First in a series about new Georgia start-up public charter schools.
By Mike Klein
Devon Orland Christopher has a high profile position as the state’s senior assistant attorney general for civil rights litigation but her job as Mom is way more important.
“My son is what they call twice exceptional. He’s gifted. That is what gave birth to the school,” said Christopher who is co-founder of the Tapestry Public Charter School that opened today in DeKalb County. Co-founder Tonna Harris-Bosselmann also has an autistic spectrum child.
Autism is one among several behavioral disorders that can affect how children interact and engage socially. Their chances to succeed often are enhanced in smaller group settings and they sometimes struggle in the larger student populations found in many public schools.
Tapestry designed an individualized instruction model with a very small 8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in four core subjects – English, social studies, math and science. Core subject instructors will be joined in the classroom by special education teachers. “There are lots of kids who can benefit from an individualized curriculum with smaller classes,” said Christopher.
Elective courses that include drama will be offered with a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, which is still much lower than many public schools. Other electives include computer class, yearbook production and visual arts, but there are some sacrifices. “We don’t have the full conduit of services that you expect in a middle school. No football, no marching band,” said Christopher.
Tapestry Charter found its home for 96 middle school students in renovated space at Northeast Baptist Church in Norcross. The ground game to launch Tapestry began three years ago for Christopher, Harris-Bosselmann and their partners. Tapestry secured charter authorization through the DeKalb County School Board. The school receives about $8,000 per pupil in total public funding and it has raised about $100,000 in private capital, which is a small amount.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Christopher. “If you do a conversion school you’ve got a building, you’ve got supplies, you’ve got all that. If you do a start-up, you’ve got nothing. You have to have space before you can submit your petition and most people aren’t really willing to sign a lease a couple years in advance. Fortunately with the folks at the church we were able to work it out but had they changed their minds we would have been in a world of hurt.”
Tapestry’s charter is authorization to offer grades 6-through-12. The plan is to add one new grade each school calendar year, starting with ninth grade in fall 2015 until Tapestry offers complete middle and high school curriculum in the 2018-to-2019 school calendar year.
A lottery was held to select this year’s 96 middle schoolers. The wait list has 100 more. “Our goal is to create a model that can be replicated,” said Christopher. “Autism has gone from one-in-10,000 in the Eighties and now its one-in-42 boys. Many of these kids have amazing skills and ability to be quite successful in a different learning environment. A sea of 1,900 people is just too much for them. Otherwise they can learn, develop, grow and become successful.”
Harris-Bosselmann teaches at the University of North Georgia. “The education piece would not have come together without her,” said Christopher. Tapestry principal Amanda Chilvers served two years on the new school’s advisory council prior to this appointment. Previously she held several positions at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf. “We birthed the baby but she’s got to raise it,” Christopher said about Chilvers. “That is our most critical hire. We have amazing faith in her.”
Wednesday: THINC College and Career Academy in Troup County
The Foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity. (At the signing of the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform bill.)