October 21, 2014 - Atlanta, Ga: The front entrance is shown of Ivy Prep at Kirkwood Tuesday morning, October 21, 2014, in Atlanta, Ga.. Ivy Prep Academy, a public charter school in Atlanta, has become a landowner and a landlord in a $14 million deal to purchase a shopping plaza in DeKalb County. Ivy Prep Academy plans to use vacant space in the shopping center to expand their school. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Charter school prolonged a painful choice

The writing had long been on the wall.

At the end of its life, Ivy Prep’s high school program on three campuses was mostly virtual, with many of the 90 students seeing teachers through video feeds, leaving little time for personal interaction or questions.

There had been whispers about the impending demise of the public charter high school. When it was finally confirmed in early October, some parents struggled for answers about what they saw as an abrupt decision to close.

They had been attracted to it because Ivy Prep had established itself, starting its first lower-grade classes in 2008. The high school started in 2011. When it closed two months into the school year, students’ lives were disrupted and parents had to scramble to find new schools.

“Essentially, we were forced to go back where we came from,” said Regina Butler-Streets, whose daughter, Victoria, now attends Brookwood High School in Gwinnett County.

Changes appearing to be sudden are not uncommon among charter schools. They were designed to be more nimble and flexible than traditional public schools and can open or close programs quicker. Ivy Prep, whose decision-makers dragged out a painful choice while students’ futures hung in the balance, provides a cautionary tale for those who send their children to charter schools.

Charter schools do not have to disclose adjustments to programs unless the change alters the charter’s operating contract with its sponsor or oversight agency. And not all charter schools bind themselves in their contracts to teaching specific grade levels.

Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, said several charter schools have eliminated grade levels because they were not deemed financially viable. He could not provide a count because not every school specifies the grade levels they seek to educate.

Among charter high schools authorized by local public school boards, Atlanta’s Tech High School shut down in 2012.

The State Charter Schools Commission can also issue charters. Bonnie Holiday, executive director, said of the 15 operational charter schools under the commission’s authority, Cherokee Charter Academy eliminated its high school program in 2014.

Ivy Prep had talked of closing the high school for the past three years. The call got louder last spring, but the board waited because members did not want it to fail. They gave former executive director Victoria Wiley a directive in March, when she recommended closing the high school.

“It pained them to make that recommendation,” said Alisha Thomas Morgan, executive director for Ivy Prep Academy’s three programs in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, during comments to the State Charter Schools Commission in October. She replaced Wiley earlier this year.

“The board directed the staff to go back and fix it.”

Administrators and board members paint a picture of a program in peril for years due to a small student body and thin finances. When it became apparent they could not maintain the quality program they envisioned, they finally decided to shutter it.

“Ivy Prep has struggled with high schools for years,” Morgan said. “It didn’t start in March.”

Niyoka Johnson had put her son Omari into Ivy Prep’s Young Men’s Academy for smaller class sizes and the hope of more intimate learning. Instead, the teen was taking seven classes, with some taught by instructors through video feed, who were unable to interact with students. As a result, failing grades were being handed out to dozens of students.

“It was just a lot of confusion at the school,” she said. “Leading up to the closure, I was up at the school almost every day. No one could tell me anything. Then I found out there wasn’t really a teacher on site, and that there wasn’t any feedback.”

She moved her 16-year-old to Southwest DeKalb High School, where he is excelling and passing classes he was failing at Ivy Prep. He’s only taking the four courses he needs, giving him more time to focus on his school work, including tutoring.

Johnson is still frustrated with the way the system announced the elimination of the high school.

“I feel like they knew they were going to close it,” she said. “We could’ve had the option to move our children.”

Gwinnett parent Regina Butler-Streets said her daughter, Victoria, attended since sixth grade and was a high school freshman this fall.

Butler-Streets said Ivy Prep should have contacted parents at least one year before closing to discuss the plans, to see if they could at least help find ways to keep the high school program going.

“These were girls who built relationships with each other since the sixth-grade,” she said. “They built a sisterhood. They were distraught.”

Butler-Streets spent a month looking for a private school for her daughter after Ivy Prep classes would end, but none would accept her because it was too late in the school year.

Her daughter began classes at Brookwood High School, in the Gwinnett school district, with less than two weeks of instruction time before this week’s finals. She will probably have to attend summer school, her mother said.

“I think we all would have rather stayed there, muddled through the semester, then transition out,” Butler-Streets said.

Parents are complaining that they became aware of the move to close high schools in October, but Ivy Prep board member Christopher Kunney said the decision was made during a board meeting in August. No formal notice went out to parents.

He said with charters paying for facilities and transportation while receiving less money per student than public schools do, putting enough effort into educating children often took a back seat to figuring out how to pay for it.

To keep costs low, a hybrid model for learning was developed, using a mix of in-person instruction and instructors available over video feed.

Classes already were taking place in rented space for some students. In one class, some students would take direction from virtual instructors while a student next to them could be learning from a live person. Academic data, which Morgan called the “final straw,” indicated only 23 percent of male high school students and 50 percent of the female students were passing one or more classes.

Kunney said, “We took a chance to examine the model and came to the conclusion that it just was not going to be sustainable.” He said the decision to end the programs in the middle of the semester was “so they could get the kids into alternative systems sooner rather than later.”

Morgan said every week students from its former high school program have visited the Ivy Prep campuses. Those she’s met with personally are thriving, passing their classes, taking advanced-placement courses and participating in extracurricular activities unavailable to them before. A program is in place to tutor the students as well as offering college counseling.

“It was confirmation that it was the right thing to do,” she said about closing the high schools. “We struggled to do it, but we keep getting confirmation” of the decision.

“We’re proud of our scholars and what they’ve been able to achieve.”

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Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this story