Caring and Sharing Learning School marks 25 years

Students line up for their performance at the 25th anniversary celebration.
Students line up for their performance at the 25th anniversary celebration.
Photo by Glory Reitz

Caring and Sharing Learning School celebrated its 25th anniversary on Saturday with a formal mixer and student performances. 

The elementary charter school, co-founded in 1998 by Dr. Simon Johnson and his wife, Verna, in east Gainesville, has grown since its inception and its impact has spread throughout the community. 

“We’re a lot more than just a school,” Principal Curtis Peterson said in an interview. “We’re a community movement.” 

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The school emphasizes high expectations for underserved students but also encourages involvement from parents and families, and involvement in volunteerism to give students “real-world experiences” that motivate them to become lifelong learners and participants in the community. 

Co-founder Verna Johnson (in blue) speaks with attendees at the Caring and Sharing Learning School 25th anniversary celebration on Saturday.
Photo by Glory Reitz Co-founder Verna Johnson (in blue) speaks with attendees at the Caring and Sharing Learning School 25th anniversary celebration on Saturday.

Peterson said he wants students to leave the school knowing “they are the absolute best, and once they leave us, their only job is to change the world.” 

Students at the anniversary event performed dance routines “Glory” and “Victory,” themes which organizers said were chosen to remind the students they are victorious. 

Verna Johnson said when the school first opened in 1998, there were 31 students. In welcoming that first group, the school also held a funeral service for “Mr. Can’t.” They buried “Mr. Can’t” across the road, and Johnson said anytime a student told her they couldn’t do something, she pointed to that grave and told them “Mr. Can’t” was already buried. 

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as ‘can’t,’” Johnson said in an interview. 

A student hugs Verna Johnson after a performance of Victory.
Photo by Glory Reitz A student hugs Verna Johnson after a performance of Victory.

Johnson and her husband had both worked in education their whole lives, but they wanted to specifically help “our boys and girls,” so they founded Caring and Sharing to reach out to underserved students. 

“We didn’t have any control over what has taken place,” Johnson said. “It was something that was destined at the beginning of time… everything just fell into place. Some supreme being had control over it, and still has control over it.” 

Simon Johnson died last summer, but the original vision he and his wife shared for the school remains strong, living in part through the Johnsons’ son, Curtis Peterson, who has been the school’s principal since 2008. Peterson said his favorite part of the school is how it challenges stereotypes and changes the world through its students. 

Peterson said the school has changed through the years, becoming more data-driven as Florida became more assessment-focused in its definition of success. The school now uses a variety of assessments and parent input to develop a personalized educational plan for each student, according to the school website. 

A new two-module expansion has raised the school’s capacity to about 350 students. Peterson said the charter school has been different than his prior 16 years of experience in traditional schools— running a charter is also running a business. 

“In order to run a good school, you’ve got to be great,” Peterson said in an interview. “But in order to run a great charter school, you’ve got to be tremendous. Because you don’t have support of a level of what they would have in a traditional setting.” 

Peterson said he has seen Caring and Sharing have a “tremendous” impact on the community, saying probably every person in Alachua County knows someone who was impacted by the school. 

Charlie Jackson, chair of the Caring and Sharing board of directors, said the board holds the principal accountable. He said the staff is all committed to the same mission of supporting the children, and that having a board allows teachers and other employees to focus on doing their jobs. 

Caring and Sharing students perform at the school's 25th anniversary celebration.
Photo by Glory Reitz Caring and Sharing students perform at the school’s 25th anniversary celebration.

“Everything that we do is for the child,” Jackson said in an interview. “And because of that, when you put that child up front, you won’t get into any real, true confrontational positions, because it’s all about one thing. Getting that child a quality education. 

After being recruited by Simon Johnson, Jackson has been on the board for 20 years now. He said he saw then that the school could provide a “nurturing” and “caring” environment for which public schools are not equipped. 

Jackson said he never expected the school to grow to the point it has reached, but that it is thriving on the vision the Johnsons first had. He also noted that Caring and Sharing has benefited from the support of local businesses and people who resonate with the school’s mission. 

Jackson said Caring and Sharing does not compete with other schools, it competes with itself in an attempt to constantly improve. 

“Every child that comes through the door is an opportunity to make their day great or to make their day terrible,” Jackson said. 

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