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Back in school
Elite Scholars starts year-round education this week

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

While many students in Clayton County are still enjoying their summer vacations, 197 pupils at one charter school in Jonesboro have already returned to the classroom for the start of the 2009-2010 school year.

Classes began on Monday at Clayton County Public Schools' Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, which is located at the Eula Wilborn Ponds Perry Center for Learning.

While the school, which is in its first year of existence, currently houses nearly 200 sixth- through-eighth-graders, it will eventually be home to 560 sixth-through-12th-grade students. Each year, the school will add a grade level until it reaches the 12th-grade.

The fact that Elite Scholars Academy is a charter school that will eventually cover middle school and high school grades is not the only reason why it is different from other schools in the county. It also offers year-round classes, with two-and-a-half-week breaks every nine weeks.

The school year starts in July and ends in June. According to Graysen Walles, Elite Scholars Academy's founder and principal, students are taught using a curriculum that combines the "Spring Board" and "Advanced Placement" curriculums, developed by the College Board organization, with the Georgia Performance Standards, developed by the Georgia Department of Education,

"The goal in this school is to not just prepare them to get into an Ivy League, or Tier I college, but to prepare them to get through it, and through their careers when they get older," Walles said.

Walles said the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School is based on the Elite Scholars program that he developed, and test-piloted, at Mundy's Mill High School during the 2006-2007 school year. A year after it was introduced at Mundy's Mill, it was expanded to all of Clayton County's high schools.

Walles said that the Elite Scholars program, and the Elite Scholars Academy differ in that participants in the program must have a 3.5 grade-point average and three letters of recommendation from teachers, and community leaders before they can be accepted into the program. The academy, however, is open to any middle school and high school student in the county.

New students in the academy are selected through a computer-generated lottery that randomly goes through applications for enrollment in the school, Walles said.

Both the program and academy require students to wear uniforms, although the academy's students must wear the uniforms every day, while the participants in the program wear uniforms only once a week. Both the program and the academy focus on high academic standards and developing leadership skills in students, Walles added.

"The idea is that you're going to get into [these classes] and learn more than you ever have before in a year," Walles said.

Thaddaeus Mitchell, 12, a seventh-grader at the school, who came to Elite Scholars Academy from Pointe South Middle School, said that enrollment in the year-round charter school comes with an expectation that students will be responsible and serious about their academic performance. "It helps me appreciate this because some people don't get this opportunity in life," Mitchell said. "They have to stay in the same middle school that they've been going to."

Raven Crowder, 13, an eighth-grader at the charter school, who came from Jonesboro Middle School, said going to a year-round school with a pre-AP-style curriculum is "a big change" for her, but she was willing to give Elite Scholars Academy a chance, because of what it would prepare her to do in the future.

"I thought this would help me, on a college application, to get into a better college," said Crowder, who is considering attending Florida State University. "I like it a lot because of the fact that it's challenging me a little bit more. It's not simple, it's out of the box."

And although Mitchell and Crowder are sitting in classrooms while many of their counterparts are playing games, going swimming and relaxing for another month, the two said they do not mind being in school again.

"To me, when we go out on a break that lasts for a couple of months, all of that knowledge that we gained during the school year slowly oozes and leaks out of our brains," Mitchell said. "But without these [long] breaks, we're going to be on top of our game."