With just six weeks until the first day of classes, Cirrus Academy is making final preparations to open its doors to students.
The state-approved charter school announced Ashanti Johnson, an assistant vice provost and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, as its CEO and head of schools on Friday.
Johnson is set to replace Teresa Yarber. Founding board chairman Sheldon Hart said Yarber had been “working hard” but is expected to move out of the area soon, and Hart said the board found a more than adequate new leader in Johnson.
“It’s like walking past Michael Jordan in a pickup game,” he said. “You can’t just walk past Michael Jordan.”
An earth and environmental science professor before her stint in administration, Johnson, 45, said she’s concentrated largely on professional development for graduate students. When she discovered that those students were not prepared well enough for the next stage in life, she began working with undergraduate students.
From there, she discovered that lower grades needed her focus.
“Then you realize the undergrad is still too late,” she said.
Coming to Cirrus Academy, her plan is to make the science, technology, engineering, arts and math-focused school a place where students are exposed to successful leaders in various fields. Johnson, a mother of three, is hopeful that by bringing in representatives from Georgia Tech for students interested in engineering, for example, she can help the students at Cirrus become the “cream of the crop” for colleges down the road.
“It’s more than just a degree out the door,” she said. “It’s getting them ready for the next level.”
Rebuilding an old property
The school is located at 1870 Pio Nono Ave., on the site of the old Hamilton Elementary School. Cirrus first announced it had secured that property in November 2015 with plans to renovate and be open by August 2016.
HighMark School Development has provided the estimated $7.6 million for the project. HighMark CEO Glen Hileman said in November that the old building had deteriorated enough that significant work would be needed.
"But the foundation and structure of the school is extraordinary," he said.
HighMark also provided the $10 million for construction on what is now Macon Charter Academy, which recently filed for Chapter 11 reorganization and has been facing charter termination by the state.
Partially due to that solid brick and mortar shell and base structure, Cirrus Academy is on track to be open well before the planned Aug. 1 opening date. Hart said the construction should actually be complete within the next couple of weeks.
“At this point right here, it’s just formalities,” he said.
Now you’ve got a bright, new school building, rehabilitated, added onto, additions, technology and this, that and the other. I think it sends a very positive message to the community about how we favor education.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert
The school has cameras in the halls, with plans to expand that to the classrooms, both for security and professional development, a concept also being implemented in Bibb County schools. Cirrus classrooms will also be equipped with projectors for the whiteboards, which teachers will be able to use through computers, laptops or even tablets.
“While they’re walking around, working with groups of students, they can manipulate the projector,” Hart said.
A former math educator, Hart made sure to point out that teachers can still turn off the projector for more traditional work on the board.
“Nothing replaces going and working an equation on the whiteboard,” he said.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert was among the officials in attendance, and he said he was “excited” by the progress at the school. He said the new school would provide parents an additional option and be a welcome change from the run-down former Hamilton campus.
“It eliminates an eyesore,” he said, pointing to the highly visible location. “To have a dilapidated school building, what sort of a message does that send? Now you’ve got a bright, new school building, rehabilitated, added on to, additions, technology, this, that and the other. I think it sends a very positive message to the community about how we favor education.”
Work left to be done
Reichert said he was also glad to hear that the school had about 530 students already set to attend in August, which Hart said was in line with what’s outlined in the school’s charter. He added that there were still about 10 spots left in seventh and eighth grades, but that kindergarten through sixth grade were all full.
“We’re still combing the waiting list,” he said.
The school still has a “ways to go” on hiring teachers, Hart said, and some student spots have been left open in case faculty members have children that will need to attend the school. Johnson said she wasn’t worried about being able to get qualified teachers hired and added that it was ideal to get the leadership team in place before rounding out the faculty to make sure everyone has a chance to “buy in” on personnel choices.
“We have a lot of talented applicants,” she said.
For now, the blue and white walls of the classrooms and hallways are mostly bare, but Johnson said that would change once teachers get in their rooms.
“The creativity of the teachers to customize is something I can’t wait to see,” she said.
She told parents and leaders gathered at Friday’s news conference that the school will be a joint effort of parents, teachers and community members. In the end, the plan is to inspire the students to reach goals beyond high school.
“We have students with a lot of potential, but we have a need to get them through a process,” Johnson said.