By Johnny Jackson
Cheers from dozens of charter school supporters resounded in the old church hall at the Clayton County Public Schools Administrative Complex Wednesday night, when the Clayton County Board of Education voted unanimously with three absent members to allow the county's first charter school to open on Tuesday, Sept. 6, called the Lewis Academy of Excellence.
"We can have this good news, go to church, and shout," said charter school founder Patricia Lewis.
But for the board and the charter school, this all has been a sort of uncharted territory. And Wednesday night, by some accounts, it was a new beginning atop a heap of controversy.
There were several clarified miscommunications during the board meeting, including fervent commentary from board chairwoman Ericka Davis, who said she was disappointed at the response she and other board members received from some parents and supporters of the charter school.
"For parents to come to me and think that I or any of the board members would be so petty as to think that we were in competition with this charter school," Davis said, emphatically. "We have been supportive."
Lewis said that she was unaware of the rumor that the county has tried to hinder progress for the charter school. And both Lewis and Davis agreed that the board has been helpful to the charter school. Lewis added that there was a feeling of unrest among some parents, though.
"I know that parents do feel that no one came out to assist us when we were working 14 hours a day," she said.
Christi Bush of Jonesboro said as much, adding her concerns about public school systems in general.
"I know that safety is a concern, but I also think they're getting a little grief," Bush said. And she gave reasons two of her four children will attend the charter school this fall. "School systems now are over-crowded, everybody's into fashion now, but the focus needs to be back on education."
Lewis admitted that over-crowding could be an anticipated problem at the start for her school, then added that the school would take measures to reduce class sizes in accordance to building and fire codes.
According to the board, the charter school must adhere to certain provisions such that all conditions and timelines set forth by the fire chief of Riverdale on Aug. 25, are strictly complied with; a permanent certificate of occupancy is acquired by Nov. 23; and all other provisions of the charter contract, including the requirement of a 180-day school year are met in full.
Lewis said she is expecting about 350 to 400 students to enroll and eventually attend the charter school this year. Accordingly, she said the school has employed about 25 teachers, with 15 who are already certified and others pending certification. She expects to adjust her classroom capacity to meet stipulations provided on the school's certificates of occupancy. Notably, the school's two modular units may house 64 and 84 respective occupants in a combined 8 classrooms.
Lewis also received a check for $89,000 Wednesday night as a part of a $400,000 implementation grant for the school. To date, the school has received $352,578. About $47,422 remains. But operational funding from the Georgia Department of Education will soon follow over a 10-month schedule.
Superintendent Barbara Pulliam reiterated that the school district will continue beyond allowing the charter school to open to facilitate and help the charter school in certain endeavors. Those include background checks for school employees and the use of a system-wide electronic database to track the school's enrollment.
Davis said parents "inspect what you expect" for their children's education.
"I want us to start out fresh today," Davis said, answering the controversy. "We need to be certain about what comes out of your school and our school system. It needs to be what is right, what is honest, and what is true."
For its first year, the academy rented space from Riverdale United Methodist Church and also brought in several modular units. Lewis has earlier said the goal is to find a permanent home in several years for the school.