Hephzibah Charter Academy is one of 16 groups that submitted applications to the State Charter Schools Commission this summer. A 2012 constitutional amendment authorizes a state committee to approve charter schools even if local school boards object.
Hephzibah City Commission Chairman Robert Buchwitz interviewed with the state commission last week to push for approval of the school, which he hopes to open for 845 students in kindergarten through sixth grade in the fall of 2015.
“This is just so people can have a choice,” Buchwitz said. “Currently you have no choice but to accept what’s there or move into Columbia County or North Augusta. If we’re going to retain children that are growing up and starting to raise families in this community and attract the big employers to the area, they need school choice.”
The commission will announce a decision at its meeting Oct. 30, according to executive director Bonnie Holliday.
The commission also interviewed representatives from the Richmond County Board of Education last week to hear concerns about the Hephzibah application. Though the school does not need approval from the local board under the new law, the board has until Oct. 14 to approve or deny the application.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are given more flexibility and are not under the control of local districts. In Georgia, they are overseen by governing boards that control their finances and policies.
According to its application, the mission of Hephzibah Charter Academy is to provide “a safe learning environment where every student is challenged to reach his or her full potential.” It also will focus on academic excellence with a positive morale.
The primary attendance zone would be within the city limits of Hephzibah, according the application. If seats remain available, the zone would expand east of Hephzibah until Georgia Highway 56 between Brown Road and the Burke County line; it would expand west into Blythe following U.S. Highway 1 between Georgia Highway 88 to the Jefferson County line.
Richmond County Superintendent Frank Roberson said those boundaries appear too “exclusionary,” which is one concern he said he plans to express in his response to the Schools Commission. According to the U.S. Census, Hephzibah is 62 percent white, and Blythe residents are 81 percent white.
“It does concern us that it appears that there is exclusion or an exclusionary program just by how the geography is set up,” Roberson said.
He also said the proposed charter school does not have anything that is not offered by the Richmond County schools in Hephzibah. Charter schools are typically established to fill a void or offer an academic program not currently available.
The Richmond County elementary, middle and high schools are some of the better performing schools in the district, with all three scoring among the highest in their grade levels on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index.
Former Augusta Mayor Bob Young, a local governing council member of the proposed charter school, said he sees a need for a school that offers a more college-oriented focus.
With Hephzibah trailing Richmond County in high school diploma attainment rates, Young said an academically rigourous charter school could provide a better choice for families.
“The people in Hephzibah have their issues with the way their children are being educated,” Young said. “I’m a firm believer that children and parents ought to have an option … they ought to be able to obtain a quality education for that child.”
Buchwitz, also on the school’s governing board, presented the Hephzibah city commission last week with architectural sketches for a $7.8 million, 37-classroom facility that would be funded primarily by tax-free municipal bonds, lease purchase programs and Department of Agriculture assistance funding.
The city has agreed to provide land at the corner of Fulcher and Storey Mill roads for the school, Buchwitz said. Money to operate the school would come from state and federal funding. It is proposed to open as a K-6 school but will gradually add grades until it offers high school.
According to the application, the school would not provide transportation for students. Like all public schools, it would be required to follow the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards but would use an educational model based on Robert J. Marzano’s What Works in Schools research-based instruction.
While it’s still early in the process, Buchwitz said he’s confident he’s offering something that can revitalize the community.
“I’ve got a good feeling we’ve got a great plan,” he said. “There are no charter schools in the Richmond County area, so I feel confident (the committee) will see a need.”