Overtown school celebrates focus on nourishing body and mind

First grade teacher Carolina Goncalves works with students on reading and pronunciation.
First grade teacher Carolina Goncalves works with students on reading and pronunciation. jpierre@miamiherald.com

It’s a little after 1 p.m. and CARE Elementary Principal Chris Simmonds calls for the school to meet him outside. A few moments later, Simmonds, 32, is leading a sing-along to get CARE’s 80 students excited for the school’s first playground.

CARE held an assembly earlier in the day for the sponsors who helped launch the private and faith-based school in Overtown in August. Almost 100 people — including politicians and pastors — attended CARE’s dedication ceremony on Sept. 24. Simmonds said the school has gotten off to a good start and needed a way to say “thank you.”

“We’ve gotten so much support from the community,” Simmonds said.

The ceremony included representatives from The Peebles Corp., AmTrust Bank, the Miami Foundation, Miami Rescue Mission and community leaders including state Sen. Dwight Bullard and Bishop James Dean Adams, senior pastor at the iconic St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church in Overtown.

But while Simmonds used the school’s progress — and students who recited poems, quotes and sang Thank You Lord for Making Me — to show gratitude, CARE President Marty Steinberger said, with Simmonds, the school was in good hands.

“We could not have imagined a better leader,” Steinberger said.

Simmonds, who grew up in a single-parent household in Toronto, said as a child he struggled with school, money and staying focused — much like the students who attend the school.

Ninety-five percent of students at CARE meet the low-income criteria for free and reduced lunch. In Overtown, 54 percent of households earn just under $25,000.

In a speech on Thursday, the principal said it was a teacher, Norman Brown, who would become a father figure, teach and inspire Simmonds to excel in and outside the classroom. Simmonds, who doubted himself as a child, said Brown’s commitment sparked a change in the way he looked at education.

For CARE, the goal now is improving literacy rates.

Most students at CARE come from nearby public schools where 23 to 36 percent of third-graders were reading at grade level, according to the Florida Department of Education’s accountability report.

CARE’s goal is to double those numbers to 60 to 70 percent by the end of the year. Simmonds said the “data-driven” school monitors how students perform every day.

Based on student performance and data, he said in the next six to seven months, it’s predicted most of CARE’s students will be reading at or above grade level.

“We’re seeing changes already,” Simmonds said.