Group plans to open charter school in Peach County

jmink@macon.comFebruary 11, 2013 

A group of Peach County residents is looking to open a charter school in the county, and it is seeking community input.

If approved on time, the Byron Peach Charter High School would open around September 2014. The plan is for a year-round school that focuses on preparing students for college. The school would have longer days for mandatory study halls, during which students would finish their homework at the school with teachers on hand, said B.J. Walker, a member of the Byron Peach Charter High School Association.

“I love Peach County (schools), and everybody on my board does,” Walker said. “The concern we had was ... is this the best education they can receive?”

The group submitted its letter of intent to the Peach County Board of Education and the Georgia Department of Education about three weeks ago and will hold two community meetings to gather feedback about the project. The meetings will be at 6:45 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Byron Municipal Complex and 6:30 p.m. March 5 at the Peach County Courthouse.

The group plans to submit its charter school petition to the local school board in May. Then, the board has about 60 days to either approve or reject the proposal. If it’s denied, the group can take its request to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, but experts encourage charter school groups to work with their local school boards.

“It’s a much better option than getting a denial and then having to go on to the charter commission,” said Nina Rubin, communications director for the Georgia Association of Charter Schools.

The Peach County group has every intention of getting school board approval and wants to work with the board of education, Walker said.

“We want to continue to have an open relationship with them as we work through the charter,” he said.

Peach County school board members recently took part in a training that examined the process of approving a charter school.

School Board Chairman Jamie Johnson said he would be supportive of a charter school that was in the best interest of all Peach County students, but he cannot make a decision because the school board has not yet received a petition.

“I’m not totally against charter schools,” he said. “But I need to see what the petition would state in order to make an informed decision.”

If approved, the charter school would be located in Byron -- group members are looking at a city-owned building -- and would initially enroll about 200 high school freshmen and sophomores. If the school did not have room for all students who applied, it would use a lottery to choose students. The school would expand to include all four high school grades within its first couple of years, Walker said.

In addition to a year-round schedule and mandatory study halls, the school would require students to complete community service as part of their graduation requirements. Parents would be encouraged to volunteer within the school, and it would enforce strict behavior rules, Walker said.

But, first, the group must get the project off the ground.

Creating a charter school is a daunting task. Charter schools must open a year after receiving approval. It takes at least that long to find principals, hire faculty and staff, get facilities in order and other duties, Rubin said.

And it takes a solid group to put together a charter school. It should involve people who are familiar with education, law, proposal writing, insurance and risk management and public relations, to name a few, Rubin said.

“The founding board, at some point, needs a succession plan for what happens when the founding group (is no longer needed), and the school is capable of sustaining itself,” she said.

About four years ago, a group of Peach County residents gathered to discuss the possibility of a charter school. That initial group fizzled, but a stronger group recently formed, Walker said.

The group is concerned about lagging graduation rates and test scores, not only in Peach County but throughout the state, Walker said. Peach County’s graduation rate for 2011, the most recent year available, was 61 percent, compared to 67 percent statewide, according to the state Department of Education’s website.

Walker, who has a background in real estate, joined the group as a concerned parent of an 11-year-old. Other members include attorneys, school counselors, teachers, elected officials and financial advisers. The group is working with the Georgia Association of Charter Schools and has hired a consultant to help with the process, he said.

While charter schools are funded with public dollars once operational, the group is seeking financial support to pay start-up costs, according to a news release.

If approved, the school would be one of a few charter schools in Middle Georgia. Charter systems have been approved in Dublin and Putnam County, and a Bibb County charter -- the Macon Academy of Excellence -- received approval in 2011. The Houston County Career Academy is a charter school.

“It’s a really big thing in Middle Georgia to have a charter school,” Walker said, adding he hopes that a successful charter school in Peach County will convince other groups to give it a try. “Seeing it done in their backyard lets them see how it’s done.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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