One Year Later: Utopian Academy Opens Without a Hitch

Teachers and administrators at Utopian Academy for the Arts, a public charter school in Riverdale, GA, are looking forward to a smooth start to the school year today when nearly 300 scholars report for classes. 

“We have 100 more students that are starting with us,” said Artesius Miller, founder and executive director of Utopian. “People are calling everyday and the foot traffic is putting a hole in the floor.”

About a year ago, the first day of school was tense for Utopian. A Clayton County fire marshal denied administrators and students access to the building because the school did not have a business license – a requirement unnecessary for nonprofit schools authorized by the state – among other last minute requirements. School officials believed the effort was an attempt to “bully” Utopian into closing before it could serve students. Eighty students withdrew after the delay.

Utopian quickly rebounded from its late launch and won the support of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who visited twice, and praised Utopian for persevering against the odds to provide Clayton County children with quality school options. Homegrown rap mogul Ludacris, and Hollywood filmmaker Will Packer also visited the school to lend their support.

Utopian Academy, which opened in August 2014, was denied the right to exist by the Clayton County School board in 2011, 2012, and 2013 when the district rejected its charter application. The local denial was over-ruled by the state, in October 2013. The State Charter Schools Commission granted Utopian Academy the authority to serve kids for five years as a state charter school. It was the first charter school to win approval from the new commission.

During the 2015-16 academic year, Utopian will use its celebrity clout to expand its arts program to include a partnership with Atlanta Metro Studios that will provide scholars with an inside look at film and television production. Actors and entertainment industry professionals will visit the school to talk to students about academics and careers. Students will participate in a school-sponsored film festival.

Music and dance classes at Utopian also will expand as more students enroll in the programs. This summer, 14 Utopian students were selected to participate in a dance camp at Alvin Ailey’s Summer Intensive Program. Two students also were selected to attend a mentoring camp hosted by comedian and talk show, host Steve Harvey.

Utopian’s rocky start inspired legislation to protect state-approved public charter schools. Before the end of Utopian’s inaugural year, the school was immortalized in Georgia law. Gov. Deal signed a bill on April 21 called the “Utopian Academy for the Arts Act” that prohibits local governments from requiring public charter schools approved and inspected by officials with the state Department of Education to be forced to obtain any other licenses from local government entities to operate their school.

“This bill will protect state charter schools from local officials who seek to obstruct the opening” of schools like Utopian, Deal said soon after signing the bill.

Miller said Utopian will continue to expand its academic and arts curriculum in the years to come. He is also researching the possibility of adding a high school option for students.

“We are in the process now of seeing what our options are for expanding,” Miller said. “That is one of the biggest concerns for our parents. They have a lot of anxiety about what the options will be for their kids after eighth grade. We want to make sure our kids go to the college, university, or specialty school of their choice. The only way we can ensure that is if they stay with us.”

[The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.]

Education Reform Leader Alisha Thomas Morgan To Head Ivy Prep Academies

Atlanta, GA — Alisha Thomas Morgan, the former state legislator who co-sponsored a Constitutional Amendment expanding school choice in Georgia, will continue her advocacy in public education as the new head of Georgia’s first single-gender charter schools network.

Morgan was recently named as executive director of Ivy Preparatory Academies, which serves more than 1,300 students in three metro Atlanta public charter schools. She was appointed by the Board of Directors of IPA to lead the charter network after a national search for a new executive director picked Morgan as a top contender among 100 applicants.

“Ms. Morgan has been very involved with public education in the state of Georgia, especially within the charter school movement,” said Christopher Kunney, chair of IPA’s governing board.  “She is very passionate about providing students with a quality education. Her commitment to kids will resonate well with our teachers and the community that we serve. Under her leadership, we will build Ivy Preparatory Academies into a national model for single-gender education.”

Morgan comes to the executive office at IPA with vast experience in business, education, policy-making, and grassroots community mobilization. She is an entrepreneur, a nationally sought after motivational speaker, and a graduate of the prestigious Broad Superintendent’s Academy, an 18-month program that prepares executives to lead and transform urban schools districts.   

“I am extremely excited that the board selected Ms. Morgan as Ivy Prep’s new Executive Director,” said Dr. Nina Gilbert, founder of IPA. “Locally, many only know Ms. Morgan as a politician. However, I also know her as passionate and bold leader who understands what it takes to improve student achievement. In addition to her work as a legislator who fought tirelessly for the children she now serves, she is also a Broad Fellow and is among an elite group of individuals who lead some of the nation’s largest urban districts and charter school networks. She has great plans for Ivy, and I have complete confidence in her ability to advance the mission and vision of our schools. I look forward to working hand-in-hand with Ms. Morgan and the thousands of parents, teachers, and supporters we are engaging with on this journey to make educational excellence and college completion a reality for more metro Atlanta children.”

Morgan, who was elected to the State Legislature at age 23, is the first African American to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives. In the years to follow, she emerged as a statewide leader in the education reform movement. In 2012, Morgan co-sponsored state legislation that allowed an alternate state authorizer to open charter schools denied by reluctant local school districts. She was also appointed by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to serve on a committee that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a federal guideline to increase school accountability for student achievement.

Morgan has a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Drama from Spelman College and is earning a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Kennesaw State University. She is a product of a single-gender education and has long been a supporter of IPA.

“I remember my floor speech about the ‘Little Girls In the Green Jackets’ who, like all Georgia students, deserved quality public schools that met their needs,” Morgan said. “After advocating for Ivy Prep as a state legislator for many years, it feels like coming home to now serve as their leader. My work as a public servant and education reformer has prepared me for this moment. I am looking forward to partnering with parents, the community, and our stakeholders as we make Ivy Prep a proof point for what is possible in public education.

“We need to lead the nation in innovation and producing scholars who are critical thinkers for the 21st century,” Morgan added. “With the support of the board, I’m excited to lead the organization to the next level. We will work together, leveraging every resource that we have, to achieve that vision.”

Morgan has received several national recognitions. She was named as one of “America’s Young Civil Rights Leaders” by AOL’s Black Voices and lauded as part of the “New Power Generation” of young enterprising women honored by Essence Magazine. She and Dr. Gilbert share the honor of being named as “Class Acts” by theroot.com in a celebration of 23 top educators in the nation. Morgan is the former co-chair of the Parent’s Advisory Council of the National Coalition of Public School Options. 

Morgan takes over as executive director at IPA during a time of growth and change:

  • In May, IPA graduated the inaugural Class of 2015 with a 100 percent graduation rate and a 100 percent four-year college placement rate. The seniors received more than $170,000 in scholarship offers.
  • Last spring, the state approved new boundaries for IPA that boosted enrollment and more than doubled the attendance zone. IPA can now draw students from Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County Schools as well as DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.
  • Last winter, IPA Kirkwood School for Girls raised $14 million in bond financing to purchase the Atlanta strip mall that houses its campus making it one of the state’s first public charter school districts to become a landowner and a landlord.

IPA’s momentum will continue throughout the school year as an operations overhaul works to improve efficiency, teaching, and learning. The change has resulted in new leadership at two Ivy Prep campuses and new academic programs designed to boost student achievement.

“Student achievement is my No. 1 priority,” Morgan said. “And while we celebrate the successes that we have had at the girls’ schools, it is unacceptable that we have not met the needs of our young men. If we are not here producing top quality scholars, then we are not doing our job. I won’t accept any excuses. We will do whatever it takes to make sure that all of our scholars are learning at high levels.”

[The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.]

 

Charter School Incubator, New Schools for Georgia, Opens Application Process

By GCSA

Do you have a mission, vision, commitment, and passion for improving public education?
 
If this describes you, consider applying to New Schools for Georgia’s Charter School Incubator program by the June 15th deadline.
 
The Incubator works with mission-driven teams to develop and expand rigorous, innovative, and high-quality school options in Georgia. Teams must have at least four committed members to apply. If selected to participate in the incubator program, your team will receive highly-focused and personally-tailored training and support as you develop your school plan and write your petition, as you work post-approval to implement your plans, and after your school has opened through ongoing training, coaching, mentoring, and back-office support. The Incubator program includes a paid, year-long, school-based fellowship.
 
Teams may plan to serve children anywhere in the state, but priority is given to those planning to serve underserved families through innovative approaches, academic rigor, and a strong sense of social justice.
 
Click here to learn more about New Schools for Georgia and the Incubator program. The New Schools for Georgia information sheet can be downloaded here.
 
To Apply
Access the Incubator RFP here and submit by midnight on Monday, June 15 to: incubatorapp@gacharters.org

Questions
Please contact Allen Mueller at 404-835-8900 or amueller@gacharters.org

The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.