Newton charter school to close after this year

COVINGTON -- Challenge Charter Academy will close at the end of this school year.

The Newton County School System announced Friday that the school will close, after officials with the school decided to withdraw the school's petition that would have renewed the charter school for the next three years.

Officials with the Georgia Department of Education notified the Challenge Foundation last month that the school's petition would be submitted to the state board of education with a recommendation for denial, according to NCSS.

On Friday, the GaDOE provided a recommendation letter it sent the school on Feb. 27. The letter lists some of the major reasons for its intent to suggest the denial:

-- The school was not able to articulate why it required a charter; there are no ascertainable uses of flexibility and the school appears to function as more of an educational program rather than a school.

-- The governing board is relatively new but knows very little about the operation of the school. The school also lacks a succession plan and board training program.

-- There is no clear separation between the governing board and a proposed school leader, although there is a requirement that the board be autonomous.

-- The school is not able to provide the level of services and programs required of a high school in order for the students to succeed.

-- Student performance does not meet expectation for charter schools and higher accountability, and there no discernible plan to increase student performance.

"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 (a petition) during the next academic year," said Dr. Gwendolyn Cattledge, chairperson for the school's board of directors, in a press release issued by NCSS Friday morning. "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 Department of Education had informed school officials that they had two options: to either proceed with the submission knowing it would be recommended for denial at the April 5 state board of education meeting or to withdraw the application by March 15 and resubmit a revised petition to the local school district addressing noted concerns during the next 2013-14 application cycle.

"Should you desire to resubmit a petition next year, we encourage you to familiarize yourself with the various laws, rules, regulations and expectations surrounding the creation of a charter school," wrote program manager Morgan Felts in the letter from the GaDOE.

Lou Erste, the Charter Schools division director with the GaDOE, said if the school wishes to submit a new start-up charter application for a school to open in the 2014-15 school year, officials will need to apply to their local school district and win approval of their new application in time to submit it to the Department of Education by the Aug. 1, 2013, start-up charter school application deadline to be guaranteed a decision.

"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," he said.

The school is sending letters home to parents this week about the closure; faculty has already been notified, according to NCSS.

"Our staff will continue to motivate our students as we end this year on a high note by helping our students achieve, despite our current circumstances," said Ernetta Worthy, principal of Challenge Charter Academy.

According to NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews, the students now attending Challenge Charter Academy would attend the NCSS school their residence is zoned for next school year.

"We know CCA students, staff and parents are very disappointed," said Mathews in the press 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."

In October, the Newton County Board of Education unanimously approved the renewal of the Academy's petition for three years, instead of the requested five years. At the time, the GaDOE said that the state Board of Education wouldn't decide on the school's petition until at least February.

On Monday, Erste said that he was still working with the school to finalize his division's recommendation to the state board. The decision was to be finalized later this month, and the board likely would have voted on it in April, he said.

The state Board of Education can only approve or deny the term length included in the renewal petition, Erste said in a previous interview.

On Tuesday, NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews said he had received word from the state about the charter school on Monday, but the school principal asked that he not discuss matters with the media until she had the opportunity to talk with her board and staff first.

The Citizen contacted Worthy on Tuesday and Wednesday, and school staff said that the board would be sending a release "shortly." The Citizen then contacted Worthy again on Thursday for more information, and she said that she would forward the request to the board, who would respond; Cattledge replied Thursday, saying the board planned to release a statement Friday.

NCSS previously reported that it supports Challenge Charter Academy with about $300,000, while the state funds the school at about $800,000 annually.

NCSS Business Manager Peggy Bullard said that the approximately $300,000 in local revenues that were going to the school will stay in the General Fund budget beginning next year.

"However, there may be an increase in expenses for the students who transfer from Challenge Charter into our schools," she said.

Additionally, she confirmed that NCSS doesn't own the building and the the school had been leasing it from an organization that owns it, so there will be no cost to the school system for the building.

The school was open to all Newton County students in grades six through 12 and enrolled about 100 students this school year. The school had projected an enrollment of more than 300 students over the next five years.

Last year, the school was put on the state's priority school list, which is the 5 percent lowest performing Title I schools in the state. It has only made Adequate Yearly Progress for the 2009-10 school year since it opened in 2008.

The school opened in 2008 with funding from Project Adventure and a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. It has since lost that funding, which some Newton County BOE members said they felt was unfair.

The NCSS financial department had brought up concerns with the school, noting that the school has not budgeted for an increase in retirement and health insurance coverage over the next five years, and that it relies on Title I and priority school program grants over the entire next five years, even though they are contingent funds.

Additionally, the school reported that it does not hold any funding on reserve. Also, the financial department noted that there was no budgeted item in any year for computers, instructional equipment or classroom furniture for the school.In October, Worthy said that her staff would work to incorporate changes, and she hired a new chief financial officer for the school to develop a strategic plan and help better promote the school.

She also said that the school has had to work to curb a perception problem -- she thought that many people think the school is like an alternative school.