A Look at Charter Schools
Some kids were born to be performers. Some love playing outside and taking care of animals. Some may love mathematics or learning a new language. A charter school may help your child grow his talents. Here’s a snapshot of some charter schools from a parent’s perspective.
At DeKalb Academy of Technology and the Environment, students manage and take care of chickens, goats and gardens. They’re engaged in technology through programming, coding, websites and blogs. For six weeks, every grade focuses on a specific environmental theme, such as pollution or endangered animals, and they’re also taught outside the classroom by environmental specialists.
“It’s a different feeling to see so many students always excited about coming to school and to feel like they’re making a difference by teaching their parents and peers in community what they’re learning at school,” says Maury Wills, the CEO.
Marlena Lundie’s son, Nicolas, has been enrolled at DATE since first grade. He’s now an eighth grader. Lundie considered charter schools when she wasn’t satisfied with the options in her area, but private school was too costly. She knew other parents had moved to charter schools, so she researched what would be a good alternative for her son. She chose DATE for the diverse student population, its reputation with parents and the sense of community. She also knew the focused curriculum would fit her son.
“He’s always been interested in taking things apart. He liked to build stuff. If something was broken, he would try to figure out how to fix it. He was inquisitive about the mechanics of stuff,” she says. “He likes the STEAM program because his mind works like that. With the career path, he gets to be more hands-on in the engineering aspect.”
The freedom afforded to charter schools allows teachers to design curriculum around what students are interested in. “We help them understand how they can help their community and become stewards, giving them a global and competitive edge,” Wills says. “It’s different from prescribed curriculums, as parents, teachers and students get to collaborate.”
DeKalb Academy of Technology and the Environment. Start-up charter. STEAM, environment and agriculture. Enrollment: 745 students. 1492 Kelton Dr., Stone Mountain.
Off to College
Four years ago, Ronnetta Hill worked at a cheerleading camp helping KIPP Atlanta Collegiate’s team get ready for competition. The coach wanted to know if she had considered sending her daughter, Promise, to a KIPP school.
Hill went on a tour and fell in love with the warm environment, the nurturing teachers and the excitement about attending college. “Everything was college, college, college,” she says of the tour. “We push that in our household, so it was refreshing to see that they were affirming it.”
Promise is now 8 years old and in the third grade at KIPP Vision Primary. “It’s like a big family,” Promise says. “My teachers are super nice and energetic.” She’s on the cheer team, dance team, basketball team and is the anchorwoman for the news station.
Hill volunteers at the school, where she sees the development of the kids’ character through their core values of honor, love, teamwork and excellence. “They take those characteristics and push the kids to become better citizens,” she says. “Academics is always first, but they’re building kids to know how to treat each other and how to be leaders.”
KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program): Metro Atlanta Schools. Start-up charter schools part of a national network. College prep and success. Enrollment: 3,800 students. Metro Atlanta Office: 1445 Maynard Rd. NW, Atlanta.
Learning a Language
Deepa Narang and her son, Jai, have been with the International Charter School of Atlanta since its beginning in Aug. 2015. Jai is now a fourth grader, and his younger brother, Neel, is in kindergarten this year.
Narang believes learning a new language exercises new muscles in the brain and stimulates memory, creativity and critical thinking. She’s seen these traits develop in both of her children. She thinks learning a language helps in the long-term by creating gateway opportunities for the future.
“We live in a global world. The school makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger,” she says. “It’s fostered a love for learning, and learning a language is creating pathways in the brain that helps facilitate other learning.”
In kindergarten and first grade, students spend 80% of the day learning their second target language, and 20% in instruction in English. From second to fifth grade, they spend half the day in each language. In sixth through eighth grade, they take 1-2 language classes per day, with the rest of their subjects in English.
Tanya Parker, the Executive Director at the ICSAtlanta, started out as a founding board member.
The school engages students in appreciating the cultures accompanying the languages they’re learning. Students participate in cultural and heritage celebrations. “Our students not only receive a rigorous academic experience but also develop a sound cultural awareness that leads to respect and tolerance for others,” Parker says. “Our language immersion program naturally creates a culturally rich environment as our teachers and staff bring not only multilingualism to our school but also the multiculturalism necessary to nurture our students into globally-minded citizens.”
International Charter School of Atlanta. Start-up charter school. Language-immersion in French, German, Mandarin or Spanish and International Baccalaureate. Enrollment: 785 students. K-3rd: 1335 Northmeadow Pkwy., Roswell; 4th-8th: 1675 Hembree Rd., Alpharetta.
Although some might think online education would be isolating, Georgia Connections Academy has live lessons each day where students and teachers can meet, says Executive Director Brazilia Bilal-Page. The school also offers opportunities for teachers, students and peers to meet face-to-face. The school holds multiple events, including field trips, a middle school honor’s day, a high school graduation and a prom.
Sheri Monger’s daughter, Ava, has been at GCA for seven years. Ava loves the flexibility, and she’s made many friends attending the in-person labs and field trips. Monger feels the virtual school has helped prepare Ava for college, as she’s learned to manage her time and workload. She also can move at her own pace.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Monger says. “They really want their students to be successful, and they give them the tools to be successful. The support that you get from teachers and counselors is unreal.”
“Teachers call students and caretakers regularly, as all three parts must be connected, or this does not work,” Bilal-Page says. “It gives parents the opportunity to be engaged in their student’s process. Education is about collaboration.”
An online charter school may help students who are being bullied, who struggle in the classroom environment or with large class sizes, or who need flexibility. Once, Bilal-Page administered a milestone test at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to a student going through chemotherapy. The student’s goal was to finish high school, and with the charter school, she was able to continue her schooling while undergoing treatment.
“We’re giving students the opportunity to reach their highest potential,” Bilal-Page says.
Georgia Connections Academy. Start-up charter school part of a national network. Virtual school. Enrollment: 4,680 students.
Jennifer Almonte-Gomez’s son, Chase, is in kindergarten at Amana Academy. She and her husband chose Amana, because they see STEM as the future.
“A STEM education provides an opportunity to really develop and practice critical thinking skills that help with solving real world challenges. He is able to acquire relevant knowledge in respect to a world he is actively living and participating in,” she says.
The STEM focus allows students to apply what they’ve learned to solve an authentic problem for the local community. “This provides tangible evidence for students that they are prepared to be global changemakers; not in the distant future, but in the present,” says Cherisse Campbell, Amana’s principal.
Chase looks forward to going to school every day, as he doesn’t realize he’s learning – he’s just having fun. “It’s important that learning doesn’t become undesirable but something to look forward to,” Almonte-Gomez says.
Campbell has been in education for 14 years and taught at Amana for seven. “The biggest difference that I find in a charter school is the degree of alignment between parents, teachers and leaders,” she says of how a charter school differs from a traditional public school. “Everyone chooses to join our school because they believe in what we are trying to do and the way we are trying to do it.”
Patti Atkinson, a STEM Teacher and Student Engagement Coordinator at Amana, comes from a family of educators. “I love the rich eclectic culture that our school has,” she says. “Our school speaks over 30 languages.”
Amana Academy. Start-up charter. STEM, Expeditionary Learning and Arabic. Enrollment: 750 students. 285 S. Main St., Alpharetta.
The Love of Performing Arts
When Natalie Fikes’ son, Elijah, sang at his elementary school graduation, she was blown away by his performance. She wondered if she was feeling typical pride as a mom, but several people commented on his musical ability and advised her to enroll Elijah in a performing arts school.
The original school Fikes wanted to enroll him in had a waiting list, but a woman at the school board brought up charter schools. She searched online for a school that would help him grow his love of singing, dancing and acting.
For the last two years, Elijah has been at Utopian Academy for the Arts. “It’s like his ocean. He’s a fish in his own water,” she says. “He loves the environment, the support, the balance of being educationally rooted and also being able to do what he wants. I know beyond a shadow of doubt that my son would not be who he is today if he did not have the opportunity to attend Utopian.”
“I love the autonomy to be free,” says Ebonne Craft, the Dean of Arts at Utopian Academy. “We have structure and guidelines, but we’re able to be innovative in everything that we do and every aspect. We have dreams, and we turn those visions into fruition.”
Parental contributions at Utopian include helping with hair for a production, costume donors, volunteering and fundraising, according to Craft. The school holds an awards ceremony for parents who go above and beyond. “Our scholars are determined, and our teachers are dedicated. There’s no limit to the things that we can do and accomplish, along with our parents and staff to help us,” she says. “It is very family-like within our Utopian village.”
Utopian Academy for the Arts. Start-up charter. Performing arts. Enrollment: 264 students. 2750 Forest Pkwy., Ellenwood.
Charting the Right Course
Information to help you navigate charter schools:
- A charter school is a tuition-free public school offering a specialized focus. Georgia has 115 charter schools, according to the Georgia Department of Education. As public schools, they do not have admissions criteria beyond residency.
- Charter schools are autonomous and allowed to make their own decisions.
- State charter schools are usually open to the state, while locally-authorized schools have residency requirements.
- Charter schools are either start-up or conversion charter schools. A start-up charter school originally started out as a charter, whereas a conversion charter school used to be a traditional public school.
- During the 2017-2018 school year, 86,549 students were enrolled in Georgia charter schools, according to the Georgia Charter Schools Association.
- As public schools, charter schools are graded on the state’s College and Career Readiness Profile Index, which looks at academic performance. State charter schools are held to the State Charter School Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Framework.
- Charter school funding is regulated by the school district or the state, although charter schools may be funded at a lower level than a traditional public school. They may be in refurbished locations and without athletic facilities or bus transportation. State charter schools receive no local tax revenue.
- Additionally, there are 32 charter systems in Georgia, according to the GADOE. A charter system is offered some flexibility from certain state rules and regulations, but school boards must still approve the school’s practices. Charter systems in metro Atlanta are: Atlanta Public Schools, Decatur City Schools, Fulton County Schools, Gainesville City Schools and Marietta City Schools, according to the GADOE.
- Parental involvement at charter schools is often higher than a typical public school. Parents may volunteer, donate, help with fundraising and more to promote the school.
To find out more information, visit gadoe.org, scsc.georgia.gov, charter-system.org, gacharters.org, scsfga.org and redefinedatlanta.org.
Tips for Looking at Charter Schools
- Understand the admissions and enrollment processes and adhere to all deadlines. Many charter schools accept applications in January. Once a school reaches their enrollment cap, they will often hold lotteries to determine enrollment. Enrollment practices vary by charter school.
- Be realistic about transportation, as many charter schools may not be able to provide bus service.
- Look at more than just the score. Look at the growth rate academically and how the teachers treat the students.
- Supplement what your child might not be learning at the school with extracurricular activities or summer camps.
- Look at the charter school’s board. Attend a public meeting to understand their mission and values.
- Look at the programming, what’s expected of the parents and financial records.
- Visit the school and observe classes. Ask how long the school has been established, and how long the charter will be valid.
Adapted from interviews with State Charter Schools Foundation, Georgia Charter Schools Association, Ronnetta Hill, Deepa Narang, Brazilia Bilal-Page, Maury Wills and Patti Atkinson
– Emily Webb