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State recommends denial of Lewis Academy charter

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Riverdale-based Lewis Academy of Excellence may lose its fight to open this year, if the State Board of Education accepts a recommendation from Interim State School Superintendent Brad Bryant to deny a new charter for the school this week.

The school, whose original charter expired this summer, cannot re-open for the 2010-2011 school year without a new charter. Last month, the Clayton County Board of Education voted to deny a new charter to the school. Lewis Academy's last hope to re-open this year -- as a charter school, at least -- was to appeal to the State Board of Education, and get a state charter.

Documents released ahead of the state school board's meeting this week, however, show that the Georgia Department of Education is backing the Clayton County Board of Education's decision. The state school board is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday.

Bryant is scheduled to make his recommendation on Lewis Academy, on Wednesday, with a vote expected to come the next day, according to the meeting's agenda.

"It is recommended that the State Board of Education deny the state-chartered special school petition submitted by Lewis Academy of Excellence (LAE), because the petition does not comply with the Charter Schools Act, and State Board of Education Rule 160-4-9-.04," an item summary of the agenda reads.

The summary is posted under the eBoard section of the Georgia Department of Education's web site.

The meetings are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., on Wednesday, and at 9 a.m., on Thursday, in the State Board Room (room 2070), in the Twin Towers East building, located at 205 Jesse Hill, Jr., Dr., in Atlanta.

Lewis Academy's chief executive officer, Patricia Lewis, and the school's attorney, Mike Raffauf, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

According to State Superintendent Bryant, in a Sept. 22 letter to Lewis, there was a long list of problems with the charter petition. Chief among them was the fact that the school did not send the state the same charter petition that the Clayton County Board of Education had denied, Bryant wrote.

"The Charter Schools Rule does not permit a petition submitted to the State Board of Education to be altered from the petition denied by the local board," Bryant wrote. "Because the document you submitted on September 14, 2010, differs from the petition denied by the Clayton County School Board, on September 13, 2010, we are unable to recommend approval of your petition."

Documents, included on the state's eBoard site, show that the petition that was submitted on Sept. 14, differed from the petition that the Clayton County Board of Education denied, in 13 areas.

Those areas included: Changing the school's attendance zone from just Clayton County, to a five-county area; changes to the proposed salary schedule for employees; removing sections that mentioned the role of parents in developing the petition; adding a student-recruitment plan, and a section on resolving conflicts of interest among founding governing board members.

But, those were not the only problems. The state school superintendent also cited a report on the results of an investigation into answer changes on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) in 2009 as an issue.

In February, the Governor's Office of Student Achievement placed Lewis Academy on its "severe concern" list of schools with high numbers of classes with questionable erasure marks, where wrong answers were changed to right answers on the CRCT. At Lewis Academy, 56.9 percent of its classes were flagged for having too many changed answers.

The school was investigated twice, by Marietta-based Education Planners, LLC, on behalf of Clayton County Public Schools. Those findings were turned over to Clayton County Public Schools officials, who were, in turn, responsible for giving the reports to the Governor's Office of Student Achievement.

In Bryant's letter to Patricia Lewis, he wrote that the final report indicated cheating may have taken place at the school. "That report found that the Lewis Academy of Excellence testing process was compromised by the lack of a secure environment, and concluded, given the high percentage of their classrooms flagged with the lack of control in the test environment, it is very likely that testing misconduct occurred in 2009," Bryant wrote.

Bryant said the state also looked at a charter petition provided by the school, in August, "to provide every consideration to Lewis Academy." This was the same petition the Clayton County school board voted on, he wrote, but it showed there were several problems that the state could not overlook.

He said Lewis Academy still had not addressed 11, of the 31 concerns expressed by state officials in a letter sent to the school in May. One area mentioned by Bryant was the fact that Lewis Academy would operate as a "for profit" institution, if it were granted a new charter by the State Board of Education. The state school superintendent said that could not be allowed in Georgia.

"Such a status would be in conflict with Georgia Law, requiring charters to be held by non-profit corporations," he wrote.

The other outstanding problem areas, noted by Bryant, included: questions about the school's lease agreement with Lewis Academy Property Holdings, LLC (which owns the school's facility), and whether Patricia Lewis got a financial benefit from the arrangement; why Lewis Academy Assistant Chief Executive Officer Dionne Thompson received payments for "real estate services" and a "summer camp;" the lack of a chief financial officer, in compliance with state requirements, and a lack of background information about the membership of the school's board of directors.

"Together, these reasons alone would prevent me from recommending approval to the State Board of Education," Bryant wrote.

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On the Net:

Georgia Department of Education: http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/