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As noted earlier, today is the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s passing. Bloggers everywhere are honoring him by writing about their memories of Sagan (thanks to Joel Schlosberg for organizing it all).

Personally, I’m sad to say I didn’t read Cosmos until about a year ago. And when I first saw the movie Contact, I was still unfamiliar with the Sagan book that inspired it. Needless to say, I wish I had read both books earlier in life.

But when I now think of Carl Sagan, my thoughts immediately turn to a charter school in Florida: the Carl Sagan Academy (CSA). The Sagan Academy opened its doors in 2005 to middle-school children and is going strong in its second year of existence. Interestingly enough, the CSA meets inside a church building.

The CSA was chartered by the Humanists of Florida Association (HFA). The HFA’s board of directors is led by Jerry Lieberman, who spoke with me about the Sagan Academy’s mission, the ups and downs of running a charter school, and the support the school gets from unexpected places.

Hemant Mehta: Briefly, what is the Carl Sagan Academy?

Jerry Lieberman: It is a public charter school serving a middle school student body in an impoverished neighborhood near Tampa. It received its charter from the Hillsborough County School District. There is no tuition or fees. Any child living in the district is eligible to attend for free. It is the first publicly funded humanist school in the United States.

HM: What does the Carl Sagan Academy provide students that other schools do not?

JL: The school has considerable flexibility. It determines what the curriculum is, criteria for employment, standards of conduct and has its own governing board appointed by its founding organization, the Humanists of Florida Association. Innovation and experimentation are encouraged. Bureaucratic rules and regulations that apply to non-public charter schools are not required.

HM: Besides the name of the school, what is the connection between Carl Sagan and these students?

JL: Carl was a world renowned educator. He brilliantly presented science to the broadest population possible. CSA serves a predominantly low-income African-American population that transferred from other public schools where science and mathematics was often not presented in an exciting and stimulating way. The population CSA serves is benefiting from smaller classrooms, modern technology and the philosophy and pedagogy associated with Carl Sagan to the extent possible.

HM: Ideally, what are the hope for graduates of this school?

JL: They will grow intellectually and be more aware and caring of the environment in which they live. They will also be better prepared and motivated to continue their education and have a greater sense of community and civic responsibility.

HM: Is there ever a conflict between the school and religious students?

JL: The conflict has been minimal and isolated. The parents and their children are most interested in a learning environment that is welcoming and effective. Instead of conflict, there is more appreciation for the fact that humanists have taken the initiative of opening a school in a community that severally lacks infrastructure and resources to make a strong difference in the lives of the children and their families that largely have been the victims of discrimination and poverty. Humanists have done this with the support of the local community and the approval of the deacons and pastors of a largely African-American Baptist church. Another elementary public charter school that also largely consists of an African-American population, but has its own charter with the school district that I helped them to get seven years ago, is one of the feeders for CSA.

HM: Are parents ever concerned their children are being proselytized about atheism?

JL: There were a couple of parents that asked if it was true that Carl Sagan was an atheist. This is after we were very careful to make clear that we were secular humanists (not basing our values on religion and the belief in a deity) and distributed literature about ourselves and Carl Sagan. We didn’t want anyone to be surprised. I think it became clear we were not opening the school to convert children to atheism. We were there to provide the best education possible and respected we were guests in the community. The church and the residents became increasingly comfortable with us and support the school in many ways. We are in our second year and no one has suggested we are trying to proselytize about atheism. We are proselytizing about evolution, the scientific method, human rights, critical thinking and a greater understanding of the world they live in.

HM: What are the short and long term goals for CSA?

JL: We need this year to demonstrate we can offer a progressive learning environment and also attain better results on the high stake state tests.

Another short-term goal is to find a more suitable facility for the school.
This is a critical year for evaluation and building the capacity of the board and staff.

We would like to expand the school to serve more students and begin a high school program.

We hope to have schools all over the state once it is demonstrated a model has been created for replication.

It is our desire to share our experiences to with other humanist organizations around the nation and the world.

There is a great opportunity to incorporate excellent programs developed by the contacts we have met through [Sagan’s widow] Ann Druyan.

HM: What have been the successes you’ve seen in the first couple years?

JL: There has been significant academic progress. Improvement in reading, comprehension and math rank as one the highest of any middle school in the district. There has been broad acceptance by the community. The school’s governing board is very dedicated and competent. Numerous donations in support of the school have taken place. There is a partnership with the state university’s medical school. The press coverage has been very favorable. The membership of the Humanists of Florida Association is very supportive and excited about CSA.

HM: What have been the hardest moments?

JL: The delay in finding a place for the school and the rush to open under less than desirable conditions. High staff turnover. Grossly inadequate facilities. The fact that our students came to us with very low scores and the difficulty of passing the state high stake exams when the performance gap is huge. There were also significant start-up problems associated with personality conflicts, issues of trust and a new board going through a learning curve.

HM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JL: A great deal has been learned by us through this initiative. This knowledge will serve us in the future and is something we will gladly share with our fellow humanists. It would have been much easier and safer to publish our newsletter, debate the believers, defend attacks against us and remain reactive and isolated. This effort was a giant change, one fraught with risk as well as opportunity. Humanism has much to offer, but if it is not proactive and willing to make a contribution ‘here and now’ to the betterment of society, how will people get to know more about us and what we have to offer?

If you haven’t seen the videos, Carl Sagan was interviewed by Charlie Rose in 1995 and 1996. You can see those appearances here and here, respectively.

[tags]Carl Sagan, Joel Schlosberg, Cosmos, Contact, Carl Sagan Academy, Humanists of Florida Association, Jerry Lieberman, Friendly Atheist, Tampa, Hillsborough County School District, humanist, atheist, atheism, African-American, secular humanists, Ann Druyan, Charlie Rose, blog-a-thon[/tags]