Lewis Academy sees rapid growth

Clayton County’s first charter school has become so popular that it has just added 14 classrooms to handle the overflow of students.

The school, the Lewis Academy of Excellence in Riverdale, has grown from a starting enrollment of 254 students in 2005 to 635 students this fall, with an additional 100 on a waiting list.

Tony Roberts, chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said the accreditation struggles of Clayton County schools have likely factored into the academy’s growth.

“When you get into an area that’s had some of the challenges of a Clayton County, and the families are very concerned, [a tuition-free, public charter school such as Lewis] is a very good option,” Roberts said.

The academy, which offers classes from kindergarten through fifth grade, also has established a record of academic achievement, said Roberts and Patricia J. Lewis, a veteran educator and the academy’s founder and chief executive officer.

The Lewis Academy has made annual yearly progress, or AYP, a critical benchmark of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, every year since it opened, and it had the highest score in the county on the reading portion of this year’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, Lewis said.

Clayton County School Board Chairman Alieka Anderson said the growth of the school is not surprising.

“When a community sees a school that’s doing well and the children are achieving, of course, they’re going to make sure they support that school,” Anderson said. “We celebrate excellence, and Lewis Academy is a school of excellence.”

Lewis said the academy's achievement “proves that the charter school concept works.”

On Thursday, Lewis will welcome community leaders to the school for a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of its newest building, equipped with a cafeteria, a small gym, administrative offices and the 14 classrooms.

The school started out in leased church space, like many charter schools do, and has expanded each year, Lewis said.

In 2007, the academy bought a former Woodward Academy site in Riverdale. The 28-acre campus, which includes six buildings, two playgrounds and a football field, is believed to be physically the nation’s largest charter school campus.

In Georgia, about 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attend 122 charter schools.

Clayton County has four of those schools, with the Lewis Academy being the biggest and only independent charter. The county’s other charter schools are the Scholars Academy, which has about 150 students in K-5; the Elite Scholars Academy, which opened this year with 100 sixth-graders; and Unidos Dual Language Charter School with about 250 students in K-5.

Lewis Academy was the one that Jan Zachary wanted her 6-year-old daughter Miracle to attend this fall.

“I had just been hearing a lot of good things,” Zachary said.

She was told there was a waiting list and had gone so far as to register Miracle for kindergarten at another school.

“But I didn’t really want her to go there,” Zachary said of the other school. “I went to praying on it.”

A week before school started, she was about to head into the academy to check on Miracle’s chances when her cellphone rang and the news came that there was an opening for the girl.

“I was so happy,” she said. “It made my day.”