Crowd asks questions at first Peach charter school meeting

jmink@macon.comFebruary 21, 2013 

BYRON -- Mayor Larry Collins says he has dreamed of this.

As a graduate of the former Byron High School, Collins has wanted a high school to return to the small town. Now, he is on the brink of getting his wish as a group of residents plan to open Peach County’s first charter school in Byron.

A crowd of more than 200 people packed the Byron Municipal Complex on Thursday as the charter school board, which includes Collins, held the first of several town hall meetings.

Many came to show support, but several residents also wanted to get information and ask questions about the proposed Byron Peach Charter High School. Parents filled out surveys and submitted their questions.

“I have grandchildren, and it’s extremely expensive to come to private schools, yet public schools have fallen so far from what it takes to achieve in today’s society,” said Jane Harbage, who attended Thursday’s meeting. “There has to be a better situation, and I believe charter school is that choice.”

If approved on time, the Byron Peach Charter High School would open August 2014.

The plan is for a longer school year, probably 190 or 200 days a year with extended breaks, charter board members said.

The school would have longer days for tutoring, seven periods that include a mandatory study hall, Advanced Placement and dual enrollment class requirements, partnerships with local colleges, required community service and a rotating weekly schedule.

The rotating schedule would allow students to take classes at different times each week. That way, they can experience each class during their peak learning period, which is typically in the morning, said Roy Lewis, a Peach County commissioner and charter school board member.

Audience members wanted to know whether sports and extracurricular activities would be offered. The answer: the main focus would be on academics, but the board wants to partner with the county school system to have combined programs. Students who maintain good grades would be exempt from study hall to travel to another school for practice, said B.J. Walker, a charter school board member.

“We’re just trying to do things a little differently from an academic standpoint,” he said.

As far as transportation is concerned, initially there would be no school buses, mainly because funds will be tight. Charter members suggest that parents carpool. Still, the school might try to find transportation for students who travel to other schools for sports practices, Walker said.

Many questions focused on the enrollment process. Initially, 125 freshmen and 125 sophomores would be enrolled. Over the next couple of years, the school would expand to include students from all four grades with a maximum of 500 students. If the schools is at capacity, students would be chosen by a lottery system.

In response to audience questions, charter board members said that special needs students would be admitted, faculty and staff could enroll their children and neither Byron residents nor the children of residents who donate time and money will have a better chance of enrollment.

“This isn’t just about your children,” Walker said. “This is going to have an impact on the entire community.”

The group -- which also includes longtime educators and a former Peach County school board member -- decided to open a charter school after being unsatisfied with lagging graduation rates and test scores, not just in Peach County but statewide.

The charter school would aim to increase test scores and graduation rates, foster workforce development and community growth and create jobs, Lewis said.

Now, the group must send its charter school petition to the local board of education. It plans to send that petition in May, and the local school board has 60 days to approve or deny the proposal. If rejected, the charter group can take its petition to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. It must also receive approval from the state Board of Education.

But the group has every intention of working with the local school board, charter members said.

After it receives approval, the group must wait at least a year to open the school, according to the Georgia Association of Charter Schools.

In the meantime, the group would be hiring administrators, faculty and staff, as well as preparing curriculum and the facility. And, group members will be raising money. While charter schools are funded with public dollars once operational, the group is seeking financial support to help pay start-up costs.

“We need the community to buy in. You have to decide what’s important to you, and we trust that you will find this important,” Lewis said.

In addition to money, he asked attendees to donate their time, attend town hall meetings and spread the word.

“If we don’t get enough interest, we’re not going to have a charter,” he said. With community support “we have a much better chance of getting this charter approved.”

As mayor of Byron, Collins said he feels it is the right time for a charter school. Not only is appropriate legislation in place, but community support seems strong, he said.

“It’s been a dream for many years to reconstitute a high school here in Byron,” he said. “I feel a personal and emotional attachment to it.”

The next community meeting will be 6:30 p.m. March 5 at the Peach County Courthouse. For more information call the association at 396-5803 or e-mail bpchs2013@gmail.com.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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