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Challenge Charter Academy to close
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Local charter school Challenge Charter Academy will be closing at the end of the school year after officials were unable to convince the Georgia Department of Education they were worthy of being a separate charter school.
However, the school still plans to re-apply for a charter in the future.

Challenge Charter had an application for a three-year charter renewal pending with the state, but local officials announced Friday morning the school chose to withdraw its application after the Georgia Department of Education said it would recommend the application be denied.

The final decision rests with the state board of education, but the education department’s recommendation would hold significant weight in any renewal decision. Lou Erste, director of the education department’s charter schools division said Friday he had never seen the state board reverse a recommendation for denial.

Challenge charter officials said they will continue to work on their organization and structure and plan to resubmit their charter application later this year in hope of getting another charter for the 2014-15 school year.

“Based on our commitment to our students, the Board of Directors for Challenge Charter Academy decided to withdraw the petition in order to incorporate the necessary recommendations needed to resubmit during the next academic year,” said Gwendolyn Cattledge, chairperson for the board.

“We feel that the withdrawal and resubmission of the petition will be in the best interest of the Challenge Charter family and the community. We will resubmit, because as was voiced by the students, parents and the community at the local district approval, this school is a needed entity in our school system — by providing a school of choice.”
The charter renewal application was denied for five reasons according to a letter sent to Challenge charter Principal Ernetta Worthy by the Georgia education department:

1. Inability to articulate why a charter is needed for this school.

2. Newly-elected charter school board members didn’t appear to have much knowledge about the school’s operation and the school lacked a set plan to quickly bring new members up to speed. This caused the education department to question the Challenge Charter board’s ability to govern the school.

3. There was a lack of separation between the roles of the board and the role of the principal and administration.

4. The school couldn’t provide the services and programs needed for high school students to be able to succeed.

5. The student performance during the first five-year charter did not meet expectations and there was no “discernible plan” to increase student performance moving forward.

Is the school needed?
Erste, the state’s charter schools director, said Challenge charter wasn’t able to prove why it really needed a charter. The point of charter schools is that they essentially sign a performance contract to meet certain goals, and in order to meet those goals they are waived from having to follow the huge rulebook of state regulations that govern all traditional schools. For instance, charter schools don’t have to follow state regulations related to class sizes or schedules.

Under point 1, the letter said “There are no ascertainable uses of flexibility and the school appears to function as more of an educational program rather than a school.”

The flexibility mentioned above refers to the waivers from state rules that charter schools get. Erste said that the difference between an educational program and a school is that an educational program operates as supplement to a school as opposed to a full-fledged school in and of itself.

In general, the state wants charter schools to be actual, stand-alone schools. The only type of school designed to operate as an educational program or supplement is a career academy, such as the Newton College and Career Academy. These schools supplement the work done in high schools and are effective in that way.

Local take
Local Newton County Board of Education members had concerns with Challenge charter’s progress as well, but still chose to approve a three-year contract renewal.

Challenge charter had originally asked for a five-year renewal, but school officials were only willing to approve a three-year renewal. However, the ultimate authority to actually grant a charter rests with the state board of education.

Newton County Schools Superintendent Gary Mathews said local officials felt that improvements were needed at Challenge Charter as well.

“GaDOE has a regulatory duty to review charter applications. We did so in Newton County; found that a five-year renewal was not warranted; settled on a three-year renewal, but suggested that improvements were needed if the charter was to be renewed again locally,” Mathews said in an email to The News. “So, in this respect, we are not entirely surprised at the GaDOE recommendation as disappointing as we know it is for the Challenge charter Academy family.”

In a press release, the school said it was sending letters home to parents this week and said faculty had already been notified of the planned closing.

Mathews said in the release that the students now attending Challenge Charter will attend the Newton County School System’s schools that their residence is zoned for next school year.

“We know CCA students, staff and parents are very disappointed,” Mathews said in the release. “But we certainly welcome CCA students back into Newton County School System. Their education is most important to all of us in the system and in the community.”

According to previous stories, Challenge Charter had about 100 students in middle and high school grades; the number of faculty and staff was not immediately available.

Challenge charter’s board chair Gwendolyn Cattledge said Friday she would work on getting answers to questions about the future of the charter school.

Challenge Charter is located in the old R.L. Cousins High School complex on Geiger Street, which is no longer owned by the school system. It’s unclear what will happen during the year Challenge charter is not actively operating as a school.

Because Challenge Charter operates as an independent public school outside the governance of the Newton County BOE, Newton County system officials will not participate in any reorganization of the charter school’s structure.

According to previous stories, Challenge Charter receives about $300,000 locally and $800,000 from the state annually to fund the school.

Challenge Charter Principal Worthy said previously she expected there to be approximately 300 students enrolled at her school over the next five years.

Challenge Charter’s renewal petition (along with those of all other charter school’s requesting renewal) was due to the state board before Nov. 1. All charter school applicants had to take part in a panel interview at the end of this year and the state board notified applicants earlier this year if they intended to renew applications.

When Challenge Charter re-applies for its charter, it will do so under the process for new charter schools. Its application deadline is Aug. 1.

“If they apply after August 1, 2013, we might still be able to get them a decision for 2014-15, but that may not be possible depending on how many other applicants submit their applications by the deadline this year,” Erste said in an email.

In its original petition from Oct. 17, 2007, Challenge charter stated it would have “significant support from Project Adventure, a national non-profit with a large youth service program in Covington.”

However Project Adventure closed roughly two years ago, and according to the charter school stopped providing “program services related to adventure education after Year 2 due to the funding cycle of the U.S. Department of Labor grant.”

Another large concern expressed by local school board members previously was charter school student’s performance compared to other public schools in the county.

Compared to Newton County students in 2012, charter school students failed to meet the local standard in eighth grade writing, sixth, seventh and eighth grade CRCTs, the Georgia High School Writing Test and end-of-course tests.

There were too few students at CCA to compare with graduation test results.

In both 2012 and 2011, CCA students failed to meet the county standard in every test given, with the exception of sixth grade English/language arts CRCTs in 2010, when CCA students scored 94 to NCSS’ 90.