This Life: Clayton charter school an academic role model

Utopian Academy for the Arts founder and executive director Artesius Miller goes over classwork with a student at the school in Ellenwood, Thursday, September 27, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The first thing you notice these days about Utopian Academy for the Arts isn’t what’s happening within its walls. Nothing much has changed about that.

The Clayton County charter school is still churning out some impressive alumni. But for the first time since Utopian was founded, its name is prominently displayed on the corner of the red brick building that it now calls home.

What it does: Give more money to state charter schools. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC STAFF)

That might not seem out of the ordinary except when Artesius Miller opened Utopian in 2009, it was against considerable odds. Not only were county school officials opposed to the idea of having a competitor serve students for free, but they also did their best to shut it down. Miller was not allowed to erect a sign bearing the middle school’s name. He was threatened with an eviction notice. Utopian was evacuated, and its food service program was shut down because the school didn’t have a business license even though there was no such requirement.

It has taken nearly a decade, but a lot has changed.

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Not only do kids and their parents walk these halls, but some of Georgia’s finest are showing up to see what Utopian scholars are up to. Gov. Nathan Deal has visited three times. Hollywood producer Will Packer, whose films have grossed nearly $1 billion collectively at the box office, has been here. And after rapper Ludacris’ first visit to the campus, his foundation adopted the school.

Miller, 31, doesn’t want to make too much of it, but he’s seen for himself what God will do when you choose to walk in his plan.

“I always knew I’d enter education,” Miller, who holds a Ph.D. in educational administration and policy from the University of Georgia, said the other day. “I just didn’t know in what capacity.”

He began this journey in the summer of 2008, just as he was completing an investment banking internship and discovered he was good at the business but it didn’t stir passion in him.

He was nearing graduation from Morehouse College when he had a little talk with God about his plans. And like the great-grandmother before him, Miller knew teaching, at least, was in his future.

Artesius Miller is founder and executive director of Utopian Academy for the Arts in Ellenwood. After a rocky start, the school is a model for other charter schools. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

As a Gates Millennium Scholar, he had enough money to pursue both a masters and doctorate. He applied for and received a slot working with Teach for America, then headed to graduate school at Columbia University. In his mind, Teachers College at Columbia was the best place to prepare him for a career in school leadership.

Miller had made himself at home in New York when he became intrigued by the school choice movement, and in particular the charter schools that seemed to be on every corner of Manhattan.

He was in a conversation about that topic with a faculty member when she suggested he introduce the concept to his hometown of Atlanta and start his own school.

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It didn’t take long for him to see the possibilities, and in the fall of 2009, he began assembling a board of directors, people with expertise in various industries and professions and who wanted to provide high-quality education options for children. Just as he set out assessing his hometown’s educational and economic climate, the Clayton County school district lost its accreditation.

“It was very clear to me that Clayton was where I needed to place my efforts,” he said.

Miller envisioned a place that would allow for more creative expression for students who historically had been labeled as having behavior challenges. Specifically, Utopian Academy for the Arts would offer college prep courses in the dramatic, media visual, and culinary arts, and they would be taught by industry professionals.

Well, that was the plan.

Artesius Miller (center) watches over a music class Thursday at Utopian Academy for the Arts in Ellenwood. Miller, 31, is founder and executive director of the charter school. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

On Aug. 4, 2014, after three years of denial by the Clayton County Board of Education, some 300 students and their parents arrived only to be told classes were canceled. Utopian was told by city officials that it would have to obtain a business license to open, even though it was unnecessary.

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Amid the confusion, parents began withdrawing students in scores. Miller was forced to take legal action to get state clearance to reopen, but by the time Utopian could begin classes, it had lost $750,000 in funding and, by the end of its first year, 75 percent of its instructional staff.

However, Miller persevered, slowly erasing the deficit and building his students’ academic record.

In April, Utopian scholars out-paced their Clayton County School peers by as much as 20 percentage points in every subject area on the Milestones Exams. In English/Language Arts, for example, 86.4 percent of Utopian eighth graders met or exceeded standards compared to 68 percent of Clayton County students. In math, they led their peers 71.2 percent to 61.7 percent; and out-performed their district peers on the science exam 77.3 percent to 51 percent.

It would not have happened without the support of the Academy’s governing board and the goodwill of Clayton’s new superintendent, Morcease Beasley.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Beasley not only embraced Utopian, but he agreed to provide student transportation, professional development and curriculum resources for the school, and paved the way for Utopian to move into the old East Clayton Elementary facility in Ellenwood, a building nearly three times the school’s original location in Riverdale.

Last week, Miller marveled at how far they’ve come. The academy is now able to invest in its teachers, helping them gain certification. Its arts curriculum has won praise from Richard Woods, Georgia’s school superintendent. It is a pipeline to Stilwell School of the Arts, and the Atlanta Ballet Alvin Ailey summer dance program.

And, perhaps, best of all, The Utopian Academy Act that Gov. Deal signed into law in 2015 ensures no other charter school experiences the kind of bullying Utopian suffered.

“This started with a conversation with God,” Miller said. “Now I get to see our kids make the kinds of academic gains few people believed were possible.”

And all because Artesisu Miller decided to answer the call to serve his community.

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