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Lewis Academy on fringe of vision, charter school receiving certificates of occupancy

By Johnny Jackson

Thursday afternoon Patricia Lewis eagerly reported that the Lewis Academy of Excellence was much closer to realizing its quest to open in Riverdale. She already has a date in mind to open the academy on Tuesday, Sept. 6, contingent upon successfully producing valid Certificates of Occupancy to the Clayton County Board of Education.

Lewis, the charter school's founder, said she received Certificates of Occupancy from the Riverdale Public Works Department for two of the school's modular units at noon Thursday. And a few hours later at about 3:50 p.m., Riverdale Fire Chief Billy Hayes and Lt. Bo Cummings arrived to present Lewis with a temporary Certificate of Occupancy for the Riverdale First United Methodist Church Annex.

"The building inspector still has a couple of things he has to do and meet with them about," Hayes said, referring to the temporary Certificate of Occupancy. The building inspector's signature is required to officiate the temporary certificate. And fire services retains the right to revoke the temporary certificate if requirements set forth in the temporary certificate are not met after 90 days.

"He informed me that he would be out the first thing in the morning," Hayes said late Thursday. "We anticipate a temporary certificate of occupancy should be issued from both parties, then."

"We've met with (Lewis) and her representatives on numerous occasions. And we are exhausting every effort to be supportive of the Lewis Academy in acquiring everything the school needs to be fully operational. However, there are operations we must adhere to, and there is a mutual understanding of that."

Kevin Thomas is parent to Miche, 8, a prospective Lewis Academy of Excellence third grader. He said he was impressed with the determination that the Lewis Academy espoused.

"I know it's been a roller coaster for them," he said about those involved with academy. "I feel like the determination is finally paying off. I understand the school board's concern for safety, (and) the CO is a step in the right direction.

"I've kept my daughter out of school up to this point. We've been home schooling her with the hopes--knowing that the Lewis Academy would open within a reasonable time. That credits how much I believe in Dr. Lewis. I have no reason to believe she will not do what she needs to do."

Thomas and his wife Michelle have held out since July 21, when the school board voted unanimously not to allow the charter school to open until it received a Certificate of Occupancy, which certifies that its facilities are occupiable. This baffled several charter school supporters, who debated the merits of the vote.

Thomas responded in kind to those heated debates. "I believe that there could have possibly been miscommunications."

Clayton County Public Schools officials say they are unable to comment about the academy's opening as they have not yet received the Certificates of Occupancy from the academy.

"We believe a charter school can be a very positive thing and reflect positively on the community and the school board," Lewis said. "We want to make sure that that happens."

The academy would be the first charter school for Clayton County after years of trying to get school board approval for one.

Lewis has outlined a series of things like uniforms and expanded arts instruction and longer days of instruction that would set it apart from other public schools. She has said she doesn't expect any instances of violence and expects superior test scores because the students must apply and be accepted to attend.

When it appeared the school would open in mid August along with other public facilities, Lewis said she expected about 400 students. How the controversy over when it might open has affected enrollment is not known. But students are expected to be accepted through December.