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June 26, 2013

GCSA continues conversation on charter schools

VALDOSTA — The Georgia Charter Schools Association returned to Valdosta for the second time in less than two months on Tuesday evening to continue the conversation with area residents on the charter school system. During the previous meeting GCSA was met with many questions and concerns from residents and school district members. Tuesday's meeting was no different.

Tony Roberts, CEO of the GCSA, welcomed attendees explaining the state legislation that led to the passing of Amendment One, known as the charter school amendment. He then explained, "We are not here to start a charter school or to push for a charter school. We are here to facilitate any local group that would like to start a charter school." He then cited the previous meeting, held in May, where concerns were raised about transportation, food and more saying, "I would hope we won't put the cart before the horse. We don't know that there will be a charter school. We don't know that yet. That's up to the community."

Four videos were shown throughout the meeting. The first video provided a quick overview of what a charter school is. The second and third videos highlighted some successful charter schools in the state of Georgia, the Museum School and Brighten Academy Charter School. The fourth video was about the friendship between two unique students at the International Community School in Decatur.

Following the first video, Andrew Lewis addressed meeting attendees about chartering around the nation and in Georgia. He explained that there are currently 6,000 charter schools in the United States, 73 in the state of Georgia and that 46 states currently have laws about charter schools.

Bill Love, member of the Valdosta Board of Education, addressed Lewis with the question of "What are the rules if they fail? How long do they give them and what happens to the students?"Several other attendees reiterated these questions later in the meeting. The GCSA members collectively answered these concerns by citing that it is the decision of the authorizer to oversee the charters and if they are not meeting their goals, to let them know that they will not be allowed to renew their contracts. Lewis also stated that students who attend charter schools that fail are either placed in another charter school near their area, or return to a public school in the area.

Elisa Falco, Director of Education and Training with GCSA, spoke to attendees about the relationship between the board of the charter school and its authorizer and also about the role of the board in setting the mission and vision of the charter school. She explained that it is not an easy process for charters to begin. "It usually takes 2-3 years from the beginning to the opening of the school. We recommend the board starting the charter take their time and do it right. Accountability starts with the charter board. If we see a problem we are very quick to point it out. A lot of times in public education we get consumed in what's great for adults and we need to focus on what's great for students."

Falco addressed many questions from attendees. One of those questions was a reiteration of Love's original question about students being able to successfully transfer back into public education. "Charter students seem to be fairing well as long as the charter understands the required transition," Falco stated.

RaShaun Holliman, GCSA's Outreach Director and a former charter school principal, then discussed the role that charter schools are playing in providing unique public school options for children. He spoke of a friendship that he saw in the school he was principal over, and while he admitted that that friendship could have been formed in any setting, he felt that the charter program allowed these students a special opportunity to grow as friends and learn to understand each other.

Community members had many questions throughout and following the meeting. Some of the questions brought up included questions about funding, caring for special needs students and curriculum. The GCSA members explained that funding for charter schools only comes from local tax dollars if the charter is approved locally. If the charter has to go through the state commission for approval, all of the funding for the charter comes from state funds and fund raising by the school. "Parental involvement has to be strong in charter schools," agreed the GCSA team.

They also explained that special needs children are as well taken care of, if not better taken care of, in a charter system because the charter school must meet the state required standards in all aspects of their education. As for curriculum, the board again stated that charters must adhere to the state required curriculums. Though some teachers can be hired based on high qualification, meaning a degree in the subject they are teaching, and by receiving a provisional certification. In the end all of the teachers must be certified.

The final comment of the evening came in response to the fact that a meeting was held with local elected officials prior to Tuesday's meeting as well as the May meeting. It was requested that from now on there be only one meeting, that way area residents can see what the elected officials are being told and how they are responding for the community.

More information about Georgia charter schools can be found on the GCSA website, www.gacharters.org.

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