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Westside Atlanta Charter … Changing Lives One Young Life at a Time

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Republished by Charter Confidential

Frank Sinatra made the New York myth and legend seem so attractive – “I want to be part of it, New York, New York” – but after living her entire life there Adrienne Brooks wanted out. “You rush through everything in New York. You eat fast, you walk fast, you go, go, go,” she said. “I’m like, I need more grass area, not so much cement everywhere.”

Brooks especially wanted something different for her son, Christian. Three years ago this single mother said good riddance Big Apple, hello Atlanta. “I needed more space for him. I needed him to be outside running, playing and just enjoying that. You get that here in Georgia.”

They moved into an apartment northwest of downtown Atlanta and then Brooks went shopping. Not in Buckhead, not for shoes and swag, but shopping for her young son’s education. Brooks enrolled Christian in first grade at Westside Atlanta Charter School when it opened in fall 2013. She enlisted as a parent volunteer and later was hired as the school’s parent liaison.

“My budget is tight. It’s just me and my son,” Brooks said. “Every little penny I’m looking at to see where can this go, how much can I afford to spend, am I able to send (Christian) to a great school where you get the private school experience but I’m not paying the private school price.”

A field trip to Westside Atlanta Charter School was part of the “Amplify School Choice” conference hosted April 24-25 in Atlanta by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Two days of wonky talk led by experts from prominent policy organizations was wrapped around an opportunity to tour Westside Atlanta’s 163-student campus northwest of downtown.  (See website links below.)

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

“Most parents have had the experience where their kids were just lost in the sauce, meaning they were in these big classrooms,” Brooks said. “If your child is not that child that just stands out the teacher has so many kids that they don’t get that one-on-one-attention. Here it’s very small. The teachers have personal relationships with the children and the families.”

Westside Atlanta is located on Drew Drive in what can appropriately be described as a revitalization community. “Homes are starting to come out of the ground again,” said executive director Pete Settelmayer. He describes the location as “between Bankhead and Buckhead.” Forty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Twenty-seven percent live in west Highlands which is a combination of middle class and subsidized public housing.

“This was set up to be the East Lake of the west side about 2004, 2005. Then we all know what happened in 2007,” Settelmayer said. The economic recession that started in 2008 significantly slowed down the aggressive project. And therein, an opportunity developed. Columbia Residential founder Noel Khalil gave Westside Atlanta Charter a $1-per-year lease to occupy unused commercial space for up to 11 years. The campus also includes a large modular facility for the Upper School.

Like every public charter school, Westside Atlanta is required to meet all Georgia state educational standards, but that is merely a starting point. “Our focus is to teach the children, not teach the test,” Settelmayer said. “We’re going to teach them to think critically.  We’re going to teach them to solve problems.  We’re going to teach them to have a go at things on their own with our support because at this level they need support.”

The Franklin Center conference brought together experts on virtually every subject central to parental school choice, especially funding formulas. The concept that public tax dollars should follow the student would do much to put parents in charge of education rather than the current model that favors funding school districts rather than funding individual student education.

“Americans want more freedom in almost every walk of their life,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice senior fellow Ben Scafidi told the conference. Scafidi is former chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. “The reason we’re not getting it in schools is because there is a very well-funded, entrenched opposition but it’s going to come. Intelligent people that aren’t paid by the public school system are not on their side anymore. The politics have changed.”

Politics were not part of what Adrienne Brooks was thinking about when she decided to start over in Atlanta. For young Christian she wanted to replicate the quality of the Catholic School education she had as a child in New York, but at a price that she could afford. Brooks looked at several options before she decided on Westside Atlanta Charter School.

“It works because you have huge parental involvement,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to have your teachers involved; that’s their job. They teach because they love it; that’s their passion. It’s another when you actually have the parental support. If the parent support is not there it’s hard for the school to survive. We make it feasible for them to be involved.”

Additional Resources:

Faith and Freedom Coalition
Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Westside Atlanta Charter School

(Mike Klein specializes in criminal justice, public education and economic development journalism and event production. He has held leadership positions with several media organizations including CNN as Vice President of News Production. Mike on LinkedIn.)

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April 27, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deal Administration Releases “Opportunity School District” Legislation

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Republished by Charter Confidential.

Governor Nathan Deal’s administration began to build the intellectual equity case for his “Opportunity School District” initiative today during a joint House-Senate education committees hearing at the State Capitol. Deal is asking this year’s General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that if approved by voters would give the state a new tool to combat failing schools.

The worst failing schools could essentially become “wards of the state” until they are fixed or suffer some other fate. Deal has said 23 percent of Georgia public schools graded “D” or “F” for three consecutive years.  The administration needs two-thirds approval by the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before voters in  November, 2016.  Georgia is considered a school choice leader because of progress in charter schools and tax credit scholarships but it does not have a recovery school option.

The Governor’s Office announced legislation today:  “In the governor’s proposal, persistently failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 on the Georgia Department of Education’s accountability measure, the College and Career Performance Index (CCRPI), for three consecutive years. The Opportunity School District would take in no more than 20 schools per year, meaning it would govern no more than 100 at any given time. Schools would stay in the district for no less than five years but no more than 10 years.”

The administration did not testify about specific legislation during the State Capitol hearing, relying instead on building-the-case witnesses from two neighboring states — Louisiana and Tennessee — that have similar models.  In Louisiana they are called recovery schools and in Tennessee they are called achievement schools.  The intent is the same, to provide an alternative option to rescue failed schools.  With alternatives come challenges and questions including facilities, funding, attendance zones, attracting high quality teaching and leadership talent and accountability.  All of these will undoubtedly be addressed many times during the General Assembly’s consideration of Governor Deal’s proposal.

The final moments of the two-hour hearing might have been the most dramatic when Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), testified that millions of dollars spent in Race to the Top education federal grants does not appear to have made much difference at public schools where those millions were invested.  The question he was asked and his answer are quoted at the bottom of this article.  This exchange makes a compelling argument that spending money, more money, does not by itself work.

Here is a description of the House – Senate committee hearing discussion as it occurred.  Note: the joint committee did not release an advance witness list.  The hearing was held at the Coverdell Office Building across from the State Capitol.  Watching online, the room seems packed to overflow, including senior policy advisers from the Governor’s Office.

1:10 – 1:45 p.m. — The first portion of the hearing has been devoted to witnesses from Louisiana who are discussing the state’s use of recovery school districts, especially since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated public education facilities, specifically in New Orleans. The first witness is Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana school superintendent and considered a reformer in public education accountability. (Click here to learn about his work.)  Recovery school districts were in place in 2005 but the state moved to re-emphasize non-traditional models as it rebuilt the ravaged public education system.  The second witness is Neerav Kingsland, chief executive officer at New Schools for New Orleans (click here) since May 2012.  New Schools is frequently cited as an education success story.

1:45 p.m. — Former Tennessee commissioner of education Kevin Huffman is discussing the state’s “Achievement School Districts” which are an alternative to traditional K-12 public education classrooms.  Charter schools are one part of this structure.  Huffman talked about trying to “make a match” between what communities need and charter schools that best fit the needs.  Huffman said one of the greatest constraints on growth is finding great leaders and teachers.  Memphis is a target area for this education innovation.  There currently are 16 Tennessee achievement schools.  Huffman said, “The early signs are promising but I think it’s early to judge because we have so few schools.  We look at New Orleans and that is what we want. We want the schools in Memphis to improve” similar to successes seen in Louisiana.  Huffman resigned his commissioner’s appointment in January 2015.

2:00 p.m. — The next witness is Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA).  A native Georgian, Rauschenberg moved to New Orleans in 2007 after he graduated with honors from Georgia College.  Rauschenberg taught math for three years at Joseph S. Clark High School in New Orleans. He described the experience as “a tremendous struggle” because many students could not perform at or anything near grade level.  The school converted to a recovery school model several years ago; Rauschenberg said today overall academic performance at Joseph S. Clark High School has increased about 20 percent.

2:05 p.m. — Question Time from Senate and House members.  At this point there has not been any presentation about Governor Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District.  Committee members are asking questions to the Louisiana and Tennessee witnesses about accountability, how the states attracted quality instructional talent and whether charter schools were for-profit or non-profit models.

2:50 p.m. — Toward the end of the discussion Senator Donzella James asked a lengthy question. In part, she said, “Who is going to identify chronically failing schools, what’s the root cause of them and are we just taking money away from the public school system rather than putting more in it which seemed to be the reason that we were having the problems in the first place?”  Her question was directed to Sam Rauschenberg.  This was his response:

“I haven’t been in all the conversations about the bill but I will say our agency (GOSA) has been part of the evaluation work, the Race to the Top work, much of which was to turn around low-performing schools.  The state received a significant infusion of money for low achieving schools as well as school improvement grants (from) the federal government.  A lot of these schools got millions of dollars to do so and our analysis which is available on our website showed that only a few of those have made some gains but overall they have not made tremendous gains.  The model that was chosen was a transformation model which had very limited changes in the overall structure of the schools relative to the other options but there was a significant infusion of money into those schools over a three-year period.  I would go to those as examples of schools that were low-performing and had a lot of resources to answer that part of your question.”

3:00 p.m. — The meeting concluded.  No next meeting was announced.

(Mike Klein has written about Georgia K-12 public education since 2010.  He held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Mike on LinkedIn.)

February 11, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Early Political Education of Richard Woods

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

The path for Richard Woods to become Georgia’s new state schools superintendent opened after his predecessor committed political suicide. John Barge might still have the top education office if he had not alienated Governor Nathan Deal, made fellow Republicans furious and simultaneously angered thousands of school choice families.

Barge broke with Deal in August, 2012 when he said he would not support a constitutional amendment to recreate the state’s charter schools commission. Barge aligned himself with the traditional education establishment that dislikes charters and especially alternate authorization.

Suddenly an outsider among Republicans and ignored by the Governor’s Office, Barge made the decision to announce he would leave the Superintendent’s office after one term to challenge Deal in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary; thus ended John Barge’s career, at least that phase of it.

Woods appears to have noticed how that played out. This was obvious when Woods delivered opening remarks at the Georgia Charter Schools Association leadership conference. A surprise guest, Governor Deal, made an early morning decision to attend with First Lady Sandra Deal.

“I am a friend of charter school K-12 innovation,” Woods told educators who packed the Busbee Center Auditorium last Friday morning at Gwinnett Technical College. “People will get to know me and I will get to know you but I guarantee you this, you will have no stronger advocate, no stronger person that will support and sing the praises of the work that you do.

“I will work to make sure you have the funding, the personnel and the resources you need to reach every child that comes through your door,” Woods said during an eight-minute address. He concluded, “Across the state we want to make sure we allow teachers to do the one thing they want to do, that is, close your door and teach and reach their child.”

Barge became Superintendent when Republicans swept the state’s top executive offices in November 2010. He was viewed as being a supportive player in summer 2011 when Barge worked to help keep 17 charter schools open for 16,000 students after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled a state charter schools commission that was established in 2008 was unconstitutional.

One year later his decision to oppose a charter schools commission constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot aligned Barge with local boards of education and superintendents. The amendment passed with 58 percent. Barge chose to stand side-by-side with a bureaucracy that could not save him from political extinction.

The next few years will be exciting and challenging. Deal wants to create an Opportunity School District that would allow the state to take custody of failing schools. His new Education Reform Commission will propose long overdue changes to public schools funding. Supporters will advocate for creation of education savings accounts and expansion of tax credit scholarships.

Woods talks about wanting to cultivate “good press” to replace the “bad stories” about Georgia public education. His chances for success will be greatly enhanced by recognition of who makes and who implements policy. Georgia is a school choice leader. John Barge possibly would still be there if he had made a different decision. Richard Woods seems to already understand that.

(Mike Klein has written about Georgia public education since 2010.  He has held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Mike on LinkedIn.)

RICHARD WOODS Georgia State Schools Superintendent (Georgia Charter Schools Association Photo)

RICHARD WOODS
Georgia State Schools Superintendent
(Georgia Charter Schools Association Photo)

February 4, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Atlanta Classical Academy Educates Citizens for a Free Republic

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

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?

ACA New Logo“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.

TERRENCE MOORE

TERRENCE MOORE

“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.

Atlanta Classical Academy Website

Atlanta Classical on Facebook

(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.)

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chattahoochee Hills Charter … Learning in the Natural World

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

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.

CHCS-LOGOChattahoochee 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.

Chattahoochee Hills Charter School Facebook Photo

Chattahoochee Hills Charter School Facebook Photo

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.”

Chattahoochee Hills Charter School website

Chattahoochee Hills on Facebook

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 18, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Macon’s Newest Charter School Aims to Become Truly Classic

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

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.

safe_image“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.

LAURA PERKINS

LAURA PERKINS

ESTERINE STOKES

ESTERINE STOKES

“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.

THE GRYPHON

THE GRYPHON

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.”

Academy for Classical Education Website

ACE on Facebook

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 15, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tapestry Public Charter School’s Special Mission

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

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.

Tapestry LogoElective 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.”

Image from Tapestry Public Charter School Facebook page

Image from Tapestry Public Charter School Facebook page

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.”

Tapestry Public Charter School Website

Tapestry on Facebook

Wednesday: THINC College and Career Academy in Troup County

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hundreds Lose Georgia Tax Credit Scholarships

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

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.”

Footnote

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.

Additional Resources

Arete Scholars Fund

Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program

Georgia Tax Credit Program FAQs

Ramah Junior Academy

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 4, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Provost Academy Georgia Rebrands and Reboots for Swift Growth

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

As this year’s school days were closing out, one of Provost Academy Georgia’s online students wrote a note saying, “I have never been this happy in all my years of growing up. I need more positive adults like you in my life.” The student who wrote that note lives on her own and plans to attend college. “We are really, truly, saving lives,” says Provost Superintendent Monica Henson.

Provost Academy Georgia is also growing up.

This summer Provost is expected to change its relationship with Edison Learning, the national organization that incubated Provost for two years. The Magic Johnson Bridgescape Learning Centers name will disappear in favor of new branding. Provost will fully manage its entire financial model and back office infrastructure. Edison will continue as a curriculum vendor.

The Georgia school and its Edison Learning parent have been in discussions for months. “Our partnership with Edison Learning is evolving,” said Henson. She expects Edison will continue to provide tech support and affordable internet access to financially eligible students. Provost will continue to use the curriculum vendor Apex Learning for advanced placement courses.

Provost will also launch a small pilot project this fall with Marietta City Schools to improve graduation chances for at-risk students. “We are delighted to work with them,” said Henson. “I have been looking for two years for a district partner to set up this kind of prototype.”

PrintThe biggest change from a public perception is discontinuation of the Magic Johnson connection. Provost operated brick-and-mortar Magic Johnson Bridgescape Learning Centers in Atlanta, Augusta, Macon and Savannah. The new name is Graduation Achievement Centers of Georgia.

Johnson licensed his name to Edison Learning for its work primarily in city settings but Provost increasingly sees its opportunities being in less populated Georgia. “We expect to dramatically expand outreach to rural students,” said Henson. “We’re very grateful to Mr. Johnson for his support. We wouldn’t be where we are right now without his help and support.” Johnson made one trip to Georgia in April, 2012 to announce the initiative at a State Capitol news conference.

Provost Academy Georgia is a learning hybrid with an emphasis on hard-to-serve students who failed in traditional settings. The typical student is a high school dropout. The typical freshman is at least 16 years old. Some are at-risk youth who were accepted into National Guard Youth ChalleNGe programs at Forts Gordon or Stewart. Some are under juvenile justice jurisdiction.

MONICA HENSON Provost Academy Georgia

MONICA HENSON
Provost Academy Georgia

Provost students universally either ran out of traditional options or they burned bridges. About 1,100 students enrolled in the Provost online academy this year. Another 600 enrolled in the former Magic Johnson Bridgescape Centers. This fall’s estimated enrollment is 2,175 students.

The fifth and newest Graduation Achievement Center will be the partnership that the Marietta City Schools board approved last week. This fall Provost will take classroom space at the city system’s Performance Learning Center, housed in a former school. Provost will start small with 25-to-50 students. Some could be Spanish speaking students with limited English skills.

“We aren’t satisfied with our current graduation rate. It’s been hovering around 60 percent,”
said John Waller, director of secondary curriculum and special programs for Marietta City Schools. Waller said Provost will target “any student who is overage and under-accredited. If this reaches students who otherwise wouldn’t graduate it’s the right thing to do.”

Universally, Georgia charter schools will tell you they have great students, great parents and lots of financial challenges. Provost is no different. The four Magic Johnson Bridgescape Learning Centers that opened in 2012 closed in February this year when the state’s financial aid formula was no longer sufficient to support the brick-and-mortar model.

Provost 2013 – 2014 funding was based on 942 students who enrolled during the previous school year. But when the Academy enrolled more than 1,700 students this past year the financial aid formula did not work. Keeping the four brick-and-mortar centers open would threaten the entire Provost Academy model, so they were closed and about 20 staff members lost jobs.

This spring the state agreed to fund Provost going forward based on 2,175 total enrollments which is what the Academy expects this fall. Provost will receive about $4,779 per online pupil and about $7,821 per brick-and-mortar pupil at the five Graduation Achievement Centers. The statewide average for full time funding is $8,440 per pupil in traditional public school systems.

Last year Provost awarded 20 high school diplomas to its first graduation class. At least 40 students will graduate this month and the number of 2014 graduates could increase after end-of-course retakes are scored. Henson is encouraged about the road immediately ahead: “We are now in a financially stable position going forward.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

(Published Friday, May 30, 2014)

May 30, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Public Schools Employ More Staff Than Teachers

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia lawmakers filed about five dozen public education bills in this year’s General Assembly, bills that address funding formulas, enhancements to parental school choice, tax credits, ideas to preserve HOPE financial aid, additional days for pre-K education programs and many more.

Here is something lawmakers might want to think about:  Why was the employment growth rate for Georgia public school administrators and non-teaching staff nearly double the percentage growth rate in total student population between 1992 and 2009, at enormous real cost?  Also, why does Georgia employ more administrators and non-teaching staff than teachers?

This data is found in “The School Staffing Surge,” a new report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  Georgia is named among 21 states in which administrators and non-teaching staff outnumbered teachers in 2009.  The District of Columbia is a state for purposes of this report, so that means teachers outnumber all other staffers in 30 remaining states.

Writing last fall in part one of “The School Staffing Surge,” author Benjamin Scafidi found that the public school system employment explosion did not have a direct relationship to improved pupil academic performance.  Scafidi relies on 1992 – 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.

Here are the primary Georgia-based findings, as reported by Scafidi:

  • Georgia public school student population grew 41 percent between 1992 and 2009, but there was a 74 percent increase in administrators and other non-teaching staff.
  • Georgia school districts employed 120,300 administrators and other non-teaching staff in 2009.  That number would have been 97,169 if non-teaching staff employment grew at exactly the same percentage rate as the student population between 1992 and 2009.
  • Georgia would have saved $925 million in non-teaching staff salaries if employment had grown at the same percentage rate as the student population.
  • Georgia teachers could have received $7,786 in pay raises.
  • In 2009, Georgia public schools had 1,461 more non-teaching staff than teachers.

Although Georgia makes the list of states that employed more staff than teachers in 2009, it is not near the top, ranked 18th among 21 states.  Virginia had 60,737 more staff than teachers and it received a distinction as the “Most Top-Heavy” state.  Among southern states, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana also employed more staff than teachers.

Nationally, the report finds that public school systems could have saved $24.3 billion in 2009, based on a $40,000 per year per employee cost for non-teaching staff.  The definition for staff is, literally, anyone who is not a lead teacher from superintendents to bus drivers, maintenance staff and anyone else on a public school payroll. “That $24.3 billion would be annual recurring savings in public schools that could be used for other worthy purposes,” the report said.

Writing in the executive summary, Scafidi concludes, in part, “One should ask whether the significant resources used to finance employment increases could have been spent better elsewhere … The burden of proof is now on those who still want to maintain or even increase the dramatically larger staffing levels in public schools.”

Click here to read the complete report and access several tables with state-by-state data.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

March 7, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment