
“So much of what we are doing is about building relationships,” Zito says. “It’s not about me. It’s about people coming together. There’s a need there, and God will meet that need. There’s a real desire from parents in the neighborhood to see this through.”