By Curt Yeomans
Saquienthia Davis said she sees Lewis Academy of Excellence as more than a charter school that children attend to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. "It's our village," Davis said. "It's our foundation. It's our safety net."
That village is in danger of being shut down, because the school may not have a new charter for the 2010-2011 school year. Davis was one of 300 Lewis Academy parents, students, teachers and administrators who met with Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley on Tuesday, to ask for his help to keep their school open.
State law requires charter schools to have a charter to operate. The school's original five-year charter, which began in 2005, expired at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. The school applied for an extension, last year, and the county school board approved a conditional, one-year charter.
Shortly after a conditional charter was approved, Lewis Academy leaders applied to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which acts separately from local school systems, for a 10-year charter. The commission denied the request. Lewis school officials went back to the local school district earlier this year to work on that one-year extension.The application was sent off to the Georgia Department of Education for approval in April.
State officials contacted the school in May, and outlined 31 concerns the department had with the school's application. Georgia Department of Education Spokesman Matt Cardoza said Lewis Academy's chief executive officer, Patricia Lewis, had been asked by state officials in May to re-submit the application for a new charter, to the Clayton County Board of Education, and have it approved by June 4. Heatley said after Tuesday night's meeting, he did not receive Lewis Academy's new application until June 22.
Cardoza said the department "could not approve a charter of less than two years because we need to assess at least one year of academic results in the renewal of a short charter." The school has been allowed to re-apply however, and Lewis said the school's new application is for a five-year charter. The Clayton School System is reviewing Lewis Academy's new application.
At Tuesday's meeting, backers of the school said they wanted Heatley to put everything else in the school system on hold until Lewis Academy gets a new charter. "I cannot spend all of my time over the next two weeks, working only on Lewis Academy," Heatley told the audience. "I can't focus just on Lewis Academy, and ignore the school system. I've got to do both."
Heatley said Aug. 2 is the earliest he could make a recommendation on Lewis Academy to the county's board of education. In that case, Cardoza said, the earliest the State Board of Education would be able to see the application, as an information-only item, would be Sept. 9.
Meanwhile, state concerns about Lewis Academy have not been resolved. Those issues, as outlined in a May 21 letter to Executive Officer Lewis, include: Missing information about concerns the Clayton County School System had about the school; the length of the new charter was not consistent throughout the application; "vague references" of financial concerns which the state wants explained, and whether the school met the goals outlined in its original charter was not "accurately" addressed.
Other concerns include a lack of clarity about "undefined 'facility expenses,'" and financial documents that do not comply with the Charter Schools Rule established by the State Board of Education.
State officials also raised concerns about $7,500 that the school paid to Lewis Academy Assistant Chief Executive Officer Dionne Thompson, in June 2008, for an unexplained summer camp, and "real estate services." Lewis said Thompson is a licensed Realtor, and the money she received for the "real estate services" was for helping the school get its current location.
Another concern expressed by the state is that Lewis is the "sole manager" of Lewis Academy Property Holdings, LLC, which leases the school's property to the school, as well as a member of the school's governing board. The CEO said she did not know much about the issue of her being the manager of the holding group. "My attorney is looking into that," she said. When asked if she would sell the school building to the school, she said, "That would be up to our governing board to decide."
The school's leaders have often fought criticisms of how the school is run by arguing that it consistently makes Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). That argument is being called into question, in light of concerns about high numbers of eraser marks on Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs) that are administered at the school. Earlier this year, the Governor's Office of Student Achievement placed Lewis Academy on its list of "Severe Concern" schools that showed significantly higher than average numbers of CRCT answers that had been changed from wrong, to right.
"Whether Lewis Academy made AYP cannot be considered, because the CRCT scores upon which Lewis Academy's AYP is based are suspect, due to the erasure analysis investigation being conducted by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement," a Georgia Department of Education official says in a recent letter. Cardoza, with the state's education department, said, however, "We have told Lewis Academy that we will not be able to recommend anything but denial to the State Board until the CRCT erasure analysis investigation is completed, and Lewis Academy is cleared of any wrongdoing ..."