School board approves first charter school

By Greg Gelpi

Despite vocal apprehension and strong words from some board members, the Clayton County Board of Education approved the county's first charter school.

It took two years, but the board approved the Lewis Academy of Excellence charter in a 5-2 vote with Nedra Ware and Bob Livingston voting against it. Board members Linda Crummy and Ericka Davis were absent from the vote.

Connie Kitchens, who sat on the charter review committee, voiced concern about the charter application, but recommended approving the application since it legally met state requirements.

Before voting for the charter, Kitchens asked school board attorney Gary Sams to document the concerns of the board.

"First of all, let me be blunt I'm not in favor of charter schools," Livingston said. "And, secondly, what's in it for you?"

Patricia Lewis, the chief executive officer of the charter school, said she has dedicated her life to education and that she has received a heavenly "mandate" to pursue the charter school. She has worked in education for more than 30 years from preschool to college and served as principal of a charter school.

The school, which must be open to all county public school students, will offer an alternative to the traditional school system. It is a public school separate from the public school system, yet still under the system since the system can pull the charter if it fails to abide by the charter.

One distinguishing feature will be a longer academic calendar, Lewis said. The school calendar will include three more weeks of classroom instruction, adding 30 minutes to the length of the day and holding classes on Saturdays.

"Our goals aren't modest," Lewis said.

The charter school will hold itself to the same accountability standards as other public schools, she said. It will also follow all the standards set forth by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Lewis had requested waivers for the charter, which drew concern from school board members. One waiver asked that teachers not be required to be certified by the state, but Lewis withdrew that request.

"We do plan to abide by the federal law that requires all teachers be highly qualified," she said.

The school will also follow the state's Quality Core Curriculum, she said. Funding for the charter school will come from grants and state per pupil funding that is given to the school system.

The charter was unanimously denied when brought before the board in December.

"The review committee has now concluded that the charter meets requirements as outlined by state law," Assistant Superintendent Sam King, who heads the review committee, said.

Charter schools are public schools that operate with more autonomy from the school system than traditional public schools, said Phil Andrews, the executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

"The finances are probably the biggest disadvantage," Andrews said. "The advantages are numerous."

With one governing body governing one school, charter schools can tailor education to its student body and can adjust more easily than a traditional public school that must work through various levels of government, he said.

"Teachers and principals have a greater job in determining the academic programs," Andrews said. "I know a lot of teachers and principals get frustrated with the levels of bureaucracy of a traditional school."

Charter schools tend to surpass traditional public schools in testing, he said. About 78 percent of the state's public schools made Adequate Yearly Progress last year as compared with 84 percent of charter schools.

The Lewis Academy of Excellence is scheduled to open in August. The location of the charter school is still being determined.