In June of 2008, Volusia County School Board closed W. F. Burns Elementary School in Oak Hill as part of the “budget cuts.” This school was the “heart of the community,” which was first settled after the Civil War when devastated families moved to this area to find hope, plant citrus groves, and survive by using food sources from the rich natural lagoon.
The story of the people of Oak Hill has been one of struggle. As freezing winters ended a thriving citrus business, the Florida legislature passed the “net ban” law ending commercial fishing. Federal cutbacks in the space program meant the loss of jobs; while county cutbacks ended parks and recreation services. Thus, the school was closed. As the people searched for hope, the City Commission along with a task force of local citizens, worked to establish a charter school, purchase the property, and move forward. Unfortunately, the terms were “out of reach” and the efforts were dashed. When it seemed as if all hope was lost and the school would soon be torn down, the compassionate heart of one local architect, Sid Corhern, continued to believe the school building should not be demolished, and he continued to look for another way. He sent out a “cry for help” to his friends, via the internet. A friend in New Jersey, Tom Gibbs, had just sold a piece of land and offered to help.
The local non-profit organization known as the Oak Hill Community Trust, Inc., voted to accept the offer of a caring stranger and entered into a contract with Gibbs to borrow $164,000. This provided the means to purchase the school buildings and the 10 acres of land from the Volusia County School Board. The purchase was finalized on October 30, 2009. This provided a new opportunity for hope to be born in the hearts of the people, and this leap of faith by the Community Trust began to open other doors. As they shared the vision for the recent purchase of property, people began to come together to work on the building, which had been stripped and prepared for demolition. There was much work to be done on the facility: electrical, water, air conditioning, kitchen, flooring, painting, landscaping, and grounds. Others participated in fundraisers to make the mortgage payment and purchase materials needed to begin facilities repair. Time was donated by caring volunteers.
The Kaplan Foundation, under the direction of Nick and Jeanne Dowis, was the first to help with a generous donation of $10,000. Their investment enabled the Community Trust to obtain temporary power, purchase 7 dehumidifiers, hire an architect to complete a needs assessment, and serve as a consultant in the beginning phases of the move forward. Fundraisers included Chicken Dinners, “Italian-To-Go” Dinners, Thrift Shops, Auctions, Sale of Memory Bricks, Pancake Breakfasts in the Park, Golf Tournaments, and 5k River Runs. The search for partnerships and the writing of grants continued as volunteers worked the fundraisers. In the spring of 2010, a local Community Trust Education Committee prepared a charter school application, which was submitted to the Volusia County School Board on July 27, 2010.
On September 23, 2010, word was received via email from Donald Boulware, Program Accountability and Evaluation Coordinator for Volusia County Schools, that the Charter Evaluation Committee would recommend approval of the application for Burns Science and Technology Charter School, K-8. On September 27, 2010, at 6:00 p.m., Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services, Dr. Chris Colwell, recommended “approval” to the Superintendent, Margaret Smith, and the School Board, and the vote was unanimous! However, once this happened, there was no communication between September 27th and December 7th. At that point, Gary Marks intervened to have the contract completed by Rich Kizma, VCSB Legal Council, and it was sent to the local Community Trust Education Committee for review. Contract negotiations took place in December. The contract was submitted and placed on the agenda for January 11th, and the School Board reviewed and voted unanimously to approve the contract at the January 25th Board meeting.
When the Oak Hill Community Trust tried to start the school, it was discovered that a Non-Profit School Foundation had to be established, and at least one member with charter certification had to serve on the “charter negotiation team.” Dr. Consuegra had that required certification, and he was joined by Dr. Jan McGee and Gary Bittle to become the “Founding Board” for Burns Science & Technology Charter School Foundation, Inc. Members of this group became the new School Governing Board, and additional members were “invited” upon recommendations from community members. The purpose of this board was to “move this process forward” by providing the “hope” to have what the community wanted…reopen the local school.
Volunteer workdays were held once a month on the last Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Painting and cleaning up the grounds began in September of 2010 with individuals taking responsibility for specific areas. There have been hundreds of volunteers from ages 8 to 80+ who have worked thousands of hours to move the complex process to the point where the school could open. The Board Members found funding to have items installed such as a new electrical system, air conditioning, flooring, etc. The school opened on August 22, 2011, with 260 students enrolled. This school began changing the lives of children, adults, and the direction of the city.
During the first “start-up” year, the school received a state grant for $375,000 to be used for furniture, books, technology, and staff development. The school established a partnership with Canaveral Seashore Park at Seminole Rest and began a “Meet the Ranger” program. Once a Month Ranger Leslie Peters would visit classrooms and present a variety of programs, as well as host field trips to the Indian Mounds. By the end of the first year, Burns Sci-Tech established an adjunct classroom in the caretaker's cottage on the National Park site. This relationship became the school’s “Partner of the Year.”