Elite designation for Fulton schools

District becomes largest charter system in state

Fulton County Schools won state board approval Thursday to become a Georgia charter system, an elite designation that gives the district creative freedom to improve student achievement.

The unanimous endorsement from the state Board of Education paves the way for sweeping change in the district of 100 schools and 92,000 students .Fulton remains a public school district. But the vote making it a charter district releases Fulton from following state education mandates governing instructional time, class schedules, teacher’s pay, budgets and more.

It also makes parents decision-makers instead of fund-raisers and volunteers only, giving them a larger stake in their schools' success.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to really lead what I believe to be a unique and innovative approach to school reform,” said Robert Avossa, Fulton Schools superintendent. “This is giving us the same level of autonomy that charter schools have enjoyed. . . . What’s non-negotiable is what’s taught; it’s the how they will get to develop and really inspire people to think differently.”

Charter systems receive an extra $100 per student annually -- or more than $9 million -- to help fund innovations. Fulton County Schools' additional funding would have to be considered in 2013 when the Legislature meets to review the supplemental budget.

River Eves parent Amanda Hayes is intrigued. "It's a little early to tell, but in theory it sounds like it would be good to have a little bit more influence at the school and flexibility for teachers to use their creativity."

The state board also approved the charter application of Madison County Schools in Danielsville, Ga., a district with 4,700 students. Fulton and Madison join 14 districts -- including Marietta City Schools and Decatur City Schools -- already free to adapt to the needs of students.

Fulton, now the state's largest charter system, will spend the next year training parents and staff interested in transforming their schools. School governance teams eventually will help their campuses to create new identities, budgets and broader curriculum options. Students also could have new ways to earn course credits and expanded foreign language classes.

In Marietta City Schools, students can take French, Spanish and German starting in sixth grade instead of ninth grade. Marietta High is planning to offer French XI, a college level course, in August for advanced speakers who want more years in the language.

Classrooms are equipped with interactive SMART boards thanks to the extra funding Marietta has received as a charter district.

The improvements were what the community asked for, said Tim Brown, an assistant principal at Marietta High who also oversees the district's career education curriculum. "We rely heavily upon parent surveys and student surveys and local school governance committees," he said. "We are putting more rigor into the curriculum and pairing that with relevance."

In Decatur, parents on school leadership teams help interview new teachers and weigh in on principal evaluations.

Elections for Fulton's governance teams will begin in the fall as schools begin to raise their hand to be among the first 20 to become part of the charter.