Virtual charter high school serving 2000 students closing in June

The state’s first virtual charter high school announced today it was closing in June.

Graduation Achievement Charter High School served 2,100 at-risk high schoolers, some of whom had been expelled from their home schools, both online and at locations in Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah.

The closing will impact about 1,900 of the 2,100 at-risk students enrolled in the statewide school. Ten percent of the 2,100 students are on track to earn diplomas in June.

Graduation Achievement Charter was facing the risk of losing its charter with the State Charter Schools Commission for underperformance. It had scored a grade of "F" several years running in the state rankings, which are largely driven by academic performance on state tests.

Proponents of Graduation Achievement Charter argued the grading system was not fair to a school of last resort that took kids with daunting problems, including expulsion and homelessness. But the State Charter Schools Commission sets performance goals, and the charters agree to them in their contracts. If those goals are not met, the commission can and does close schools. Last year, commissioners expressed frustration with the academic performance of the blended charter high school.

Some of the students may not be able to return to their local high schools because they were expelled, are over-age as they had dropped out or for other reasons. Their most likely option for a high school diploma will be to pursue a GED. The closure also puts 72 staff and educators out of work.

Here is the official release:

After successfully serving high-risk students for six years, the board of directors of Graduation Achievement Charter High School voted in its March 27 meeting to close operations effective June 30.

After reviewing the feasibility of renewing its state charter or operation of the organization as a non-profit partner with local school districts, Superintendent Dr. Monica Henson recommended the school’s closure to the board.

Chairman of the Board Lt. Commander Herbert Jones (Ret.) cited the school’s unique contributions to Georgia public education: “GACHS has brought several strengths to the high school table, including graduating 6-, 7-, and 8-year cohort seniors, offering academically rigorous AP and dual enrollment opportunities to all enrolled students, and increasing the percentage of students not needing remediation when enrolling in the Technical College System of Georgia. Most importantly, GACHS has given students a second, third, and fourth chance at completing high school.” The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement 2017 School Report Card shows that GACHS produced 67% college-ready graduates while serving 77% low-income students.

“We have done outstanding work for the past six years, proving that we accept and educate many students that no other school system will serve, and we can be intensely proud of that,” remarked Superintendent Dr. Monica Henson. “I am proud that GACHS is the only State charter school to have earned the Alternative School designation by the Georgia Department of Education.”

Robert Brown, who served as general board member, Treasurer, and past Chairman, said, “From the earliest days of the school’s founding, we had a vision that we would provide hope for a better future and instill the pride of accomplishment for a population of students for whom the experience of either had been deferred for numerous reasons. I was honored to watch the staff and leadership of the school pour their hearts and lives into accomplishing that mission. While I know that the school succeeded on so many levels, its closing will represent a setback for many in the state of Georgia.”

GACHS has from its inception been a school that will accept any student applicant who can prove age and Georgia residency, regardless of disciplinary or academic struggles, making the high school a valuable resource for districts, social service agencies, and juvenile probation and parole officers statewide. Ten percent of last spring’s graduating seniors were homeless students, and the school has worked consistently with agencies such as Families First and CHRIS 180 to identify students aging out of foster care and otherwise at high risk and in need of nontraditional education services.

“Several charter schools claim to be serving the neediest students,” commented Dr. Henson. “GACHS has proved that it does.” A demographic analysis of the school’s enrollment for three years was conducted by Momentum Strategy and Research, a national organization specializing in alternative school assessment data and accountability systems, to assess the high-risk nature of GACHS students. Momentum’s analysis showed that the majority of GACHS students present with risk factors, including homelessness, dropping out of school more than once, pregnancy and parenting, drug treatment, mental health treatment, juvenile court involvement, and long-term suspension and expulsion.

Momentum’s principal partner, Jim Griffin, noted, “Given the high-risk nature of the school, it’s essential a school like GACHS be evaluated via standards commensurate with its mission and students.”

Unlike other states that have embraced more targeted alternative school accountability measures, Georgia’s model for measuring academic success in state-wide charter schools does not adequately take into account the special needs of its students. Under the existing framework, schools such as GACHS are not likely to be viewed as “succeeding.”

However, GACH’s 900-plus graduates that have earned a high school diploma despite all risk factors mounted against them tells a different story, explains Dr. Henson. “I am proud that we posted a 17% improvement in our CCRPI composite score over three years, enabling us to exit the Title I Priority Schools program this year with sustained support. We closed the achievement gap at a rate of 60% for the past three years, higher than any other alternative high school in metro Atlanta, even those that have enrollment restrictions, which GACHS has never employed.”

Through its advocacy efforts, GACHS focused the legislature’s, and the state department of education’s attention on the plight of students in Georgia in need of effective nontraditional and alternative education without enrollment restrictions. Alternative school services have traditionally been under-resourced in Georgia, with inadequate funding and a misunderstanding of what defines student success. Dr. Henson stated, “It is my hope that this school has been not only a servant leader in the high school space, but also an influencer of policy in how we in Georgia deal with the students most in need of effective adult advocacy.”

District 29 Senator Josh McKoon praised the work of the school: “GACHS has been the epitome of what public policymakers want a charter school to be—using the flexibility of the charter model to better serve students. The record of GACHS speaks for itself—put simply, it has filled a need for students who weren’t being well served by the existing system. The numbers clearly show the success GACHS has been for the students. Dr. Henson and her team are to be congratulated for showing the way and demonstrating a model to better serve at risk students.”

GACHS is the only public school system in the state to widely accept expelled students from other districts without implementing enrollment obstacles, earning the endorsement of Dr. Jimmy Stokes of the Georgia Association for Educational Leadership and the Georgia Hearing Officers Association.

Dr. Stokes expressed concern at the disappearance of a valuable resource utilized by school hearing officers statewide: “GACHS has been a tremendous asset available to school disciplinarians across the state of Georgia. School administrators will have nowhere to turn to find a responsible way to serve students that have been expelled once GACHS is gone. Not having GACHS is certainly going to cause a major disruption in the education process for some of our most challenged students. GACHS has been a positive, reassuring resource for school leaders and for students that have no alternative, and its absence will leave a significant gap in the services that we are able to provide students.”

GACHS became a safe-haven for students that had not succeeded elsewhere. Avoiding the “school-to-prison pipeline” that plagues so many, GACHS served as a model for student safety and engagement, never having to long-term suspend or expel a student in the history of the school, despite operating over 11 brick/mortar campuses over the course of its six years. GACHS’s academic engagement and innovative education model proves that even the most at-risk population can be educated safely.

Dr. Henson has spoken at recent public engagements about her dream that one day it will become illegal to expel a student from a Georgia public school: “The rise of online learning and technology-based education has given us what we need to abandon the concept of excluding a student completely from the opportunity to earn a high school diploma in a public school system. Being expelled from school is, for most students, the equivalent of economic suicide.”

Dr. Henson and her team are focusing on the positive and pushing for a strong finish to the school’s six-year run, working to graduate as many students as possible before June 30. During this transition, GACHS will collaborate with local districts to assist undergraduates in finding new schools to call home or returning to their previous ZIP code districts of residence.

“We deeply appreciate the important work that GACHS has done over the last six years to serve students from Atlanta who otherwise may not have graduated,” said Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan. “We look forward to partnering with the GACHS team to ensure a seamless transition for Atlanta students who are interested in continuing a virtual high school experience through our new full-time Atlanta Virtual Academy.”

The school’s final graduation will be held June 9, 2018, at Georgia State University.