Future uncertain for Georgia’s online charter schools

Elias Madera raises his diploma during the Georgia Cyber Academy commencement, Saturday, May 21, 2016, held at Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta.  (Photo/John Amis)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Elias Madera raises his diploma during the Georgia Cyber Academy commencement, Saturday, May 21, 2016, held at Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta.  (Photo/John Amis)

The future for Georgia’s online charter schools is uncertain as officials await the final scores from state standardized tests last spring.

Poor performance threatens the state-issued authority to operate for three big online schools that collectively enroll 18,000 students.

Georgia Connections Academy, Georgia Cyber Academy and Graduation Achievement Charter High School were among low-performing state-authorized charter schools that were called in for performance reviews by the State Charter Schools Commission in May and in June. The underlying message: get your act together or risk loss of your operating charters.

Charter schools get public funding but operate independently. They must meet academic and other performance goals to maintain their charters. State charter schools are unlike locally-authorized charter schools because they do not get local tax dollars and they answer to the state commission rather than to a local school district.

Commission Executive Director Bonnie Holliday said her agency is waiting for the Georgia Department of Education’ to calculate the College and Career Ready Performance Index for the 2016-17 school year before deciding whether to renew charters that expire after the upcoming school year. The CCRPI results, which are based in large part on the test results, are due this fall. The commission will take a couple months thereafter to reach its decisions.

In the meantime, thousands of students will start this school year with uncertainty about what lies ahead.

The recent performance reviews focused on the recorded performances during the 2015-16 school year, the most recent for which data are available.

Georgia Cyber Academy, an online school that is the single largest public school in the state, with 13,000 students enrolled last spring, said preliminary reports showed double digit gains in the percentage of its students passing some of the state tests last spring.

GCA board chair Ryan Mahoney attributed those gains to the stabilization and expansion of his teacher workforce and improvements in technology.

Georgia Connections Academy, with 3,800 students, said technology problems had affected performance. Principal Heather Robinson said the school plans to renegotiate its contract with manager Connections Education.

Graduation Achievement Charter High School, with 1,500 students, questioned the way the state measures schools. Superintendent Monica Henson said her school enrolls “alternative” students -- often kids who were removed from regular schools -- and Henson said the CCRPI fails to adjust for their circumstances.

State commissioners were unconvinced, but Henson told them she won’t be seeking a charter renewal from the state anyway. She’s talking to local districts that are willing to take her school under their wing by issuing a local, rather than a state, charter.

When Holliday asked what other data the commission should review that would cast the school in a better light, Henson said she didn’t know: “All I can say is there’s a robust market out there for the work that we do.”

The schools and their scores from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement:

Georgia Connections Academy: D in the 2015-16 school year and two Ds and two Fs the prior four years.

Georgia Cyber Academy: F in the 2015-16 school year and D the year before.

Graduation Achievement Charter High School: F in the 2015-16 school year and Fs the prior three years.

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