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Lewis Academy to stay closed this year

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Lewis Academy of Excellence will remain closed this year, while officials of the embattled school work on a new charter petition that addresses concerns from local and state officials, according to the academy's founder and chief executive officer.

The school's original 5-year charter expired this past summer. During the final year of that charter, school officials had reported that they had an enrollment of more than 600 Clayton County children. It could not open for the 2010-2011 school year until it had a new charter in place.

Patricia Lewis, who founded the school, faxed a letter to the Georgia Department of Education, on Tuesday afternoon, to announce she was withdrawing the school's petition to become a state-chartered special school, according to a copy of the letter which was provided by the state.

The withdrawal took place less than 24 hours before state officials were expected to make a recommendation, to the State Board of Education, to deny the school's request for a new charter. The withdrawal of the petition stopped that vote from taking place.

Lewis said she withdrew the charter petition because she and other school officials were concerned about starting the school year in late October. "We just thought it was best to just withdraw the petition," She said. "The year had already begun, and it was really too late to begin school."

Lewis said this does not mean the school that bears her name is gone for good. She said she plans to apply for a new charter that would begin at the start of the 2011-2012 school year. She and the school's governing board still have to make decisions about which charter application process to follow, she said. "We're going to take time to regroup, and work on something," Lewis said.

She said Lewis Academy students have been spread out in several areas while the school pushed to get a new charter to open this year. Some were sent to private schools by their parents, while some are being home-schooled, and others were put into their neighborhood public schools, she said.

Opening Lewis Academy, for this year only, as a private school, was not really an option at this point, she said. "We've been asked to do that by some of our parents, but I just think it would not be a good idea to disrupt the children's education in the middle of the year," she said.

The school has two options it can pursue to get a new charter, for next year, under state laws. It can apply for a charter by going through the Clayton County Board of Education, and then the Georgia Department of Education, or the school could go directly to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, whose validity, and authority, is the subject of an ongoing court battle.

Louis Erste, the director of the Georgia Department of Education's Charter Schools Division, said any petition the school files for a new charter, at this point, would have to reach the state level by the beginning of August. Unless academy officials go through the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, he said, they would have to first go through Clayton County Public Schools.

"If Clayton County approves their petition, it would have to be submitted to us by Aug. 1, 2011," Erste said, in an e-mailed, written statement. "If Clayton denies Lewis Academy's new petition, Lewis Academy could submit the denied petition to us as a state-charter special school petition -- and [or] they could apply to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission -- by the Aug. 1, 2011 deadline."

But, Lewis Academy would have to address concerns expressed by both local, and state officials, to get a new charter. Officials, from Clayton County Public Schools, and the Georgia Department of Education, expressed several concerns about the school during reviews of its charter re-newal petition. Those concerns focused on Lewis Academy's administrative structure, facilities, finances, and possible cheating during the 2009 administration of the Criterion-Reference Competency Tests (CRCT).

Officials from the Georgia Charter Schools Commission expressed similar concerns last fall, when they received a petition, for a 10-year, state-wide charter, from the school. The commission denied that request.

Clayton County Public Schools officials have actually been expressing concerns about the school, and its finances, since it opened, and took steps to close the school when its original home, Riverdale First United Methodist Church, would not renew its lease in 2007. The school staved off closure by purchasing the former Woodward Academy Busey Campus, in Riverdale, that summer.

Earlier this year, the Governor's Office of Student Achievement placed the school on a list of "Severe Concern" schools, for having a high number of classes where wrong answers were erased, and changed to correct answers on the CRCT in 2009.

Interim State Superintendent Brad Bryant wrote a letter to Lewis last month, in which he stated that local investigations into the matter showed it was "very likely that testing misconduct occurred," because the school did not have a secure testing environment.

Lewis said that, despite the state expressing its concerns as recently as late September, "We think we've already addressed many of the concerns they had about our school."

She added that, while the school will not re-open this year, she is hopeful that its students are being taken care of, wherever they are going to school.