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State BOE to vote on Lewis Academy's appeal

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Lewis Academy of Excellence Founder Patricia Lewis stood before a state Board of Education committee on Wednesday morning and said it was not her school's fault that it was denied a 10-year charter from the Georgia Charter Schools Commission two months ago.

Clayton County Public Schools officials, she said, sent outdated and false information about the five-year-old school to the commission, when it was reviewing Lewis Academy's charter petition last December. The commission denied a charter to the school at that time.

Lewis has been seeking a charter to turn Lewis Academy into a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade, state, charter school, with a statewide attendance zone. Without a new charter to begin in July, when the existing one expires, Lewis Academy would have to close its doors.

"The commission relied on false information," Lewis told members of the State Board of Education's Charter Committee. "We believe the commission would have seen us differently, and would have approved Lewis Academy, had Clayton County Public Schools not provided false information about the school."

The state board's charter committee was split on whether to overturn the Georgia Charter Schools Commission's decision to deny a new charter to Lewis Academy. The full State Board of Education will vote today on whether to overturn the decision.

Two state school board members on the charter committee, Brian Burdette and Jose Perez, were in favor of overturning the commission's decision. But State Board of Education Member Linda Zechmann, the chairperson of the charter committee, voiced opposition to overturning the commission's decision, because she had issues with the proposed statewide attendance zone for Lewis Academy. "I would like to see them keep their current, local attendance zone," she said. "Based on that alone, I would have also denied this charter."

During the charter committee meeting on Wednesday, Lewis said Clayton County Public Schools officials misled the Georgia Charter Schools Commission about the school's occupancy certificates for modular classrooms; about the school not passing fire inspections; and that it lacked an emergency-management plan that had been approved by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency; and that it had poor finances and records keeping.

As part of her appeal packet, Lewis submitted copies of the occupancy certificates, recent fire inspections, and a letter from GEMA Director Charley English, in which he acknowledged receipt of the school's emergency-management plan.

No Clayton County Public Schools officials were present at the committee meeting. School System Spokesman Charles White declined to comment on Lewis' explanation for the denial of her school's charter petition.

Perez said Lewis "makes a good point, and a very good argument" about the information Clayton Schools officials provided to the commission.

Andrew Broy, the associate superintendent for policy and charter schools for the Georgia Department of Education, said any information provided by the school system about Lewis Academy would not have been the deciding factor when the commission made its decision, however. "The commission bases its decision on what's in the petition, not about what Clayton County presented about the school," he said.

Even if the State Board of Education overturns the commission's decision, it will be little more than a symbolic victory for the school, Zechmann said. The board cannot grant Lewis Academy a charter, if it overturns the commission's decision, she said.

Broy said Lewis Academy would have to go back to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to obtain a state charter. "The commission has already done much of its work for this year," he said. "It's unlikely they will be able to re-apply for a charter that would be effective in fall 2010."

Lewis said she would be willing to go back to the Clayton County Board of Education to seek a one-year expansion of the school's existing charter to keep the school running while she works on revising a petition to send back to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

"My goal is to become a commission [approved] school in the future," Lewis said.

Lewis has a long history of fighting with the Clayton County Public School System over her school. One of the arguments Lewis has often made in rebuttal to criticisms about Lewis Academy is that the school's students do well on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), and the school makes Adequate Yearly Progress.

But, now, those academic successes are being called into question. On Wednesday afternoon, officials from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) announced that Lewis Academy is one of 74 schools across Georgia that have been placed on the agency's "Severe Concern" list. The list contains schools with a questionable number of answer changes on last year's CRCT.

The CRCT is the standardized test used to determine if an elementary or middle school meets the academic standards to make AYP.

GOSA conducted a review of how often incorrect student answers on the CRCT were erased, and changed to correct answers. The review is in response to last year's cheating scandal that involved officials at a handful of Georgia schools allegedly changing incorrect CRCT answers to correct answers.

According to GOSA's report, 56.9 percent of classes at Lewis Academy were flagged for having more changed answers than was average for the state. Lewis could not be reached Wednesday night for comment on this matter.

Lewis Academy is not the only Clayton County school on GOSA's "Severe Concern" list. North Clayton Middle School also made the list, with 26.3 percent of its classes flagged by state officials.

Both schools will be monitored by state officials during the administration of the CRCT this spring, as a result of being on the "Severe Concern" list. Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley must also conduct an investigation of test answer changes, and report his finding to GOSA, according to information listed in the agency's web site.

According to a school system statement released Wednesday night, "Clayton County Public Schools will fully cooperate with the Governor's Office of Student Achievement and the Georgia Department of Education in conducting an investigation into the allegations raised by this analysis."