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Lewis Academy's future uncertain amid review

The fate of Lewis Academy of Excellence may go down to the wire as crucial deadlines approach, and public schools prepare to begin the 2010-2011 school year.

The original five-year charter for Clayton County's first charter school has expired, and the school does not have a new one. School officials have filed a petition for a new charter with Clayton County Public Schools, but the district is still reviewing it.

If the petition gets the approval of the Clayton County Board of Education, it would then have to go to the Georgia Department of Education (DOE) for a similar review, according to Clayton County Public Schools Director of Special Projects Delphia Young.

As of Wednesday, there were approximately 371 students still enrolled at Lewis Academy of Excellence, said Young, who oversees charter school petitions and reviews for the district.

"Lewis Academy does not have a charter right now," Young said. "Their original five-year charter expired at midnight on July 31. Since it presently does not have a charter, it cannot open school to begin the 2010-2011 school year."

Young, and Georgia Department of Education Spokesman Matt Cardoza did not rule out the possibility that Lewis Academy could get a charter and open this year. They said, however, the school faces a tight time frame to get a new charter, and begin classes with a key funding-related deadline fast approaching.

Cardoza said the school must be open at least 10 days before the DOE conducts its Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) student head count in early October for funding purposes. The DOE uses the head count to determine how much funding schools get from the state, he said.

So, what happens if Lewis Academy is not open at least 10 days before the count, or even when the count is done?

"They wouldn't get any state funding," Cardoza said.

The process of getting a new charter for Lewis Academy has been an ongoing saga that goes back to early 2009, when the school originally sent a petition to Clayton Schools officials for a 10-year charter. The school board, in July 2009, approved a one-year, conditional charter extension that required Lewis Academy officials to address some areas of concern for the district.

The school, instead, filed a petition for a 10-year charter with the Georgia Charter Schools Commission later that month. In December, the commission rejected the petition, and the State School Board upheld that decision in February. The school went back to working on getting the one-year extension, but DOE officials expressed 31 concerns about that petition, and told school officials to re-submit their application.

In late June, the school resubmitted the application to the school system, and Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley told Lewis Academy parents that this past Monday was the earliest the petition could go to the district for a vote. On Wednesday, Young said the district has a review committee looking over the petition. She could not provide a firm date for when it might go to the county's school board for a vote.

Young said the process calls for the committee to review the petition, and then send feedback to the school, pointing out any concerns committee members have about the school. Once the committee sends that feedback to the school, it can respond in one of three ways.

Young said the school can revise and supplement its application, ask that it be sent to the county's school board, or withdraw the petition. "A charter review is a long process," Young said. "It's not something that can be done in two weeks."

She did say, however, that it would have to go to the school board as an information item, during one meeting of the board — such as a work session — and then be voted on at a follow-up meeting, which could be either a called meeting, or a scheduled business meeting.

According to the school system's web site, the Clayton County Board of Education's next work session is scheduled for Aug. 23, and the next business meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13. If the county's school board approves the petition, it will still need to undergo a review by the Georgia Department of Education's Charter Schools department, Cardoza said.

Ultimately, the State Board of Education would have the final say on whether Lewis Academy will get a new charter, the DOE spokesman said. Cardoza said that if the school's charter petition were approved locally by Sept. 1, and sent to the state right away, the DOE would only have a week to review the petition before the State Board of Education holds its September meetings.

"I don't want to say it's not doable, but it's certainly a tight time frame," Cardoza said.

Cardoza, and Young said, however, that Lewis Academy parents should consider where their children will attend school this year, in case Lewis Academy does not open. "It is important to point out that the school does not have a charter at this time," Young said. "Parents have difficult decisions to make about where they are going to send their children this year."

Both Young and Cardoza pointed out that state law mandates that anyone under the age of 16 must be enrolled in a school. Young said the district would like to see Lewis Academy students enrolled in another school on Aug. 9, but they will not be required to do so.

Lewis Academy CEO and Founder Patricia Lewis could not be reached for comment.