Originally created 08/08/99

Groups find school alternatives



ATLANTA -- Anthony Crisafulli of Athens never has taught a public school classroom full of children, but he's hoping to start a charter school for teens behind in subjects such as math and science.

Oglethorpe Academy will open this month in Savannah as Chatham County's fourth charter school, the first independent start-up middle school of its type in the state.

And in Augusta, partners in a job training company have talked of forming a charter school to help students at risk of dropping out.

While Gov. Roy Barnes' education task force works this summer to find cures for what ails public schools, Georgians with a few ideas of their own already are experimenting with remedies as participants in the state's charter school movement.

Local education boards have slowed efforts in some counties, but charter schools have moved beyond the usual public school setting in the past year since lawmakers made it easier for parents, teachers and organizations to set up their own taxpayer-funded centers of learning.

School boards have been careful because public funding -- and some argue a measure of public control -- follows the children to charter schools.

THE STATE DEPARTMENT

of Education publicly has supported the effort, even though its own research shows a mixed performance by the early charter programs -- essentially public schools that received waivers from rules and regulations.

"All the ones where the parents and teachers originate the ideas are certainly worth pursuing," said state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, who encouraged lawmakers last year to expand the charter school law beyond just the remaking of existing public schools.

"We've been pretty much putting everything on the table. We'll work with anybody."

Anybody includes Martha Nesbit, a Savannah newspaper food writer and president of the board of Oglethorpe Academy, set to open Aug. 16 with 231 students.

Ms. Nesbit, whose son will attend Oglethorpe Academy, had served on a local task force examining middle schools.

"I didn't feel like we were going to be able to implement things that would make a real difference (quickly)," she said. "We were making some strides, but they were awfully slow."

At Oglethorpe Academy, student-teacher ratios will be kept low, and parents will have to sign a contract pledging their involvement, including volunteer work.

OGLETHORPE ACADEMY WILL

provide before- and after-school care. More physical education classes will be required in hopes of both keeping students physically fit and introducing them to the types of activities they may continue throughout their lives, like golf.

Ms. Nesbit said the school also will have a behavior code, and parents will know what Oglethorpe Academy expects from them and their children.

"You need to hold parents accountable. Our parents know if it is a terrible day (for their kid), they need to come get their child," she said.

Parents will sign up to mentor children in need of help, as well.

Charter schools are publicly funded facilities that are free of most traditional rules and regulations, essentially open for innovation.

More than two-thirds of the states have passed charter school laws since the early 1990s. Nationwide, there are expected to be 1,400 charter schools serving 300,000 students by this fall, according to the Center for Education Reform, with roughly half of the enrollment coming in Arizona, California and Michigan.

Georgia's original law, which allowed only public schools to become charter schools, was considered one of the weakest in the country.

An annual report by the DOE this year on those initial charter schools showed mixed results on standardized tests.

The law was changed last year to allow start-up schools by private individuals, organizations or companies. Some public schools also opened creative campuses.

Georgia's first independently created start-up was an alternative school based in a former hair salon next to a shopping center in Talbotton that was designed to reduce dropouts. Most of the original students had been expelled from, jailed or held back in public schools.

SAVANNAH OFFICIALS

opened an Arts Academy concentrating on architecture, communications, technology, dance and music.

This fall, the state's 33 charter schools are expected to enroll about 20,000 children, still only a fraction of Georgia's 1.4 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

However, more are on the way.

Of the 13 charter-planning grants awarded by the Board of Education this spring, nine schools come from private individuals or organizations.

In Augusta, Belle Lambert and Fay Hall said earlier this summer they wanted to do something to keep students from dropping out of high school and entering the work force unprepared.

So the two women planned to pool their talents to get locals interested in a charter for students at risk of not finishing high school.

Ms. Lambert and Ms. Hall are partners in The Bellfa Group -- an Augusta company that provides job training. They would like to open a high school called New Dimensions Institute, which would help students earn a diploma and acquire at least one marketable job skill.

Mr. Crisafulli, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, wants to establish a charter school in Athens for students in grades nine through 12 in danger of not earning a diploma on time and failing the state's graduation test.

He already has been turned down for a planning grant but is working to submit another proposal and is holding a public hearing later thus month.

Mr. Crisafulli said his school -- which initially would be designed to house 40 students and open in early 2001 -- would stress curriculum to get "nondisruptive" dropout-prone students ready to graduate.

If they are weak in math, for instance, they could get math three hours a day. In fact, the school might stay open longer than the typical high school, he said.

Mr. Crisafulli, who has advanced degrees in school counseling and business, said he got the idea when he heard that nearly half of the children who start ninth grade in Clarke County public schools don't graduate in four years.

"I was absolutely shocked at how many children don't graduate on time," he said.

The Boston native said he's received "passive resistance" from local public school officials but not from parents.

"The ones I have talked to want it. They feel it's needed," he said.

IN COWETA COUNTY,

parents fought a public battle for months trying to win approval from their local board for a charter school. The state Board of Education has appointed a mediator to help resolve the issue.

"We're still seeing a reluctance from local systems to even allow discussion of these charters," Mrs. Schrenko said. "We're still fighting the impression with board members that these are private schools (using public money)."

Jim Kelly, an activist who runs the Charter School Resource Center of Georgia, agreed that local school officials have hampered charter efforts in some systems.

"If you make the mistake as a charter petitioner of going to the superintendent early on, that's a near-fatal mistake," he said. "They use that to their advantage to poison the well early."

The directors of the Georgia School Superintendents Association and Georgia School Board Association were unavailable for comment.

"Most of these school boards are told these are private individuals who want to take public money to form private schools," Mr. Kelly said. "They are still under the impression these are private schools."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.