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Charter school company eyes county
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Since the beginning of the last decade, school choice has been a much discussed topic in education.

Tuesday night, school development staff members from Imagine Schools presented information about their schools and educational vision to an audience of approximately 50 at The Center for Community Planning and Preservation.

Imagine School Developer Kelly Campbell gave basic information about the charter schools the company operates in 10 states across the country.

"It is our desire to become part of the Newton County family," Campbell said.

Campbell said she spent the first two years of her teaching career at Palmer-Stone Elementary School in Newton County.

She also explained the difference between charter schools and private schools.

Charter schools are public schools that private entities draw a charter for and apply to the local school board to begin operating and collecting local and state revenue.

Campbell explained Imagine schools typically have a primary attendance zone that surrounds the school and then a blind lottery, open to all county students, fills vacant seats.

She emphasized families do not have to pay for children to attend and that the schools must adhere to Georgia Performance Standards and require their students to take the same standardized tests as other public school students in the county.

"We are not competition," Campbell said. "We are only a choice."

She added community input on what grades and programs would be offered at the school is crucial to Imagine Schools development.

Newton County Board of Education member and literacy expert C.C. Bates attended the informational meeting and said charter schools often do create "healthy competition" for traditional public schools.

 "I do not think our system is perfect, but I do think it has the ability to rise and meet the ever changing challenges it faces," Bates said. "I think school systems should be responsive to community needs and the Newton County School System recognizes that people are interested in school choice."

Campbell said Imagine employees hold themselves to high standards of accountability and grade their own facilities on their own six measures of excellence which include shared values of integrity, justice and fun, parent choice, academic achievement, positive character development, economic sustainability and new school development

"They're the yard sticks we use to measure ourselves and make ourselves accountable to you," Campbell said.

She added other qualities of Imagine Schools which attract families are their same student, same year test gain reporting and a required 10 hours a year of parent volunteering.

"When parent involvement goes up," Campbell said, "so do students' scores."

Campbell said a core group of families approached Imagine school development staff expressing an interest bringing a charter school to Newton County.

Bates said Imagine Schools previously had submitted a letter of intent to the board. Campbell said personnel issues caused Imagine to withdraw their letter of intent because they did not have adequate time to solicit community input on the school.

Imagine Schools have five schools operating in Georgia and more than 50 across the country.

The "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" ran a story Jan. 14 about high principal turnover at the schools in Cobb County. State department of education administrators called top Imagine executives to a meeting to discuss their operations.

"Imagine Schools is a young company - it is six years old and their presence is new in Georgia," Bates said. "All of the schools that Imagine operates in Georgia are less than two years old and based on that, I think it is hard to determine if they are successful."

Bates shared concern with meeting attendants about the proposed location of the school, transportation, economic sustainability and meeting the county's needs.

According to Bates the withdrawn letter of intent titled the school "Imagine Mt. Pleasant International Academies" and that they planned to implement the International Baccalaureate Program.

"In the meeting on Tuesday evening, Imagine stressed designing a school with community input," Bates said. "Based on the letter, the location and curricular focus seems to have already been decided - this leaves me wondering how much community input they truly desire."

Currently, charter schools do not have to provide transportation to their students unless they fall into the special needs category. This worried some audience members since not all county students have reliable transportation and that lack of busing could create a homogenous student demographic.

More than half of public school students in Newton County qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Legislation on the floor of the Georgia General Assembly, such as senate bill 39 and 881, could change transportation requirements among other things.

Presently, charter schools in Georgia receive no funding for school start-up and construction. They receive the same Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) funding per student as public schools receive from the state, minus some such as transportation costs. Charters approved by local boards receive local funding based on tax revenue, but state-approved charters receive only state FTE funds.

"Economic sustainability kills charter schools in their first two years," Campbell said.

At the meeting, questions were raised about what happens in the case of schools operating in the red.

Campbell said Imagine Schools is partly funded by the philanthropic efforts of entrepreneur and best-selling author Dennis Bakke and his wife Eileen. She added Imagine also looks to a partnership with parents to help raise initial start-up fees.

Other concerns expressed at the meeting were about meeting the needs of the community. Several attendees voiced their request for high school choice.

"Because charters function independently of the school system, they do not have to take the district's needs into consideration," Bates said. "For example, a charter school could arbitrarily choose to locate in an area where the district simply does not need a school."

She said the board has researched and visited charter and theme schools in the Atlanta metro area.

Last year the board visited a parental involvement theme school in DeKalb County. While not charter schools, theme schools do provide alternative options to a traditional public education.

"The parent theme schools have met success in DeKalb both at the elementary and middle school levels," Bates said.

The board of education has begun to explore the interest and feasibility of opening a math and science theme school in the county.

Campbell said the ultimate goal of Imagine Schools is to create academically successful, decentralized learning environments where parents and teachers make decisions about what happens in the classroom rather than legislators.

She said her goal was to discover what the educational needs of Newton County families are and resubmit a letter of intent to the board in February of 2009 with the school scheduled to open in July of 2010.

The board has set a 60 day review period for charter approvals.

"I'm thrilled they go over it with a fine tooth comb," Campbell said. "I mean we are stewards of tax payer money."

Bates said both she and other board members would continue to research charter schools in general as well as the existing Imagine Schools.

 "As a board member, I feel charged with making sure we spend what little money the system has as wisely as possible," Bates said. "I would have the same concerns if I were investing in a start up company.

 "That doesn't mean the charter school won't be successful, I just want to make sure I have done my homework. I would encourage all who are interested in this concept to research it thoroughly."