Charter school finds home, set to open this summer

By Bob Paslay

It started with an idea and in August Clayton County's first charter school will open its doors to a full house of students and a waiting list of those who want to get in.

Founder and C.E.O. of Lewis Academy of Excellence, Patricia Lewis said the school, which was approved earlier by the Clayton County School Board, has found a new home and has been impressed with the response from parents who want to enroll their children.

The charter school will conduct classes in two buildings on the grounds of the First United Methodist Church in Riverdale. Getting a building was the last major hurtle to getting the school open.

Lewis said they have not measured the space but believe it is about 20,000 square feet. "It is a nice size but have had such a tremendous response we are looking at adding modular units," she said.

"We have not had to do much work on the church facilities, mainly to bring them up to code for fire safety, security, fire alarm. The church was in fairly good condition. The buildings were built at different times and one was built around 1985 and I am not sure of the age of the others. They are very attractive buildings."

The property off Riverdale Road includes about six acres of land.

The lease on the buildings is for two years and in three years the school will look to buy its own facility, Lewis said.

School officials in Clayton County were slow to warm up to the idea of a charter school, but parents were apparently not.

"Our goal is to at least enroll between 400 and 500 this year. The waiting list is getting very lengthy at this point."

Lewis said the petition for the charter school said the target initial enrollment was 500 "and it looks like now we are going to exceed that target."

For parent Jewel Pender, the charter school provided double good news. She moved to Jonesboro to be with her daughter and was looking for a job and the right school for her 9-year-old son Kasmyne, who is going to be in the fifth grade.

What Pender found was a job as administrative assistant to Lewis at the school and a spot for her son.

Initially she was going to enroll him in public school but was concerned because the schools don't have uniforms, didn't teach Spanish and didn't provide the structure he had had in a private school.

"When I got her I found out the schools in Clayton County were not the best schools," she said and she said for parents having structure and an emphasis on learning are important.

For some parents in Clayton County who want this same thing, they will have to wait since the school is filled up. The longest waiting list is for kindergarten and for second grade. For example, 175 preregistered for kindergarten and the school is able to accommodate three or four classes of about 18 students per class.

Students on waiting lists could get into the school until December in case a spot opens.

The staff will include between 30 and 35 teachers.

All teachers are required to be certified. There was a job fair and an advertisement in the paper, but Lewis said, "The teachers are finding me. There is a lot of interest."

With Clayton County students lagging behind the state and nation in test scores and with news of violence in the schools, parents are apparently seeking a facility that will put the emphasis on high standards and no time for foolishness.

"Our goal is to inspire students for the future. We want to save children and we think we can make a difference in their lives," Lewis said.

So what are the differences between the traditional school and the charter school?

* Students will all wear uniforms.

* The school day will be 30 minutes longer than traditional school. There will be some Saturday classes, especially around the time schools will be giving standardized tests. This extra instruction will add up to two and a half more weeks a year of instruction.

* Emphasis will also be on character, leadership and a moral focus.

* Regular field trips to places like nursing homes and projects like raising money for the poor and feeding the homeless will be part of the students' training.

* A visiting scholars program will bring leaders from community leaders to sports figures will come to the school to inspire students.

* Students will be exposed to a lot of cultural training like visiting musicians.

* Parents will be required to volunteer 15 hours a year to the school or 20 hours for two-parent families.

Lewis said the school doesn't expect much disciplinary problems because the children will know someone is on a waiting list if the child doesn't stay in the school. She said parents will be required to work closely with the school in case there are any problems.