With a semester behind it and policy adjustments underway, Macon’s newest charter school is looking ahead to the 2017-18 year.
Cirrus Academy now teaches students in kindergarten through eighth grade, but the school is scheduled to add ninth grade this coming fall. Enrollment stands at about 450 students, up since the fall, and 65 freshmen will be accepted for the 2017-18 year, CEO Ashanti Johnson said.
There are 32 teachers at the school, and Cirrus is recruiting instructors and staff for next year. Johnson wouldn’t reveal the number of open positions, since contract renewals haven’t been issued, but she said a large number of teachers are staying on board.
“We have our feet underneath us and now we’re adding on,” Johnson said. “We’re excited about moving forward to the next year. Given that we’ve made the progress, there is no danger of us not doing so.”
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Some issues are to be expected when a new school opens, said Karen Stehle, president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization. Cirrus changed leadership early on, replacing Michele Flowers with Gail Fowler as principal a month into the school year. Now, the school is remedying issues outlined in a state report.
The State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia made a surprise visit to the school in December and outlined five things that needed addressing immediately. Cirrus submitted the required corrective action plan Jan. 23.
Many of the new policies were adopted at the school’s Jan. 20 board meeting. Cirrus updated its process of screening and evaluating students with disabilities and added policies for identifying English learners, according to the school’s report. The school had no English learners this year, but now it’s prepared for future students, Johnson said.
In response to other mandates from the commission, Cirrus established procedures to give due process to students who face suspension or expulsion for more than 10 days, and provide parents federally required legal notices. It also reworked its methods for approving and inventorying checks written for more than $10,000.
And to avoid future problems, the commission made recommendations concerning Georgia’s Open Meetings Act compliance, academic oversight by the school’s governing board, additional staff training on the release of student records, storage of tests and safety plans.
“As a new charter school, building up infrastructure was something that was an ongoing effort,” Johnson said. “We anticipated that (the commission) would have a visit, and that was to help make us stronger. We took their report and did corrective actions and modified where we needed to and added on, because we do have that relationship with them as they’re helping guide us through that experience.”
All the recommendations either have been completely addressed or seen satisfactory progress, she said, and the school has not received any additional instructions from the commission.
“It is not uncommon for the SCSC to identify instances of noncompliance in new charter schools. However, the noncompliance the SCSC noted in its monitoring of Cirrus Charter Academy reveals that the school may need additional review and attention,” said Gregg Stevens, the commission’s deputy director. “The corrective action plan Cirrus Charter Academy submitted indicated that the school was moving swiftly to improve these programs.”
The commission will monitor Cirrus’ progress through review of the outlined policies, procedures and practices and an on-site visit later this school year or at the beginning of the 2017-18 year, he said.
“We’re also doing self-assessment. Our main goal now is to have a successful end of the year that leads into a better second year,” school founder Sheldon Hart said. “We’re constantly tweaking and modifying and re-evaluating ourselves because we want to continue to improve our school.”
Structure and design
It’s hard to talk about charter schools in Bibb County without mentioning Macon Charter Academy, which closed after just one year of operation after a series of issues.
Johnson said Cirrus’ structure and design make it much different from the failed school. Cirrus is the result of collaboration by people who know best practices, Fowler said.
“Opening a charter school is a bit like opening a whole new school district,” said Laura Perkins, a co-founder and principal of the Academy for Classical Education charter school, which opened in August 2014. “The people doing this are literally starting from scratch, and from personnel to curriculum there are thousands of things that can trip you up.
“It is so important to have people around and behind you who can check the process to be sure it is working.”
Cirrus focuses on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and accommodates students of different learning levels, Johnson said. Its mission is to help students and be a resource for the community.
“We knew the ultimate vision and are taking steps each day to achieve that,” Johnson said. “We’re building toward our future, month by month.”
Cirrus has an “open-door policy,” she said, and parents drop in any time they have concerns or questions.
“Issues that come to us, we address them and fix them fast,” said secretary and parent coordinator Melinda Coley, who has three children at Cirrus. “We work with the parents instead of against the parents.”
One parent, Nadia Griffin, found that Cirrus was not a good fit for her sixth-grader, Anastasia, and pulled her out in mid-January. Several of her daughter’s friends left before she did. Griffin said the school seemed to be moving in a good direction overall, but its growing pains hit home with the family.
“(Anastasia) just wasn’t very happy, and we felt like she needed to be challenged more than what she was getting,” Griffin said. “Everything that was promised is not up and running.”
Her daughter loves music and was in a program for gifted students before, but Cirrus didn’t offer those programs or fall sports, Griffin said. The school now offers chorus and hopes to have music “specials” in the future, Johnson said.
Athletic programs are starting to roll out, with basketball tryouts just concluded and soccer possibly starting this spring. Football and girls’ volleyball will commence in the fall, and leaders are looking into baseball, she said. The cheerleading program is expanding to include all grade levels.
Cirrus doesn’t have a media center yet, so it’s the main fundraising focus of the school’s PTO, said Stehle, who enrolled her two children at Cirrus after being unhappy with area public schools. The goal is to have it up and running for the next school year.