The personal relationships among teachers, staff, administrators, students and families makes The Villages Charter School exceptional, say those who have worked there since its beginning more than 20 years ago. “I don’t think we could find that bond at any other school,” middle school English teacher Jenny Cannon said. “I keep in touch with some of the kiddos I had in 2002 and 2003.”
Families are required to contribute “Parent Involvement” hours, and that involvement is a big part of the close relationships that are a hallmark of the school’s community.
They appreciate the core values — hard work, creativity, hospitality and stewardship — shared by the school and The Villages.
Those values also draw strong people to work in The Villages and enroll their children in the charter school, The Villages Elementary School Principal LeAnne Yerk said.
Cannon is one of six current teachers hired before the school opened Aug. 7, 2000, with 341 students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in what is now the The Villages Charter Elementary School’s Intermediate Center. Yerk and Intermediate Center data clerk Angela Corbin also have worked for the school since day one.
Kindergarten teacher Stacey Graham, second-grade teacher Tracey Williams, elementary Spanish teacher Silvana Gordon and middle school history teacher Chantel Duval round out the original employees still with the school. Middle school computers teacher Elizabeth Cipris joined midway through the first year.
They spoke about the highlights they remember.
Graham teaches kindergarten and said she taught the first five years the school was open before taking time off for two years when her youngest son was born. He started Villages High School last year, so she said she gave up coaching the middle school girls softball team.
“I like all the people I work with,” Graham said. “Administrators always challenge you, providing opportunities to improve yourself.”
Williams now teaches second grade but has worked in multiple roles since she applied to be a teacher’s aide before the school opened. She said she worked at the school’s front desk the first year.
“It sure took off,” Williams said about the school’s growth along with The Villages. ”It was all pastureland and farmland, and it’s just crazy how it’s grown.”
She watched the walls go up during construction of the middle school and then-Gov. Jeb Bush speak at the high school’s first graduation.
She later went back to school to earn her degree while raising three children — the youngest two graduated from Villages High School — and she started teaching second grade in 2009. Williams said she taught fourth grade for three years.
“To me, I think the most important thing is the positive leadership with core values,” she said.
The buildings also are beautiful, she said, and the school has enjoyed support.
Gordon teaches Spanish in the elementary school.
“The school, as I remember from the first meetings and interview, wanted to innovate,” Gordon said. Spanish in elementary schools is still a novelty today, Gordon said. “It was certainly a novelty then.”
Learning a second language improves children’s brain development and makes them better at learning other things, including English, she said citing research. The charter school exposes all students to Spanish in elementary school and then it is offered as an elective in middle and high school.
“We are so blessed our students have all these subjects,” which makes them more well-rounded individuals, Gordon said.
Four elements contribute to the charter school being such a special place, Gordon said: Great leadership, very committed educators and committed students, a very supportive community that includes volunteers who live in The Villages, and the involvement of parents.
“That’s the crucial element -- parents who are involved, she said.
“They find the joy in it because they see the effect it has on their own children,” Gordon said.
Cannon taught fifth grade for the school’s first five years before taking maternity leave for a few years. She said she returned in 2009 to teach second grade. Then she earned certification to teach English language arts in middle school and another certification to teach gifted students.
“Just working with the parents and the children, the relationship with the parents” has been the highlight of her career so far, she said.
She sees some of her former students as successful adults and is pleased to know she played a part in their success.
Families’ involvement has been another highlight, Cannon said.
“It’s expected that you’ll participate in your child’s education,” she said. “That’s one of the selling points of me being there and my children being there, is that family atmosphere.”
Duval teaches sixth-grade World History at the middle school.
She said highlights of her career are seeing her former students after they have graduated and talking to them about their plans for the future.
“The Villages Charter School is a special place because the teachers, staff and community deeply care about our students’ education,” Duval said.
Cipris started in February 2001 and now teaches computers.
She also has coached girls volleyball and taken photos at school events with her yearbook staff. Cipris and two other teachers took seventh-graders and some parents on their end-of-year field trip to the Florida Keys, where they swam with a dolphin, snorkeled in the ocean, kayaked through mangroves and visited a turtle hospital.
After teaching a concept, seeing the “got it” moment on the face of a student who had been struggling with a new skill is a highlight for her.
She also enjoys seeing former students around The Villages when they take the time to tell her how glad they were to have had her computer or typing class, for which their seventh-grade selves didn’t see they needed.
“But when they hit high school and/or college, they quickly had a realization that because of what I taught them, they were way ahead of the curve,” Cipris said.
Students, parents, community partners, staff and administrators contribute to the school being exceptional, she said.
“The Morse family had a dream, and because of them and all the students, parents, community partners and staff, the dream of creating an amazing school has become a reality,” Cipris said.
Yerk, elementary principal, is in her 20th year in that role. She spent half of the first year as media specialist and the other half of the first year as vice principal.
“The elementary school has grown from 341 to about 1,450 now in kindergarten through fifth grade,” she said.
“The highlight is definitely being able to be part of the children’s lives and watching them grow educationally and as a person,” Yerk said.
She and others said they enjoyed seeing students from elementary school compete and perform in middle and high school athletics and art productions.
“Our students are really fortunate to have all these opportunities,” Yerk said.
The arts also help students’ brain development and their academic abilities, she said citing research.
“Look, we have The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, where our children can perform,” Yerk said.
The charter school made up of students whose parents work for and in a retirement community is unique.
“It’s really quite the vision of Mr. and Mrs. Morse from years ago,” she said.
Corbin is a data clerk for the elementary school in the intermediate center, where her duties include working with new families enrolling children in second or third grade.
“They say ‘You’ve been here since the beginning? Wow!’” and Corbin said she enjoys explaining what makes the school both unique and special.
“We’re so different here,” which she said is a little scary to many new families new to the area. “We see ourselves as set apart, not better, but we’re OK being unique and we’re in this together.”
Corbin started as a first-grade assistant and worked in that position for 11 years. When her daughters graduated in 2011, she became a first-grade teacher and taught five years until her mother needed her help. Then she became a data entry guidance clerk, helping to produce report cards and helping with enrollment during the peak period of summer. She also has worked with Buffalo Adventures in the summer.
“They have incredibly blessed me not only for my employment for 20 years, but also with an incredible education for my family,” Corbin said.