Char­ter school com­pany eyes county

Imag­ine Schools looks to open fa­cil­ity in New­ton

The Covington News - - Front page - By Jenny Thompson

Since the be­gin­ning of the last decade, school choice has been a much dis­cussed topic in ed­u­ca­tion.

Tues­day night, school de­vel­op­ment staff mem­bers from Imag­ine Schools pre­sented in­for­ma­tion about their schools and ed­u­ca­tional vi­sion to an au­di­ence of ap­prox­i­mately 50 at The Cen­ter for Com­mu­nity Plan­ning and Preser­va­tion.

Imag­ine School De­vel­oper Kelly Camp­bell gave ba­sic in­for­ma­tion about the char­ter schools the com­pany op­er­ates in 10 states across the coun­try.

“It is our de­sire to be­come part of the New­ton County fam­ily,” Camp­bell said.

Camp­bell said she spent the first two years of her teach­ing ca­reer at Palmer- Stone El­e­men­tary School in New­ton County.

She also ex­plained the dif­fer­ence be­tween char­ter schools and private schools.

Char­ter schools are pub­lic schools that private en­ti­ties draw a char­ter for and ap­ply to the lo­cal school board to be­gin op­er­at­ing and col­lect­ing lo­cal and state rev­enue.

Camp­bell ex­plained Imag- ine schools typ­i­cally have a pri­mary at­ten­dance zone that sur­rounds the school and then a blind lot­tery, open to all county stu­dents, fills va­cant seats.

She em­pha­sized fam­i­lies do not have to pay for chil­dren to at­tend and that the schools must ad­here to Ge­or­gia Per­for­mance Stan­dards and re­quire their stu­dents to take the same stan­dard­ized tests as other pub­lic school stu­dents in the county.

“We are not com­pe­ti­tion,” Camp­bell said. “We are only a choice.”

She added com­mu­nity in­put on what grades and pro­grams would be of­fered at the school is cru­cial to Imag­ine Schools de­vel­op­ment.

New­ton County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion mem­ber and lit­er­acy ex­pert C.C. Bates at­tended the in­for­ma­tional meet­ing and said char­ter schools of­ten do cre­ate “healthy com­pe­ti­tion” for tra­di­tional pub­lic schools.

“I do not think our sys­tem is per­fect, but I do think it has the abil­ity to rise and meet the ever chang­ing chal­lenges it faces,” Bates said. “I think school sys­tems should be re­spon­sive to com­mu­nity needs and the New­ton County School Sys­tem rec­og­nizes that peo­ple are in­ter­ested in school choice.”

Camp­bell said Imag­ine em­ploy­ees hold them­selves to high stan­dards of ac­count­abil­ity and grade their own fa­cil­i­ties on their own six mea­sures of ex­cel­lence which in­clude shared val­ues of in­tegrity, jus­tice and fun, par­ent choice, aca­demic achieve­ment, pos­i­tive char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity and new school de­vel­op­ment

“They’re the yard sticks we use to mea­sure our­selves and make our­selves ac­count­able to you,” Camp­bell said.

She added other qual­i­ties of Imag­ine Schools which at­tract fam­i­lies are their same stu­dent, same year test gain re­port­ing and a re­quired 10 hours a year of par­ent vol­un­teer­ing.

“When par­ent in­volve­ment goes up,” Camp­bell said, “so do stu­dents’ scores.”

Camp­bell said a core group of fam­i­lies ap­proached Imag­ine school de­vel­op­ment staff ex­press­ing an in­ter­est bring­ing a char­ter school to New­ton County.

Bates said Imag­ine Schools pre­vi­ously had sub­mit­ted a let­ter of in­tent to the board. Camp­bell said per­son­nel is­sues caused Imag­ine to with­draw their let­ter of in­tent be­cause they did not have ad­e­quate time to so­licit com­mu­nity in­put on the school.

Imag­ine Schools have five schools op­er­at­ing in Ge­or­gia and more than 50 across the coun­try.

The “At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion” ran a story Jan. 14 about high prin­ci­pal turnover at the schools in Cobb County. State de­part­ment of ed­u­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors called top Imag­ine ex­ec­u­tives to a meet­ing to dis­cuss their op­er­a­tions.

“Imag­ine Schools is a young com­pany — it is six years old and their pres­ence is new in Ge­or­gia,” Bates said. “All of the schools that Imag­ine op­er­ates in Ge­or­gia are less than two years old and based on that, I think it is hard to de­ter­mine if they are suc­cess­ful.”

Bates shared con­cern with meet­ing at­ten­dants about the pro­posed lo­ca­tion of the school, trans­porta­tion, eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity and meet­ing the county’s needs.

Ac­cord­ing to Bates the with­drawn let­ter of in­tent ti­tled the school “Imag­ine Mt. Pleas­ant In­ter­na­tional Acad­e­mies” and that they planned to im­ple­ment the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate Pro­gram.

“In the meet­ing on Tues­day evening, Imag­ine stressed de­sign­ing a school with com­mu­nity in­put,” Bates said. “Based on the let­ter, the lo­ca­tion and cur­ric­u­lar fo­cus seems to have al­ready been de­cided — this leaves me won­der­ing how much com­mu­nity in­put they truly de­sire.”

Cur­rently, char­ter schools do not have to pro­vide trans­porta­tion to their stu­dents un­less they fall into the spe­cial needs cat­e­gory. This wor­ried some au­di­ence mem­bers since not all county stu­dents have re­li­able trans­porta­tion and that lack of bus­ing could cre­ate a ho­moge­nous stu­dent de­mo­graphic.

More than half of pub­lic school stu­dents in New­ton County qual­ify for free and re­duced lunch.

Leg­is­la­tion on the floor of the Ge­or­gia Gen­eral As­sem­bly, such as se­nate bill 39 and 881, could change trans­porta­tion re­quire­ments among other things.

Presently, char­ter schools in Ge­or­gia re­ceive no fund­ing for school start-up and con­struc­tion. They re­ceive the same Full-Time Equiv­a­lent ( FTE) fund­ing per stu­dent as pub­lic schools re­ceive from the state, mi­nus some such as trans­porta­tion costs. Char­ters ap­proved by lo­cal boards re­ceive lo­cal fund­ing based on tax rev­enue, but state- ap­proved char­ters re­ceive only state FTE funds.

“ Eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity kills char­ter schools in their first two years,” Camp­bell said.

At the meet­ing, ques­tions were raised about what hap­pens in the case of schools op­er­at­ing in the red.

Camp­bell said Imag­ine Schools is partly funded by the phil­an­thropic ef­forts of en­tre­pre­neur and best-sell­ing au­thor Den­nis Bakke and his wife Eileen. She added Imag­ine also looks to a part­ner­ship with par­ents to help raise ini­tial start-up fees.

Other con­cerns ex­pressed at the meet­ing were about meet­ing the needs of the com­mu­nity. Sev­eral at­ten­dees voiced their re­quest for high school choice.

“Be­cause char­ters func­tion in­de­pen­dently of the school sys­tem, they do not have to take the dis­trict’s needs into con­sid­er­a­tion,” Bates said. “For ex­am­ple, a char­ter school could ar­bi­trar­ily choose to lo­cate in an area where the dis­trict sim­ply does not need a school.”

She said the board has re­searched and vis­ited char­ter and theme schools in the At­lanta metro area.

Last year the board vis­ited a parental in­volve­ment theme school in DeKalb County. While not char­ter schools, theme schools do pro­vide al­ter­na­tive op­tions to a tra­di­tional pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

“The par­ent theme schools have met suc­cess in DeKalb both at the el­e­men­tary and mid­dle school lev­els,” Bates said.

The board of ed­u­ca­tion has be­gun to ex­plore the in­ter­est and fea­si­bil­ity of open­ing a math and science theme school in the county.

Camp­bell said the ul­ti­mate goal of Imag­ine Schools is to cre­ate aca­dem­i­cally suc­cess­ful, de­cen­tral­ized learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments where par­ents and teach­ers make de­ci­sions about what hap­pens in the class­room rather than leg­is­la­tors.

She said her goal was to dis­cover what the ed­u­ca­tional needs of New­ton County fam­i­lies are and re­sub­mit a let­ter of in­tent to the board in Fe­bru­ary of 2009 with the school sched­uled to open in July of 2010.

The board has set a 60 day re­view pe­riod for char­ter ap­provals.

“I’m thrilled they go over it with a fine tooth comb,” Camp­bell said. “I mean we are stew­ards of tax payer money.”

Bates said both she and other board mem­bers would con­tinue to re­search char­ter schools in gen­eral as well as the ex­ist­ing Imag­ine Schools.

“As a board mem­ber, I feel charged with mak­ing sure we spend what lit­tle money the sys­tem has as wisely as pos­si­ble,” Bates said. “I would have the same con­cerns if I were in­vest­ing in a start up com­pany.

“That doesn’t mean the char­ter school won’t be suc­cess­ful, I just want to make sure I have done my home­work. I would en­cour­age all who are in­ter­ested in this con­cept to re­search it thor­oughly.”

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