When Nancy Zito came to Baton Rouge in 2005, she wanted to teach. But she found herself drawn to a neighborhood with no school of its own.
Zito and her husband, Dan, had moved from New York City. Her local travels frequently included Gardere Lane.
“I just felt the tug, that this is where I’m going to teach,” Zito said. “I pulled over in Ben Burge Park and started praying about it, and God just put a love for Gardere in my heart. In the next few months, I started riding around Gardere praying in different areas until my husband found out and said, ‘You really can’t do that by yourself.’”
Her husband knew of Gardere’s reputation for poverty, drugs and violent crime. She was undeterred.
Zito visited the three public elementary schools that draw students from the area, but didn’t feel comfortable there. She taught for three years at The Dunham School — a private, Christian school whose tuition puts it out of reach of the children she wanted to reach — but never quit thinking about Gardere.
For two years, Zito held daily after-school tutoring sessions for about 40 Gardere children. This was the first step in a plan to open a school for the troubled neighborhood.
“The strategic plan was to open a kindergarten and to grow from there, and a group of parents came to me at the end of tutoring one day … and said, ‘Why are you opening with the kindergarten when our kids need you. We’ll pull our kids out of public school if you’ll create a school for our kids,’ ” Zito said.
So, she did.
In 2011, Zito opened the Gardere Community Christian School for 10 kindergarten and first-grade students. This academic year, 28 kindergarten through fifth-graders take classes in a private school that expects little money from parents, but much involvement.
Funded mostly from individual donations and philanthropic grants that cover up to 97 percent of tuition costs, GCCS is a different twist on local education, as Zito has discovered while seeking support.
“I would get meetings with people and think, ‘Oh, good, they called me. They’re going to support us,’ ” Zito said. “And then they sat me down and said, ‘What you’re doing is crazy. It will never work.’ But it does work.”
Examples, Zito said, include the Good Shepherd School in New Orleans, Yellowstone Academy in Houston and the West Dallas School in Dallas. Each is designed to provide academically rigorous, Christian-focused education for inner-city children who otherwise would attend struggling public schools.
The first year, Zito was the teacher as well as principal. This year, she directs a school with three teachers and classes that combine kindergarten-first grade, second-third grades and fourth-fifth grades. Volunteer teachers lead instruction in Latin, art, music and health. The Downtown YMCA sends instructors to lead physical education.
As the name indicates, the school is unabashedly Christian. Each school day begins with a chapel service.
“The faith part is really important,” Zito said. “For the way that we work our program and the way that we really believe we’re going to touch the families to make a deep-rooted change that’s needed, we need God in it.
“Everything is based on that, even the way we deal with the children. We teach them, ‘Go to Scripture.’ When we have a problem with students, I have my Bible with me, and we find Scripture for them to write down and memorize.”
“We have the freedom to talk about Jesus, and how Jesus loved people unconditionally and served them, and really try to invest in them spiritually,” said Susan McClain, who teaches second and third grades. “I feel like they need that. A lot of the stuff they have to deal with, they need hope, and I think that brings huge hope for them.”
As private Christian schools go, that isn’t unusual. Money is another story.
Tuition is based on income. Parents pay an average of $45 per month. (Full tuition — which none of the parents actually pay — would be $8,200 a year, Zito said.) Also required are a $150 uniform fee and a $40 field trip fee. For those who struggle to pay, the school offers help.
In addition to two required hours of volunteer service per month to the school, and two hours to meet with the faculty, parents receive a $5 credit toward tuition for every extra hour of volunteer work.
“So, we have a lot of parent involvement because if a parent calls and says, ‘I can’t pay my tuition this month,’ We’ll say, ‘Fine. Come on down,’ ” Zito said. “Some mothers don’t drive. We’ll say, ‘Get on the bus in the morning,’ and they do. They get on the bus and stay the whole day and go home on the bus. They go on field trips with us. They help serve meals. They help clean. We have a father that cleans for us every day, and it helps pay their tuition.”
Because GCCS is a new school, it is limited in the number of students receiving state vouchers it can accept. Two of its current students receive vouchers, and four more voucher students will be allowed next year, Zito said.
After that, any student who qualifies based on family income and attends a public school rated C, D or F can be admitted on voucher.
Stephanie Mathes, who has a son in third grade at the school, learned about it when she returned to Baton Rouge after having lived in Lafayette.
“I love it because it’s a small classroom setting,” Mathes said. “That’s one of the things I like. I like the values that they teach. The kids go to chapel in the mornings, and I love that, because kids need motivation and to know about God, and they need to be taught the right way. With me being a born-again Christian and raising my kids up in that way, that works perfect for me.”
Carla Moye said her granddaughter, who attends second grade at GCCS, is flourishing at the school after struggling at Wildwood Elementary School.
“When you go over there, the classroom would just be in utter chaos,” Moye said. “You come here, the classrooms are very quiet. The students are attentive. They are learning. My granddaughter actually does her homework by herself.
“She would rather come to school than not come to school. Last year, she would give any excuse she could to stay home. She would fake illness or anything. Now, if I go in (the classroom) and say, ‘I’m leaving. Do you want to come with me?’ she’d say, ‘Oh, no. I don’t want to go with you.’ She would rather stay here. She’s loving it, and there’s nothing more exciting to me than a child loving being in school doing what she’s supposed to do.”
The school spent its first year at Transforming Culture Ministries on Lee Drive. This year, it has been located at First Presbyterian Church, which provides sufficient space but is farther from the neighborhood Zito seeks to reach.
The classes are held in rooms that also are used for Sunday School, so everything has to be packed up and stored in Zito’s office on Fridays, then put back in place before school resumes Monday mornings.
In addition to finding funds so that more students can attend, she also wants to find a location in the Gardere area. Zito said Gardere will remain a K-5 school until its financial base is more stable.
“People even said to me, ‘You should open a charter school. You’re crazy for opening faith-based, because you won’t get the funding,’ ” Zito said. “Well, God will provide the funding, and some days I wonder where it’s going to come from, but we’ve always had the funding. My teachers have been paid, and last year and this year I’ve been paid. If it ever comes to a point where I’m not, that’s fine with me because I’m not in it for the money.”