State charter schools win renewed charters, though some underperformed

The State Charter Schools Commission re-authorized eight Georgia charter schools Wednesday, though some got shorter-than-usual contracts due to poor performance.

A 5-year contract renewal is standard, but four schools were given only three more years. They have that time to prove themselves because they failed to consistently meet performance goals, yet showed improvement last year. Two other schools benefited from a change in their performance goals.

Parents in charter schools, even those with poor academic records, tend to get upset when their school is closed. Several showed up to speak against closures.

But commission officials said their unanimous decisions to keep the schools open were based on objective measures of financial, operational and academic performance.

“There was no subjectivity,” said Paul Williams, vice chairman of the commission. “Lobbying doesn’t make a difference.”

Even so, the commission displayed flexibility in agreeing to modify the criteria for renewal for two schools.

Charter school contracts require that they beat the academic scores -- informed mainly by student performance on standardized state tests -- of the districts where they draw students.

And in recent months, two schools -- Fulton Leadership Academy and Cherokee Charter Academy -- saw performance gains on paper because they won approval to draw students from beyond their respective counties (the Fulton school also was allowed to stop taking students from the higher-performing north end of Fulton). The changes effectively lowered their required academic performance because of the lower average performance of the traditional public schools in the new attendance areas.

Commission Executive Director Bonnie Holliday said the two charter schools would only have qualified for a 3-year contract renewal had their attendance zones remained unchanged.

Asked about the decision to lower the school’s performance goals by changing their attendance zones, Williams, the vice chairman, said it was “a subjective” decision.

Both schools were renewed for five years, as were Coweta Charter Academy in Coweta County and Pataula Charter Academy in southwest Georgia.

The schools renewed for three years were: Atlanta Heights Charter School; Georgia Connections Charter Academy, a statewide online school; and the Ivy Preparatory Academy campuses in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. Most of them failed to reach goals but performed as required last year, commission staff said.

Also, the Ivy Prep Gwinnett campus was permitted to close next year and re-open the year after in a new location. Officials blamed declining enrollment on the current location, where the lease expires in May. Parents protested the temporary closure.