'Dream' of charter school becoming reality

By Greg Gelpi

With an April 3 open enrollment deadline, officials for Clayton County's first charter school are narrowing in on a facility and spreading word about the school and how to register.

The Clayton County Board of Education approved the charter for the Lewis Academy of Excellence in September and charter school officials are working to prepare the alternative to traditional public education for its fall opening.

"I dreamed to establish a college preparatory school with a rigorous curriculum in Clayton County," Lewis Academy of Excellence Chief Executive Officer Patricia Lewis of Riverdale said. "Parents want that so desperately."

The charter for the school requires that the academy meet or exceed the state standardized test results of all subgroups in Clayton County within three years, she said.

"We wish we could change the world overnight, but it takes time," Lewis said. "We're making a lot of progress in the process (of establishing the charter school). We're moving steadily every day."

She and her board members have been advertising the charter school, speaking at local churches and handing out fliers, and working on negotiating the purchase of a "state of the art" facility, but she couldn't disclose its location.

"We're just doing a lot of behind the scenes work," Lewis said.

The next public meeting for the Lewis Academy of Excellence will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Clayton County Public Schools Administrative Complex, 1058 Fifth Ave., Jonesboro.

Dozens of calls and e-mails have been coming in from parents, Lewis said, adding that some inquiries are coming from out of state and from parents of private school children.

The school is open to all kindergarten through fifth-grade students in Clayton County and will have opportunities in dance, athletics, gifted classes, foreign language and a traveling choir, she said. The charter school could also feature a "visiting scholars" program.

Although the school is free, single parents will have to volunteer 15 hours each year at the school, and two-parent homes will have to contribute 20 hours of volunteer work, Lewis said.

Despite efforts to educate the public about charter schools, many still don't fully understand what they are or how they function.

"There is a great misperception by many people that charter schools are public schools, which is not true," said Philip Andrews, the executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. "They are approved by the public school system and, in fact, are part of the public school system, but operate differently."

Public school officials must recognize that not every student is successful in a traditional public school, Andrews said.

The combination of "flexibility" and "heightened-accountability" produce a unique environment in a charter school, he said.

"The flexibility allows you to design a program that meets the needs of the community," Andrews said, adding that the flexibility is balanced by accountability. "You must keep your customers happy because they can go somewhere else."

Charter schools tend to attract both ends of the spectrum of students, Andrews said. High-achieving students seeking greater challenges as well as low-performing students who don't succeed in traditional public schools tend to be the students who attend charter schools.

According to the state Department of Education, a recent study found that parents of Georgia charter school students are "thrilled" with the level of student achievement their children are receiving through their respective charter schools.

"Public charter schools are one of the most important tools we have to help boost student achievement statewide," State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox said in a statement. "They use innovation, creativity and flexibility to find new ways to help all students learn at high levels."

About 70 percent of the 2,325 parents surveyed gave their respective charter schools either an A or an A+ rating, while only 43 percent of charter parents rated their previous school with an A or better. More than 85 percent of those surveyed plan to re-enroll their child in a charter school next year.

Nationally, a 2004 PDK/Gallup poll showed that only 24 percent of parents gave the traditional public school their child attends an "A" or better.

"Charter school parents in Georgia are very happy with the schools their kids attend, grade them very highly and are happier than parents in other states or in other settings," according to the survey.

On average, charter school students showed greater gains on the 2003-2004 Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). In math, their gain was double that of the statewide public school gain.

In 2004, 84 percent of the state's charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress as compared to 80 percent of traditional public schools.

The state's charter school program began in 1995 with two charter schools and has expanded to 38 schools with about 15,000 students.