The creation of a successful school in Afton is a significant legacy to leave in the community. As Charlotte Zinsser Booth starts her retirement from a lifelong career in education, she leaves North Branch School on solid ground with 120 students from surrounding communities in Nelson, western Albemarle and Augusta Counties.
Zinsser Booth, a local legend in alternative education, started the school 36 years ago. While she is a native of Lynchburg and returned to Amherst to visit her grandparents throughout her younger years, she grew up in New Jersey and attended Sarah Lawrence College, earning a degree in developmental psychology. During two years of college spent as a student teacher and an upbringing in the progressive education movement, her own philosophy of education took root.
Beginning in 1976, the Sunshine School in Shipman opened as an alternative school, private and without religion as a structure. Zinsser Booth spent four years there and returned for two years to Connecticut.
In 1983, North Branch School began offering classes in the home of Jim and Diane Johnson. Within months, the Afton Mountain Road address was established as the school’s first location, with one full-time and two part-time teachers. The next move was to Avon Road in Afton in 1987, before the now-permanent home on Mickens Road was found. That site has seen two additions to the original building, and a new classroom building was recently added.
The educational philosophy that Zinsser Booth brought to Afton provided an environment where the now-19 teachers and staff are listened to and can make decisions individually for a child’s best interest. Zinsser Booth said, “The goal is that children love learning and working with other people. But not because we have ice cream—we don’t!” This philosophy includes listening to the children. Middle school students have been known to write their own questions about what they want to learn at the start of a school year.
Zinsser Booth thinks her student teaching experience really made a difference in providing time to see a child grow and change. “If I could wave a magic wand and make a change, it would be to extend the time current student teachers spend in a classroom. The time exposed to a child’s growth needs to be a whole year, not just the nine weeks now required,” she said.
With Smith Coleman as the new head of school, identified from an extensive search, Zinsser Booth can finally spend time with her newest grandchild. She will continue to reside in White Hall. She plans to limit her school involvement to producing the annual holiday St. George show. Maybe she’ll teach a little Tai-Chi.
Information about North Branch School can be found on Facebook and at north-branch-school.org.