ATLANTA — When Floyd County schools Superintendent Lynn Plunkett needed to hire new principals or redraw the bus routes for the district, she didn’t turn to her central office staff to do the job.
Plunkett instead asked teams of parents, teachers and community members from each of the district’s 21 schools to help out. That hyper-local approach is part of the district’s charter with the state, a contract that gives the system flexibility in exchange for promises of improved student performance.
Floyd County is part of a growing number of school systems in Georgia converting into charter districts under a 2007 law that frees them from class size and teacher pay restrictions, among other state education rules.
“We decided to pursue this because as a community we felt we were not tapping into the resources available to us,” Plunkett said. “At the school level, we’re seeing much greater ownership from parents and business partners. They understand now what goes into educating a student.”
The state started with just a handful of charter districts at first, but now more than a dozen have converted to that — from White County in the north Georgia mountains to Decatur City Schools just outside Atlanta.
Up until this point, it has been mostly small or rural districts becoming charters, but Fulton County, with 100 schools and more than 90,000 students, is hoping to gain approval to become a charter system this spring. That would more than double the number of students in charter districts in the state.
The option is becoming more popular as districts look for innovative ways to improve student achievement and to empower parents and community members wanting to get involved. At least 15 districts have indicated to state officials they plan to apply for charter status.
“It creates energy, excitement and a different level of commitment,” said Louis Erste, head of the state’s charter schools division. “More new ideas, more innovation, more time is put into making things work at the school.”
Under state law, each school in a charter district creates a council — made up of teachers, parents and community members — that makes budgetary and other decisions for that school. In Marietta City Schools, the school-based councils work on the district’s school calendar for each year and help identify needed repairs for buildings and sends those recommendations directly to the district’s school board.
“The school board is able to make decisions in a more informed way,” said parent Laura Fenton, a youth minister who served on a school-based council at Marietta’s Burruss Elementary for four years. “I think from my standpoint as a parent, whether I get exactly what I’m asking for, as long as I know my voice has been heard, that means a lot.”
Charter systems are made up of a mix of traditional schools and charter schools. The idea grew from the state’s charter schools, which sign contracts with their local school board guaranteeing improved student achievement in exchange for flexibility.
Just a handful of states have provisions allowing existing school districts convert to charter systems, including Florida and California. Texas lets groups start a public charter system from scratch.
For Fulton County, converting to a charter district means tailoring learning for every school, said Superintendent Robert Avossa. The district is 80 miles long and includes all schools in the county not in the city of Atlanta.
“A system of our size has had traditionally a very difficult time customizing and meeting the needs of all of its schools because we’re just big,” Avossa said.
He said he hopes to use the charter status to hire professionals in the business community to teach high-needs subjects like physics, chemistry and engineering. He also wants to convert almost entirely to electronic books on e-readers rather than relying on printed textbooks.
Avossa said he also wants to relax state requirements for the number of minutes students must spend in the classroom each year, increasing it for students who need extra help but decreasing time for the best-performing students.
He said even if the district isn’t granted charter status, he plans to move forward with creating school teams and other measures that included in Fulton County’s application to the state.
In rural Warren County, where the district has just 700 students in two schools, being a charter system has meant offering far more electives, Advanced Placement and vocational classes than many other tiny school districts in the state, said Superintendent Carole Jean Carey.
It also has meant more parent involvement in a district that has every student on free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty by the federal government, and many students from one-parent households, Carey said.
“Parents are getting more involved in activities we have at the schools,” she said. “We try holding things at different hours of the day.”