Each morning students at Atlanta Classical Academy finish the Pledge of Allegiance and then they add, “I will learn the true. I will do the good. I will love the beautiful.”
ACA Principal Terrence Moore said he introduced these simple ideas because, “If they can hold by those principles and if they really commit them in their minds and hearts then they will have a life that rich and full of happiness.”
Atlanta Classic Academy opened this month at full capacity with 488 K-through-8 students in a former private school located on Northside Drive in northwest Atlanta. ACA is the city’s only classical education charter school and in Moore it has an innovative education executive who’s done this before and excelled at a very high level.
Moore was founding principal for seven years at Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado. U.S. News and World Report ranked Ridgeview High School as the best in Colorado and the fourth best high school nationally among all open enrollment schools of every kind.
After Fort Collins, Moore moved to Hillsdale College in Michigan to become lead advisor to the Hillsdale Barney Charter School initiative that helps communities launch classical education charter schools. One of those was Savannah Classical Academy which opened in fall 2013. During his Savannah work Moore learned about the Atlanta Classical Academy opportunity.
What exactly is a classical education?
“My way of explaining it to parents is saying, think about the good books that your grandparents or great grandparents read, how those came alive and how they’re still valuable,” Moore said. “This is exactly what this country had for a long time until we started trying to train kids for particular professions and we don’t even know what the children want to do,” said Moore.
“What we call education is a conversation about the great things in the human world and the great things in the physical world and for that to work you have to have a conversation not just among students but with the teachers themselves,” said Moore, who added that he wanted “intellectually ambitious people” on his faculty.
ACA’s first faculty includes Hillsdale College, Emory University and Berry College graduates, along with several from other Georgia and southern state universities. One teacher is a former Ridgeview Classical School pupil whom Moore has known since she was 12 years old and yes, he finds that fairly astonishing! Hundreds applied for 32 current full-time faculty positions.
Every ACA student will study Spanish in grades K-5 and Latin in grades 6-12. All students will attend art or music class every day. Reading will be taught based on phonics. Every student will wear a uniform. There will be extensive emphasis on solid memory and public speaking skills. The student-to-teacher ratio will be no more than 18-or-22-to-1 based on grade level.
“It’s the education the Founding Fathers had and wanted citizens of a free republic to have,” Moore said. “All we’re doing here is recovering common sense and the great tradition of reading the classics, understanding grammar and looking at our history through its original sources and through its great moments, and spending time understanding the logic and beauty of mathematics and the arts.”
The Academy has 54 students in each of nine grade levels, K-through-8. All students must reside within the Atlanta Public Schools system boundaries. The mix is former public school students and some from private or home school situations. The wait list has 1,200 names, nearly three times current enrollment. Ninth grade will be added next year and then one new high school grade each year until the school is K-12. “Three or four years from now we would be bursting out of this building,” Moore said.
Atlanta Classical Academy students will graduate when they complete high school. That means the first ACA graduation ceremony is a distant five years away. There will be no kindergarten graduation, no eighth grade graduation. “We live in an era of graduation inflation,” said Moore. His belief is that graduation should follow the completion of a “long, arduous and worthwhile” journey that prepares the graduate for “becoming a voter and eligible for active citizenship.”
When we spoke Moore was upbeat about everything including the start of carpool because, as every principal knows, nobody is happy when Momma is not happy! “You don’t want to start out the morning with your parents angry at you!” said Moore.
(Mike Klein is a journalist and media executive who has held leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)
Playing in the dirt will have an educational twist when Chattahoochee Hills Charter School opens next Monday in south Fulton County. With its emphasis on the environment, learning will take place inside and outside and classrooms will have removable walls that open to the great outdoors for hybrid inside – outside learning.
“We are part of the natural world,” said Chattahoochee founding Principal Chad Webb. “It takes all of us to create an environment that is safe and healthy and sustainable. I need individuals who want to get down and dirty with the scholars. Whatever we can do to create responsibility, stewardship and sustainability is our goal.”
With its emphasis on nature, all kids will engage in “community investigations.” This year first graders will reintroduce native plants to campus retention ponds. Eventually each classroom will cultivate an organic garden and professional chefs will teach Chattahoochee Charter kids how to prepare meals with garden crops when the new cafeteria kitchen is ready next year.
Three hundred K-5 students are enrolled. The wait list is 50 students. Most children reside in south Fulton with a heavy concentration from the Serenbe community that emphasizes nature, well-being and fulfillment.
Chattahoochee Hills also enrolled students from Atlanta, Palmetto, Hapeville, Fairburn and Union City. “We have a large net,” said Webb. School transportation is not an option so parents must make their own travel plans, regardless of distance.
Next Monday’s opening is two or three weeks later than when most Georgia public school systems re-opened and Webb said the reason is simple, “The buildings were not ready.” Thirteen buildings are being constructed on an 11-acre campus with three more acres still available for expansion.
This year Chattahoochee Charter will have traditional holiday breaks in November, December and a spring break. Whether the school adopts a more staggered calendar with multiple breaks similar to many public school systems will be decided next year.
Five years in development, Chattahoochee Hills received a state commission charter only to see that authorization vanish when the Georgia Supreme Court vaporized the state charter schools commission. Chattahoochee will open with Fulton County local authorization.
This year’s population is almost equally split between students who attended private and public school last year. Chattahoochee will open with 24 classroom, special education and reading teachers with an 18-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, less for kindergarten classrooms. Before and after school care will be available with a separate staff.
Webb said Chattahoochee has a $3.3 million first year operational budget with total personnel the largest obligation at $2 million. The school anticipates $8,600 in per pupil public funding and it has a very aggressive private fund-raising campaign. First year-construction costs came in at $3.6 million. The next fund-raising phase will finance new sixth grade facilities, an administration building with a sports gymnasium and cafeteria that should be finished in time for the fall 2015 school year. Sixth grade will be added next year, seventh grade in fall 2016 and eighth grade in fall 2017.
With its emphasis on arts, agriculture and the environment Chattahoochee Charter has forged many unique partnerships that include the nearby 840-acre Cochran Mill Nature Center and the 100-acre Many Fold Farm that raises sheep for meat and cheese production. The nature center and farm both offer educational programs for kids.
Science will be integrated into all subjects and Webb said teachers who survived the six-hour interview process must have an appreciation for nature. “I told my staff, when you go home with dirt on your clothes you had a good day,” said Webb, “because you were really immersed in learning and you had the kids engaged. I told all the staff that has been hired, I need individuals who want go get down and dirty, literally.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
When the Academy for Classical Education opened this month elementary and middle school students had already finished extensive summer reading assignments even though they had never been inside a classroom, never met a teacher, never been to the cafeteria and never met new friends at Macon’s newest public charter school.
The reading emphasis was, classical!
“Because we’ve stripped a lot of true literature out of typical public education students are no longer able to tap into the emotion that engages them when they are reading,” said ACE co-founder and Principal Laura Perkins. This summer ACE students read classical works by Ernest Hemingway, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, William Golding and other celebrated authors. Even kindergarten kids were required to complete listening assignments with their parents.
Are you getting the feeling the Academy for Classical Education is a different school? That is intentional and it reflects the laser focus of co-founders Perkins and Esterine Stokes.
Two years ago Perkins and Stokes just didn’t know how to quit. Long-time educators in traditional Bibb County public schools, they jettisoned retirement after just a few months to launch ACE. The school found its home in a partially renovated 200,000 square foot former corporate building on 39 acres. The property has exceptional potential but the real potential is within the classical education model.
“Esterine and I had 30-plus years in public education, wound up at the same school the last six or seven years and we retired at the same time,” said Perkins. Back in summer 2012 they would engage in “an almost continuous conversation about trying to move into retirement, reflect on our careers, purge it from our systems and move on with our lives. We couldn’t seem to do it.”
Within months Perkins and Stokes were writing a plan for the Academy for Classical Education that opened on Monday, August 4 with 760 K-through-8 students. ACE hired 48 teachers and eight teaching assistant professionals, whittled down from 600 resumes and some 340 initial interviews. Seven hundred students are on the current waiting list.
“The goal was to have a place where children matter,” said Perkins. “That’s not to say in other schools children don’t matter but somehow public education has gotten off track and we’re more focused on data points and less focused on the child. I want to be focused on the child.”
An ACE classical education means extensive Latin study that starts in third grade and continues in every subsequent grade. “A person who has a mastery of Latin has a solid vocabulary,” said Perkins. “They understand how to use words; they understand how to create words. That is the absolute foundation language for any student upon which to build their entire academic future.” Cursive instruction – the fancy name for handwriting – is a mandatory requirement.
Eighty students attend elementary grades K-through-5 and 100 students are enrolled in middle school grades 6-through-8. The plan is for all grade levels to expand by 20 new student slots in fall 2015 and eighth graders will roll up to a new ninth grade. Sixty-five percent of ACE students attended Bibb County public schools last year. Others were in private, home or virtual schools.
ACE quickly forged extensive relationships. Mercer University and Middle Georgia State College provided student teachers. Funding was generated from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, the Peyton Anderson Foundation, State Bank Macon and lots of community people.
Perkins and Stokes selected the gryphon as the ACE mascot because, “We wanted a mascot that would be the model for qualities we want in our students. We want them to be strong, fierce and courageous but we also want them to be loyal, trustworthy and dedicated. When you see the head of the eagle and the body of the lion it was ideal.”
Perkins and Stokes retired from their traditional public school careers in June 2012, totally unaware they were about to become learning entrepreneurs. “The thing I kept telling myself was beware of what you don’t know,” said Perkins. “Try to ask as many questions as you could so things you don’t know don’t slap you in the face. Second, take it one bite at a time. If you look at it in totality, it’s overwhelming. Just keep plugging away, everyday accomplish something and you’ll get through it.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Second in a series of articles about new Georgia start-up public charter schools.
No Georgia economic development initiative has been more stunningly successful over the past decade than the 2,200-acre KIA Motors Manufacturing plant at West Point in Troup County. The region added more than 11,700 jobs directly because of KIA. That created a special challenge.
“When KIA came into the LaGrange – Troup County area one of the things that the community realized is that they really didn’t have the workforce,” said Kathy Carlisle.“They began a lot of discussions about how do we have the workforce to support KIA and their suppliers as well as other industries.” KIA opened in 2010 and the region continues a rapid expansion.
Carlisle is Chief Executive Officer at Troup County’s new THINC College and Career Academy. Note; she is not principal. Carlisle is CEO. This charter school looks like, acts like and thinks like the business models from which it sprang. KIA has pledged $3 million; Georgia Power is a benefactor; there are many other creative regional business and higher education relationships.
“Everything we do, our culture, our vision, everything is business-driven and business-oriented,” said Carlisle. “The core of everything we do is soft skills and producing future leaders. A lot of people think soft skills is pull your pants up, take your hat off, get to work on time.
“We want to instill leadership characteristics and qualities as well as entrepreneurship thinking so students graduate understanding what business is about and what it takes to be successful in business as far as earning and producing profit. This will be embedded in our culture.”
Important initial groundwork was done with the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and Georgia Tech as Troup County focused on how to prepare workers for new high-tech careers. The region had long roots in agriculture and some manufacturing but nothing like KIA technology.
More than 100 community members participated in a steering committee that identified challenges: One-size-fits all high school educations were not working. Graduates were not college or career ready. The group found a disconnect between what high schools and colleges were teaching and what employers needed. Too much trained talent was leaving Troup County. Equally important, the committee determined that local business was willing to become part of the solution. Everyone’s future was at stake.
Beginning this new school year THINC will focus on matching 100 work / study high school students to jobs that are consistent with their career goals. Next year – when the model expands to 500 students – Carlisle said the goal is for every student to have an employer sponsor who is aligned with their career path.
“We are different. Our focus is high-tech jobs, healthcare, a real strong focus in those areas,” said Carlisle. Next year THINC will move into a 50,000 square foot facility on the West Georgia Technical College. THINC dual enrollment students will attend West Georgia tuition-free. Other dual enrollment options will be available with LaGrange College and Point University. All three schools have worked together to help launch THINC.
THINC faculty will be anything but traditional. “Teacher certification is not going to be the most important thing,” Carlisle said. “We want teachers that can teach in a hands-on learning environment, very innovative, creative, meeting the standards but at the same time teaching and inspiring youth to learn in a different way, no boring lectures allowed.”
Carlisle said launching THINC is different from her 14 years at Columbus State University and four years working at a non-profit. “Public education has its own way of doing everything,” she said. “In this position you’re working with the community, their expectations; government, their expectations; public education, their expectations, the technical colleges, the private colleges.
“It really is taking a lot of different organizations, different organisms and trying to bring them together to birth this incredible machine that we are trying to start. Negotiating, compromising, navigating, communicating with so many different people.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
First in a series of articles about new Georgia start-up public charter schools.
Devon Orland Christopher has a high profile position as the state’s senior assistant attorney general for civil rights litigation but her job as Mom is way more important.
“My son is what they call twice exceptional. He’s gifted. That is what gave birth to the school,” said Christopher who is co-founder of the Tapestry Public Charter School that opened today in DeKalb County. Co-founder Tonna Harris-Bosselmann also has an autistic spectrum child.
Autism is one among several behavioral disorders that can affect how children interact and engage socially. Their chances to succeed often are enhanced in smaller group settings and they sometimes struggle in the larger student populations found in many public schools.
Tapestry designed an individualized instruction model with a very small 8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in four core subjects – English, social studies, math and science. Core subject instructors will be joined in the classroom by special education teachers. “There are lots of kids who can benefit from an individualized curriculum with smaller classes,” said Christopher.
Elective courses that include drama will be offered with a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, which is still much lower than many public schools. Other electives include computer class, yearbook production and visual arts, but there are some sacrifices. “We don’t have the full conduit of services that you expect in a middle school. No football, no marching band,” said Christopher.
Tapestry Charter found its home for 96 middle school students in renovated space at Northeast Baptist Church in Norcross. The ground game to launch Tapestry began three years ago for Christopher, Harris-Bosselmann and their partners. Tapestry secured charter authorization through the DeKalb County School Board. The school receives about $8,000 per pupil in total public funding and it has raised about $100,000 in private capital, which is a small amount.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Christopher. “If you do a conversion school you’ve got a building, you’ve got supplies, you’ve got all that. If you do a start-up, you’ve got nothing. You have to have space before you can submit your petition and most people aren’t really willing to sign a lease a couple years in advance. Fortunately with the folks at the church we were able to work it out but had they changed their minds we would have been in a world of hurt.”
Tapestry’s charter is authorization to offer grades 6-through-12. The plan is to add one new grade each school calendar year, starting with ninth grade in fall 2015 until Tapestry offers complete middle and high school curriculum in the 2018-to-2019 school calendar year.
A lottery was held to select this year’s 96 middle schoolers. The wait list has 100 more. “Our goal is to create a model that can be replicated,” said Christopher. “Autism has gone from one-in-10,000 in the Eighties and now its one-in-42 boys. Many of these kids have amazing skills and ability to be quite successful in a different learning environment. A sea of 1,900 people is just too much for them. Otherwise they can learn, develop, grow and become successful.”
Harris-Bosselmann teaches at the University of North Georgia. “The education piece would not have come together without her,” said Christopher. Tapestry principal Amanda Chilvers served two years on the new school’s advisory council prior to this appointment. Previously she held several positions at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf. “We birthed the baby but she’s got to raise it,” Christopher said about Chilvers. “That is our most critical hire. We have amazing faith in her.”
Wednesday: THINC College and Career Academy in Troup County
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Carlethia Ingram easily could have become one more lost teenager, no real background, no real future. Her mother died four days after the birth of her youngest sister. For ten years Carlethia and two sisters lived with their grandmother in Savannah public housing until Barbara Ingram passed away last year. “When their grandmother died we kept them,” said Anthony Phillips. “No court has ever said they belong to you. It just happened.”
Phillips and his wife Donna are retired U.S. Army officers. Anthony owns a logistics company and serves on the World Trade Center Savannah board of directors. Donna Phillips is a dentist and board member at Ramah Junior Academy, a small Christian academy that was a large part of Carlethia Ingram’s life through ninth grade when she transferred to Savannah Christian Prep.
All three sisters – Carlethia, Parisian and Brandis – were able to attend private Christian schools, in part, because they received Arete Scholars Fund awards that covered tuition and other costs. That was last year; this year is different. This year Arete significantly reduced its scholarships, the Academy could lose perhaps 20 percent of its returning students and more than two-thirds of last year’s instructional staff left because of financial viability questions at the 100-year-old school.
The Arete Scholars Fund and about thirty other organizations participate in the state’s tax credit scholarship initiative. In the simplest description, individuals and corporations can take a state income tax dollar-for-dollar credit up to maximum allowable amounts by donating funds to help students attend eligible private schools. The program is managed by the state Department of Revenue and there lots of rules. It serves a fraction of one percent of K-12 children statewide.
The General Assembly created the tax credit scholarship program in 2008. The original amount was fixed at $50 million; the cap grew slowly and now is fixed at $58 million. Public support for this school choice approach has overwhelmed the program, especially the past three years.
The 2012 tax credit was reached in mid-August. This year’s budget cap was reached in mid-January. The turbo-charged calendar is a partial reason that Arete Scholars Fund came up well short of what it needs. Arete’s focus has been on corporate donations, not exclusively, but with much more emphasis than previously was given to individual donations.
“Our problem is when the fiscal year ends for corporations,” said Arete executive director Derek Monjure. “Some of the bigger donors we have, their fiscal year ends in January. They’re closing their books, haven’t done their tax estimations yet and the cap’s already been met.” Reality has tempered expectations this year: “It kills me,” Monjure said about Arete’s inability to expand or fund even last year’s number of students served.
Arete exclusively serves low-income students that qualify for free-or-reduced price lunch. Arete awarded 720 grants worth $4 million last year to students statewide with heavy concentrations in Savannah, Augusta, Albany and Atlanta. When school reopens this month, Arete will serve about 400 students at $1.6 million. Each scholarship was reduced by half from last year’s level.
This is the fourth year of Ramah Junior Academy’s partnership with Arete. “At one time we had 80 percent of our students on the scholarship,” said Michelle Moore, executive office staff member and a Ramah student when she was growing up in Savannah “back in the Eighties.”
Last year’s $5,800 Arete maximum award for a Ramah student was trimmed to $2,500 this year. The cost to attend Ramah ranges from $3,845 for a pre-K student to $5,460 for students who are in ninth or tenth grade. Ramah enrolled 125 students last year. About 100 are enrolled for classes that start August 11, and registration remains open. Ramah has a $600,000 budget.
“Most of the parents can’t afford it,” said Willie Walker, Ramah’s new principal who has been on the job since the middle of July. “We’ve tried our best to give them a major discount so they can still bring their children to the school. Some of them still can’t afford it. We want them here. We know they will do well here because they’ve done well in the past.”
About the Georgia Tax Credit Scholarship Law
Enacted by the 2008 General Assembly, the Georgia Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit Program increases overall education funding by millions of dollars every year. It also means families that choose to participate devote much more of their state tax obligation to learning.
Here’s how the credit helps children: About one-third of each state income tax dollar is invested in K-12 public education. Therefore, a family that pays $1,500 in state income tax contributes about $500 to education. But if that same family participates in the state tax credit scholarship program it will invest a much higher percentage and more actual dollars into education.
For example, let’s presume that the same family contributes $500 to tax credit scholarships. The family still owes $1,000 in state income tax and one third or about $330 will later be invested in K-12 public education. The family now has an $830 total education commitment which means the family will contribute 55 percent of its entire state tax obligation to education.
The $58 million cap is fixed and will not change unless the General Assembly and the state’s executive leadership decide it should change. About 13,000 K-12 children receive tax credit scholarship assistance, a micro number compared to Georgia’s 1.8 million estimated students.
One way to help the many students who saw their scholarships reduced or eliminated this year is to increase the cap. One idea would increase the cap from $58 million to $100 million. About 10,000 more students could be served. That would modestly improve the current model which is little more than a pilot project.
The state could reduce significant chaos with adoption of a quarterly or semi-annual calendar for tax credit pledges. Individuals and corporations would have more time to consider a tax credit scholarship decision. Smaller organizations like Arete and schools like Ramah Junior Academy would have a more predictable financial model. The process would become more orderly and less like an Oklahoma land rush.
Tax credit program supporters say their goal is clear: Improve school choice options.
“Families are in educational distress in our state,” said Lisa Kelly, president at the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program which provides tax credit scholarships to 5,000 students. “Why should only a small fraction of low and middle-income parents be given access to better opportunities for their children? When a program is working it grows in popularity. That is happening here, with taxpayers, with excellent private schools and with deserving families. Let’s grow this wonderful program.”
About Similar Tax Credit Laws Nationally
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently offer some version of an education tax credit scholarship, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Brand identity varies with tax credit scholarship, opportunity scholarship, educational credit, and even town tuition program among many names that are used to identify this school choice option.
Florida is the national leader with a $286 million tax credit budget cap compared to $58 million this year in Georgia. Florida imposes a $4,880 maximum scholarship award, according to the Friedman Foundation, whereas Georgia stipulates an award may be paid up to $8,983 but that figure is misleading. Georgia GOAL has awarded more than 16,500 scholarships since 2009; the average value for each grant is $3,783. The statewide average scholarship amount in 2012 (latest data available) was $3,388.
Arete has awarded 3,260 total scholarships in four years and due to its financial challenge this year, Arete says it was unable to help about 300 eligible families. Arete has also begun to shift its fund raising focus with more emphasis on a different mix of corporate and individual donors. “It hasn’t been a focus,” said Monjure. “It needs to become a focus.”
As I was finishing this article, my phone rang. It was Willie Walker at Ramah Junior Academy. He asked whether I knew anyone who might be able to pay registration fees for some of their students. “They can’t afford the fee,” Walker said. We shared an idea and he began making calls, looking for Samaritans who would pay registration fees for students they don’t even know.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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