Sixth in a series about new Georgia start-up charter public schools
By Mike Klein
We hear a lot about how reduced state funding caused public school systems to schedule fewer than the 180-day traditional calendar. This year sixth and seventh graders at Utopian Academy for the Arts were scheduled for 190 school days, even as students in the Clayton County public school system are scheduled for 175 days. That would be three more school weeks at Utopian.
“Our school year looks a lot different from the traditional public school setting,” said Utopian founder and executive director Artesius Miller. There are other differences. Classrooms are single gender and Utopian offers middle school electives that you do not usually find until high school, including broadcast and video production and journalism. “My goal was to have something unique that you cannot find in any Clayton County middle school,” said Miller.
No new start-up public charter school in Georgia had a harder time opening its doors this month than Utopian Academy for the Arts in Riverdale. In the end it took a Clayton County Superior Court order to clear the path so 180 sixth and seventh graders could attend their new school.
The surface issues appeared to be whether licenses were proper and safety inspections were complete before Utopian Academy could open in a former Clayton public school. Below the surface, Utopian supporters viewed Riverdale city officials as willing partners with the Clayton County school board that had repeatedly denied Utopian’s application for a local charter.
Not all issues are permanently resolved, but when we spoke this week Miller said, “Having those things resolved and behind us gives me a clear head to be able to walk into the building with a smile on my face.” Classes began Thursday, August 14, ten days later than the scheduled opening. Miller said the school lost “dozens” of students whose families left during the extended dispute.
The delay cost Utopian eight days on its 190-day calendar. Many of those will be made up because the Academy offers bi-weekly, non-mandatory Saturday school. That is done outside the state funding formula that provides $6,200 per student for Monday-to-Friday. In the end, Utopian middle school students will have the opportunity to attend at least 190 school days this year.
Clayton County should be the perfect laboratory for innovation. Unemployment is 9.6 percent, well above Georgia’s troublesome 7.8 percent rate. The county’s 2013 four-year high school graduation rate was 55.8 percent, well below the 71.5 percent statewide graduation rate. Black students graduated at a 56.6 percent rate and white students at just 38.5 percent.
Six years ago this month, on August 28, 2008, Clayton became just the third school district since 1969 to lose its Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation. Systemic failure of the public school system caused shock waves and changes. Governor Sonny Perdue removed four school board members. The county eventually re-earned its accreditation but an element of public education trust was lost.
Fast forward three years to 2011 and you find Miller, an Atlanta native, with an idea. A graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University, Miller built his business career resume as a financial services analyst with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase in New York, as a volunteer teacher in Brooklyn and he held other positions working in charter schools and mentoring youth.
Miller analyzed the “dire needs” of Clayton County — insufficient housing, minimal public transportation and inadequate school choice options. He wrote the blueprint for an arts-focused, single gender education middle school that he proposed would become just the fourth charter school of any kind in Clayton which is the state’s fifth largest school district with more than 52,000 students. “The initial plan back in 2011 was saving our young men,” said Miller. Utopian was denied local authorization.
While Miller was struggling to open Utopian Academy for the Arts the state’s voters were preparing to decide whether Georgia should create an alternative authorizer for charter schools that were initially rejected by local boards of education. A proposed constitutional amendment to that effect passed with a 58 percent statewide majority in November 2012, and a stunning 71 percent majority in Clayton.
Utopian Academy was the only successful applicant among 16 proposed charter schools that were considered last year by the new State Charter Schools Commission.
Utopian’s students are almost equally divided between boys, the initial target audience, and girls. “Think of it this way, we have two single gender academies under one roof almost like a mini Morehouse and a mini Spelman,” said Miller. He was pleasantly surprised by the number of students who live in two-parent households, “I was expecting it to be the other way around.”
Utopian will add eighth grade next year. Miller said the extended vision is to start a high school with freshmen in two years and eventually open an elementary school. Both ideas will require new authorization because the current state charter is just grades 6-8.
“We’re going to be able to show the community that the same students who have traditionally been told that they can’t meet a certain achievement level (will) not only meet but exceed what the state has set as our academic requirement levels,” said Miller. “This school will be the change agent for Clayton 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.)