For many adolescent girls, middle school can be a challenging time.
Cathy Sheafor, 43, decided to make middle school life a little better for a small group of girls. Sheafor recently founded Charlotte Community School for Girls, which will open its doors to the first 5th-grade class in August. Eventually, the school will offer girls in grades 5-8 from low-income families a tuition-free place where they can be challenged to dream and transform dreams into reality.
A lawyer by trade and a former professor at Duke University, Sheafor's inspiration came from multiple sources. When she was in middle school, her family moved to a different town with a big school system. Sheafor was placed in an overcrowded school that offered her no support. She got lost in the system.
In college, Sheafor took action to help young girls build self-esteem. She coached an inner-city swim team with Doug, who is now her husband. Many of the girls on the team became like family, and they realized the positive impact they made. After marrying and moving to Charlotte, the Sheafors had twin girls, Tirion and Haley, who are now 15. When the girls were 5, Sheafor decided to be a stay-at-home mom.
In the back of her mind she always knew she wanted to open a school, but challenges got in the way.
Dream to reality
Eight years ago, Sheafor was diagnosed with cancer. She was reluctant to reach for her dreams. "How long will I be around?" she would ask herself. It prevented her from taking the leap to open the school she had always envisioned. That all changed last year when she attended a personal leadership program at Whitehead Associates. On the last day of class, she committed to open a school for middle school girls in Charlotte.
"I decided to stop calling it a dream and start making it a reality," said Sheafor, who lives in the Captains Point neighborhood.
Sheafor did extensive research to be sure that her vision of the school would become a reality. She studied educational theories and made site visits to similar schools. Sheafor wanted school to feel different. First, the girls will be called scholars, not students. "It is very empowering to call themselves scholars," said Sheafor.
Expectations about school will be shifted. The day will begin with a circle of sisterhood.
"It is an affirmation that they are smart, capable and the world has possibilities for them," she said.
A circle is a common thread in many cultures and creates a sense of unity. "The most powerful piece will be the combination of experiential and community-based learning," said Sheafor. "It is an opportunity for each of them to live their dreams."
Village raising a child
She has lined up several companies such as Fifth Third Bank, Carolina Pad and university professors who will provide programs free. "It is quite effective when a village raises a child," she said.
Everything Sheafor accomplished has been deliberate including the location of the school.
She wanted it to be on a bus line so that students would have easy access to transportation. The South End area of Charlotte provided that. Sheafor will wear many hats this year supporting staff, teaching classes and running administration. Long term, she wants to be the vision keeper of the school.