While the fate of state-approved charter schools all over Georgia remains in limbo, charter schools with local backing are gaining more prominence in the midstate.
Currently, the Dublin City school system is seeking charter system status, while the Macon Academy of Excellence could soon become the first charter school in Bibb County.
A charter school receives public funds based on student enrollment and is allowed flexibility in some areas in exchange for increased academic accountability. Schools can lose their charters if they do not meet their testing accountability goals. In Georgia, charter status can be obtained either for an individual school or for the entire system.
Charter schools must have an open enrollment policy. If there are more students interested in attending than there are spaces, students are chosen through a lottery. Each has school-level governance that makes decisions about budgets, school programs and other matters.
The state Board of Education is expected to vote on Dublin’s charter system petition in June and the petition for the Macon Academy of Excellence in July. If they are approved, they will join the ranks of 109 charter schools in Georgia currently, along with an additional eight charter school systems.
Meanwhile, the Putnam County school district is currently wrapping up its first year as a charter system, and three career academies in the region are either already in operation or expected to open in the fall.
In Georgia, charter school growth has been explosive in the last three years, according to Lou Erste, charter schools division director for the Georgia Department of Education. The number of charter schools has more than doubled since 2008, and no charter systems existed before that point.
“The main goal (is for) charter schools to be an option for every student, not to replace traditiional public schools,” Erste said. “They provide traditional public schools competition for market share. The goal is not to take students away.”
According to Erste, that growth comes from a combination of factors, including a 2008 overhaul of the state’s Charter Schools Act of 1998, which formed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The commission has been controversial as a state entity with the power to approve charter schools after being denied by local school boards.
In 2009, seven local school districts, most in metro Atlanta, filed a suit against the commission, claiming those schools illegally take away funding from local schools.
In March, the Georgia Supreme Court delayed a decision on the constitutionality of the commission’s power to approve charter schools, leaving the fate of students at those schools unclear as the summer approaches.
Dublin City schools
As state courts make their decision about those schools, the Dublin City school system is moving ahead with strong community support. If approved, Dublin will be a charter system in the fall.
The path for Dublin City Schools to become a charter system began in January 2010, almost a year after Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter became leader of the district.
After using the first months to get to know the needs of the schools, Ledbetter formed a strategic planning team to define the system’s mission and carry out those goals. Those efforts led to the creation of a charter petition, approved by the local board in October.
Input from parents, teachers and community members has been an integral part of that process, Ledbetter said.
“When you let people have a say, the product they come up with is so much better,” he said.
One of the highlights of Dublin’s charter petition include flexible seat time for students, doing away with previous rules requiring students to be in class for a certain number of hours to receive course credit.
For example, students who fail a course could study and retest on only the material they did not master, allowing them to move on to the next course more quickly. Accelerated students who demonstrate knowledge of required material could move on to new lessons.
The increased flexibility will allow teachers to individualize instruction to the needs of each student, Ledbetter said.
“There’s not one answer for every student. We have different kids with different backgrounds, different strengths and different weaknesses,” he said.
Dublin’s charter plans are accompanied by other big changes in the school district, such as the implementation of three themed academies for elementary students in the fall and the establishment of a ninth grade academy at Dublin High School.
Ledbetter hopes that as a charter system, the community will continue to take ownership in the operations of the schools.
“The exciting part is the potential -- we don’t know how we’ll finish, but we’ll continue to work on it and make it all it can be for students,” he said.
Macon Academy of Excellence
Plans are also moving forward on what could be Bibb County’s first charter school, the Macon Academy of Excellence.
In March, the Bibb County Board of Education unanimously approved a charter petition for the academy, which would serve students from kindergarten to the fifth grade.
If approved by the state, Macon Academy of Excellence would open in August 2012, according to Erste.
The school, operated through Florida-based Charter Schools USA, would serve 560 students on a first-come, first-served basis. If more wanted to attend, they would be chosen through a lottery.
Macon Academy of Excellence would feature a longer school day, daily foreign language instruction and uniforms for students.
While no site has been finalized, academy leaders are considering the former Gilead Christian Academy as the school’s preferred location, said Gail Fowler, a former Southwest High principal and chairwoman of the school’s governing board.
Leaders at the school want to help meet the needs of parents who are looking for new educational options.
By focusing on elementary students, Fowler said the school aims to build a solid foundation in young learners.
“As education has changed, students have changed. Along with that, society demands more,” she said. “With the demands of today, we need to equip students to meet those demands globally.”
Putnam County schools
With almost one year of charter system status under its belt, the school governing authorities at each of Putnam County’s four schools has been adjusting to the shift of operational power from the central office to the schools themselves, said Superintendent Marcia Clanton.
“Our goal is to build confidence in our school leaders and parents so they feel comfortable to take governing responsibility,” she said.
While school leaders are awaiting standardized testing results to assess their first charter year, they are enthusiastic about innovations already in place in classrooms.
High school students receive cross-disciplinary instruction. For example, with a tilapia farm project at the school, students are getting lessons in science and agriculture, Clanton said.
Clanton, who took leadership of the district in January, has previous charter school experience as the former principal of the Savannah Arts Academy. For her, part of Putnam’s draw was its status as a charter system.
“It’s exciting for me,” she said.
With more classroom flexibility, Putnam County leaders are exploring new ways to reach students, such as incorporating more technology.
“There are a lot of things you can do instructionally that we haven’t even begun to investigate,” said Beth Bacon, Putnam County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
Along with the plans for charter-run schools in Dublin and Macon, several Middle Georgia school districts either already have or are starting career academies run through charters.
With the help of $3 million grants from the Technical College System of Georgia, local school districts partner with technical colleges and businesses to prepare students with career skills that benefit the local economy.
The Houston County Career Academy opened its doors for the first time in 2010. Before it became a charter school, the system provided career-based education through the Houston County Career and Technology Center.
In its first year, the Houston County Career Academy and its programs have most benefited from collaboration with higher education leaders and the business community, said Barbara Wall, Houston County’s director of career, technical and agricultural education.
“Having more input from different stakeholders is exactly what’s needed at the career academy,” she said.
“The people have their focus where it needs to be -- helping students become a viable workforce in the 21st century.”
In the fall, two more career academies are expected to open in the midstate -- the Baldwin County Career Academy and the Heart of Georgia College and Career Academy for students, a collaborative effort between Bleckley, Laurens and Wheeler county schools and Dublin City Schools.
Dooly County High School
Dooly County High School received approval to become a charter school in 2006, according to the state Department of Education. When the school’s five-year contract expires in June, it will not renew its charter. With just two years on the job, Superintendent Grady Miles said he was not part of the decision for Dooly County to become a charter school.
Instead, the school is focusing its efforts on the $3 million federal School Improvement Grant it received last summer, Miles said.
Growth and future
The flexibility possible in charter schools has boosted statewide interest in them, Erste said. Because of that, schools are able to try new ways to improve student achievement, not possible in recent years because of state regulations.
While many current charter schools and systems have not reached the full five years of their initial contracts, state leaders are coming up with ways to assess charter accountability long before that time comes.
While Georgia doesn’t have as many charter schools as some states, the option to offer charter status to an entire school system is a relatively new concept across the nation.
“It’s an exciting time for charter schools in Georgia,” Erste said. “So many school districts are looking at the charter option.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.