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.]