Voyager leader bids farewell

Jul. 05, 2014 @ 09:11 AM

Carl Forsyth, founder and former managing director at Voyager Academy charter school, hardly looks the part of retiree.

Although dressed for the part in shorts and short-sleeved polo on a warm July morning, Forsyth wears a youthfulness that belies a man soon to turn 62.

But Forsyth is indeed a retiree, and is in fact working on his second, the first having come eight years ago when he retired from the Durham Public Schools.

And he admits that he’s finding it a lot tougher to walk away from Voyager than it was to leave DPS in 2006 as principal of Little River Elementary School.

“The retirement part is the hardest part,” said Forsyth, who has clocked 37 years in public education. “It’s frightening and it’s scary.”

Even so, Forsyth has promised himself that he won’t even consider taking on another assignment of any kind for at least six months.

He’s already sketched out a future, however, that will likely include consulting work for charter schools.

“I still have a lot to give to public education,” Forsyth said. “I would like to form a consulting firm that would consult with charter schools, helping them to become quality schools, writing applications, focusing on quality.”

So, why retire?
“I’m very happy here, love the people, the parents, the teachers, but I just felt like now was a good time to transition to new leadership,” Forsyth said. “We really have a good school but now is the time for us to take the next step and become a great school.”

Voyager announced in June that Jennifer Lucas,  principal of Hillsborough Academy of Math and Science, a charter school in Tampa, Florida, will succeed Forsyth.

After spending 30 years working in traditional public schools, going to work for a charter school after retiring from DPS was the furthest thing from Forsyth’s mind.

But a persuasive group of parents convinced him that helping to create a charter school in the northern part of the county would give him a chance to put into action everything he’d learned over the past 30 years, and to do so without many of the restrictions charter school advocates contend hamstring the educational process.

“That was an offer too attractive to turn down,” Forsyth said. “Who else gets an opportunity to have free reign to implement or start a school based on your own personal philosophy about how kids learn best. Few people get that opportunity.”

It was a great opportunity for the veteran educator but one he says severely tested him and the school’s other founding members who only had about eight months to get the school up and running before the first wave of students arrived.

“We didn’t have a piece of paper, a pencil, no offices,” Forsyth said. “I was the first employee. That was January 2007, and we had the task of putting together a school, recruiting students, recruiting staff, buying supplies and furniture and finding a site.”

The school opened in August 2007 in a building on Technology Drive, not too far from the current site, and all but two of the projected 320 students in grades 4-7 showed up for the first day.

“I think back on it now and wonder how we ever got it all done,” Forsyth said.

Charles Wilson, chairman of Voyager Academy’s Board of Directors, said the parents who persuaded Forsyth to take on the challenge of starting a charter school could not have found anyone better suited for the task.

“Mr. Forsyth was the perfect person, choice, to lead Voyager Academy as a startup charter school,” Wilson said. “He brought with him a wealth of educational experience and knowledge creating a successful educational environment.”

Fast forward to 2014, and Voyager Academy now has a sprawling campus with three buildings serving 1,350 students in grades K-12, and a waiting list that stretches into the hundreds.

“One of the proudest things, is that for the past five years, our students have made expected growth every year,” Forsyth said. “We didn’t make expected growth the first year, but we anticipate making expected growth this year.”

Forsyth credits the school’s success to a talented cadre of teachers and administrators who have created a safe, nurturing and student-centered environment for students.

“Respect for one another is paramount at Voyager Academy and everyone, everyone models that and we expect our students to respect one another,” Forsyth said.  

He said the flexibility and freedom that charter schools have to tailor instruction to the needs of students has also contributed to Voyager’s success.

“If we see that an instructional strategy or curriculum we’re using is not working, then we have the flexibility to change that, to turn on a dime and move in a different direction,” said Forsyth, comparing charter schools such as Voyager to a speed boat.

Durham County will have 11 charter schools when Reaching All Minds Academy opens in the fall.

The proliferation of charter schools in the county costs taxpayers more than $15 million each year, money that is passed through to them from the county by DPS.

The resources flowing from the public schools to charter schools have at times created tense relations between charter school leaders and members of the Durham school board.

Some school board members contend that charter schools siphon limited resources from traditional public schools.

Forsyth disagrees.

He said parents are simply making a choice about where to spend their tax dollars.

“The money follows the child and parents are choosing to apply their tax dollars for their child in a particular manner,” Forsyth said.

He noted that local charter schools have formed the Durham Charter Schools Collaborative, which meets on a monthly basis to discuss ways to collaborate in areas such as increasing professional development, identifying best teacher practices and combine services to make better use of tax dollars.

Forsyth said he is optimistic that district schools and charter schools will find a way to work together in such a manner.

“There are numerous models around the country where this is actually happening,” Forsyth said. “What’s going to have to happen is that charter leaders, district leaders are going to have to check their egos at the door and get in a room together and say, how can we work best for all the children in Durham and find a way to compromise and work together.”

Forsyth clearly sees Voyager as his legacy.

He said he hopes that his children will one day bring their children to the school to show them what their grandfather helped to build.

“I just wish my mother and father were here to share this experience,” Forsyth said, “I walk away without any regrets and with a great deal pride. We have accomplished much more than I ever envisioned we would accomplish.”