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Charter school seeks place in Clayton

Makes state appeal after local rejection

JONESBORO — Thrice denied by the local school board, the Utopian Academy for the Arts board of directors has taken its charter school petition to the state.

Artesius Miller is founder and chairman of Utopian Academy’s seven-member board.

“The charter school petition process for Clayton County has not been fair,” said Miller. “This has been three years we’ve been denied.”

A motion to approve the Utopian Academy charter application failed 3-4 during this week’s Clayton County Board of Education meeting. Members Mark Christmas, Jessie Goree and Michael King favored the petition.

The school board also voted 5-2 to deny the charters to Clayton County Preparatory Academy and Guru Charter School. Goree and Christmas were the dissenting votes.

Chairwoman Dr. Pam Adamson encouraged the petitioners to appeal the board’s decision with the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

Miller is appealing.

“God willing, we will know something by October,” he said.

Charter school petitions are due to the state by June 14. The state plans to conduct interviews in early September.

Miller said the appeal will be his last resort to garner approval for a 2014 school opening.

“There has not been a single charter school approved by the board in the past five years,” he said. “Clayton County has the highest percentage of Georgia voters in support of the state charter schools amendment. Seventy-one percent of Clayton voters agreed with the amendment (in November). Parents here want options.”

The county has a few education options with countywide enrollments.

Scholars Academy was approved on appeal to the state, while the school district approved its own start-up charters in Elite Scholars Academy and Unidos Dual Language Charter School.

The district also has four magnet programs in math and science and in fine arts. Rex Mill Middle has a math and science magnet program. Jackson Elementary, M.D. Roberts Middle and Mt. Zion High have magnet programs with a fine arts focus.

School officials did not comment on the board’s vote rejecting Utopian Academy and the other petitioners.

Special Projects Director Dr. Delphia Young deferred specific comment on the applicants who are receiving notices this week about the board’s decision. However, she did provide insight on the charter school petition review process.

“We look for petitioners to have innovative education plans, be financially sound, have a sound governing plan in oversight and management,” said Young.

Miller said he was confident for the third time around in the application process that plans for Utopian Academy were adequate.

“There were no concerns about the uniqueness of our program, our budget, our facility, our educational plan,” said Miller.

He said his board of directors also were not given adequate and timely response to identify any deficiencies in its petition.

“The charter petition process in Clayton County has not been considerable to charter school petitioners and has not followed guidelines set forth by the charter school division of the Georgia Department of Education,” he said. “By state law, any board — whether it be a local school board or a state board — they have 60 days to review a charter school application.”

He said he has been pursuing charter status for months. He was just able to appeal to the state this week, after exhausting his options locally.

Miller is also program director for the Steve Harvey National Mentoring Program for Young Men. A former school guidance counselor in New York City and Bridgeport, Conn., he is looking to open the Utopian Academy Aug. 4, 2014.

The school is proposed as a nonprofit start-up charter for grades six through eight. It seeks to serve as many as 300 students countywide the first year and roughly 600 by year five.

Miller is proposing site the school be at 8009 Carlton Road in Riverdale, the old Woodward Academy campus and the former home of the Lewis Academy of Excellence charter school.

“We want to provide a comprehensive scope of the arts with three main pillars,” he said.

Miller said the first pillar is arts for the dramatic, media and culinary arts. The second is offering single-gender classroom instruction — “essentially two single-gender academies under one roof.” Third is “expeditionary learning,” which is a curriculum similar to International Baccalaureate.

The school would offer bimonthly Saturday school program on a 190-day calendar, and its board of directors would manage a budget of about $2 million with a combination of outside funding and state money allocated on a per-pupil basis.

Miller said enrollment would be open to any student in Clayton County unless enrollment surpassed projections. Then, interested families would have to submit to an enrollment lottery.

Program information is listed at the Utopian Academy website, www.utopianacademy.com.