Did ACE make a difference? Bibb superintendent speaks out as 1st class graduates

Here’s how the Academy for Classical Education’s lottery system works

Laura Perkins, principal at the Academy for Classical Education, explains how the lottery system at ACE works.
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Laura Perkins, principal at the Academy for Classical Education, explains how the lottery system at ACE works.

If Kameron Johnson had not found someone to ride to school with five years ago, she might never have been part of a graduating class that is set to make history Saturday.

The Academy for Classical Education valedictorian rode the bus to Howard Middle School before enrolling at the academy when it opened in 2014. The charter school on New Forsyth Road does not offer transportation.

“I wouldn’t have been here,” said Johnson, who plans to attend the University of Georgia to study chemistry.

The commencement at Macon City Auditorium marks the first class to graduate from ACE, the only Bibb County charter school to ever award high school diplomas.

All told, the class generated $1.7 million in scholarships, not including Hope Scholarship and the Zell Miller Scholarship.

Most of Johnson’s classmates are going to college, with only a few entering the military or the workforce.

ACE has the highest graduation rate of any Bibb public high school at 99 percent. Only one of the 66 seniors at ACE will not graduate.

“They are artists and they’re engineers. They’re physicists and they’re lawyers and they’re musicians,” Laura Perkins, principal and co-founder of the school, said of the pioneering class. “They’re well-rounded and well-read and funny and amazing and philosophical. They know how to get along with people. They know how to problem-solve.”

Will Bibb schools ‘take a hit’ when ACE becomes state charter?

This summer, ACE will become a state charter school and it will no longer be a part of the Bibb County School District.

Bibb Superintendent Curtis Jones said he anticipates the district will take a hit because of it.

“I anticipate a drop in our graduation rate and in test scores because they do have some of the higher performing kids overall in the district,” Jones said. “I think parents in Bibb are going to have less choice of where their kids will go. I think overall the district is going to lose a little bit in reputation.”

Jones said the charter school’s departure from the district “in some ways is a disservice to the people who are in Bibb County.”

Under the state charter that goes into effect July 1, kids who live in nearby counties will be eligible to enter the 2021 lottery for enrollment at ACE.

“You know, the truth is, they’re not going to have any more seats and now some of those seats will not be for people in Bibb County,” Jones said.

Witt Gaither, board chairman at ACE, said the effects Jones anticipates for Bibb schools are “not my dragons” to slay.

“We never posited to be a district solution,” he said. “We are a catalyst for change and choice. Period.”

While Gaither said the school’s original intent was to serve Bibb students, that changed sometime last year when ACE started planning to renew its charter. Uncertainty in the state’s political landscape contributed to the decision to apply for a state charter.

The relationship between ACE and the school district has not always been a smooth one.

ACE took “a lot of grief” for opting to create its own calendar that was separate from Bibb schools, Gaither said. ACE also stopped participating in the district’s Teacher of the Year award after the first year.

“We’ve always said that we never wanted to change the district,” Gaither said. “We also realized that we were creating consternation at the district on some level. … I think they would have liked us to limit independence, flexibility and autonomy and we were unwilling to do that.”

Finances are another factor that went into the decision to apply for a state charter. Perkins said the state will increase the amount it pays per student by $2,000. That will help ACE pay off the $35 million in bonds it was issued to build out the New Forsyth Road campus.

Fundamental differences

What is the purpose of a charter school?

The Telegraph asked Jones and the leadership at ACE. Their answers were fundamentally different.

“My belief was that charter schools were in place to be innovative to help try new ideas and to educate the traditional schools on what works and what doesn’t,” Jones said. “We really haven’t been able to pick up on anything that ACE has done. ... It was, in some ways, unfortunate. There just wasn’t that exchange of information.”

To Gaither and Perkins, the purpose of charter schools can be summed up in a single word: choice.

“That really gets highlighted in our community when you look at the dearth of private schools or and the number of kids who are in private schools,” Gaither said. “What we’ve said from the beginning, a parent’s ability to choose oughtn’t be based on whether or not they can pay tuition.”

Differences in diversity

Diversity in the classrooms at charter schools compared to public schools is also worth noting, Jones said.

Demographics at ACE are out of sync with Bibb County public schools. The graduating class at ACE is roughly 77 percent white. The school is 71 percent white.

Bibb schools as a whole are 81 percent black.

Asked how the charter school wound up with demographics disproportionate to the district, Gaither contended the 2015 opening of Macon Charter School “split the folks who wanted to come make a decision on choice.”

“That year was the year to play,” Gaither said of ACE’s first lottery in 2014. “So if you didn’t play that first year, the lottery changed for you differently.”

The first lottery was done in-house and was videotaped, Perkins said. In years since, private vendors were contracted to handle the lottery.

“We took in almost 800 kids,” Perkins said. “There were a lot of parents that made the effort to apply and there were a lot of parents who stood back because they really weren’t sure.”

As it was, Macon Charter School closed a year after opening. Most of its students were black.

“What I’ve found with ACE and at Macon Charter is it increased the segregation of our kids,” Jones said. “The effect of both of those made the schools that were remaining more segregated. I don’t think that was the intent, but I think that’s what they’ve also seen across the nation as well.”

Perkins said the new state charter includes a diversity clause that gives better numerical odds to educationally and socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants in the enrollment lottery. The school already gives weight to siblings of current students and children of faculty or board members.

Perkins would not provide the Telegraph with ACE’s charter.

“We won’t post that until July 1st,” she said.

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Andy Prather, a graduating senior at the Academy for Classical Education, holds hands of young scholars as he walks through the halls of the school a final time. Prater has attended ACE since leaving Miller Middle School in 8th grade. He is set to attend the University of Alabama this fall to study mechanical engineering. Laura Corley The Telegraph

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