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First elementary charter school in Tennessee turns 20

Circles of Success Learning Academy (COSLA) – the first and oldest elementary charter school in Tennessee – ushered in its 20th academic year on Monday.

Tucked inside St. Andrew A.M.E. Church at 867 S. Parkway E. at Mississippi Boulevard, the academy, which is part of the Memphis-Shelby County Schools district, continues to build upon the vision of its founders with ample support from supporters.

Students and teachers were set on go Monday (Aug. 8), the first day of school at what U.S. News & World Report ranked as one of Tennessee’s five best charter elementary schools in 2021.

Administrators are expecting another outstanding performance year for 2022.

“Engaged learning with loving teachers” is fundamental at Circles of Success Learning Academy. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

“We were the first elementary charter school in the state of Tennessee,” said COSLA Board Chair Daryl Levin. “Our classroom design consists of two teachers – a lead male teacher and a female instructor. While one is delivering consistent classroom instruction, the other can facilitate needed interventions without disrupting the flow of what’s going on.”

Some 280 students are taught by 32 teachers. Two educators in the classroom brings the student/teacher ratio to10:1, creating a smaller, more intimate classroom setting.

Executive Director Sheri Cooper said the “instructional duo” model works well as a tool of nurture in the classroom. 

“We were intentional in hiring teachers to fit the male-and-female class model,” said Cooper. “Our children are largely residents of this impoverished and underserved South Memphis community. Self-worth and achievement are reinforced through compassionate guidance.”

Reading is a critical element in the success model of Circles of Success Learning Academy. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Founders envisioned a school that would offer a holistic academic experience for youngsters caught in a cycle of poverty and low expectations.

“Creating a culture of success with exemplary role models who look like our children is critical,” said the Rev. Marilynn Robinson, a board member and former co-pastor of St. Andrew. “Engaged learning with loving teachers changes the trajectory of a child’s life. Education at COSLA is life changing.”

Dr. Kenneth Robinson, long-time pastor and COSLA founder, set out to produce young scholars, who would go on to successful lives and careers. Six high school valedictorians and dozens more over the years, who graduated at the top of their class, attest to the school’s success.

Angelique Hawkins, a former student, teacher’s assistant, and substitute teacher, remembers what the school meant to her.

“I went on to be valedictorian at my high school,” said Hawkins. “Although I did not live in this community and enjoyed lots of family support, many of our children are not as fortunate. I try to exhibit the same love in the classroom that I experienced.”

At Circles of Success Learning Academy, some 280 students are taught by 32 teachers. Two educators in the classroom brings the student/teacher ratio to 10:1, creating a smaller, more intimate classroom setting. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Assistant teacher and COSLA alum Jahrey Robinson credits COSLA with changing his life.

“It means a lot for me to return and work with so many who helped me along the way,” said Robinson. “I am a product of COSLA staff who showed concern for me since my home life wasn’t that great. I am still being helped today.” 

Popular teacher and education guru Joseph Golden will sometimes ride a bicycle to school, dressed in a suit.

“I still live in 38126,” said Golden, a first-grade teacher. “My house is the same floor plan as some of the homes in Central Garden, just without the price tag. Some of the kids thought I lived in a white neighborhood because I ‘talk white and dress white.’ They need to see professional, Black men in their own community.”

Director of Student Services Robby Matthews touts the importance of promoting excellence in a celebration of “Black culture.”

“I attended college at an HBCU,” said Matthews. “Modeling excellence and celebrating Black achievement counteracts the trauma these kids experience at home. Love of all people is important. But celebration of one’s culture creates a pride that breeds success.” 

In 2008, COSLA was given national accreditation. The next year, the charter was named “Title I. School of the Year,” for “closing the achievement gap.” 

Throughout 2010-2020, the academy consistently was listed as a top performing school among Tennessee charters.

Cooper was named Tennessee Charter School Administrator of the Year in 2020. 


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