Charter schools operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. However, charter schools must be approved by the state or local board of education.
Source: Georgia Department of Education
In return for greater flexibility to teach students the way they see fit, Calhoun City and Gordon County school districts are placing themselves under higher scrutiny and becoming charter school districts.
This fall, Calhoun City starts a five-year contract that by 2015 ensures all of its students are at or above grade level in all subjects, graduates 100 percent of its students, erases its 9 percent achievement gap between white and minority students and ensures that at least 90 percent of its students miss fewer than 15 days of school per year.
The Georgia Board of Education gave its approval recently.
"This allows us to really think outside the box. The sky is the limit," said Calhoun Superintendent Michele Taylor. "It really is an exciting opportunity."
The flexibility of being a charter system also appealed to Gordon County, officials say, but the main goal in applying for the special status was so the district could open its college and career academy this fall on the campus of Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
Superintendent Bill McCown said the new program will require a flexible schedule, multiple credits for certain courses and the ability of students to test out of certain subjects - all of which would be difficult to accomplish in a traditional school district.
"The great thing is, it won't be available just to Gordon County students, but to any student, including homeschoolers," McCown said.
CALHOUN CITY SCHOOLS
48 percent economically disadvantaged
66 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black
Source: Georgia Report Card, Calhoun City Schools
GORDON COUNTY SCHOOLS
60 percent economically disadvantaged
82 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black, 1 percent Asian
Source: Georgia Report Card
In 2007, Georgia lawmakers passed the Charter Systems Act that allowed entire school districts to switch to a charter method of governance. By 2013, all school districts in Georgia must submit their intention to become a charter system, an "Investing in Educational Excellence" system or to continue as a regular "status quo" district. An Investing in Educational Excellence district allows system officials to negotiate for flexibility in certain areas such as class size, teacher salary or control of finances.
Whitfield Career Academy is North Georgia's only charter school, and now Calhoun City and Gordon County are the first two entire systems to go charter in the region. Taylor said that in Calhoun, "school governance teams" made up of parents, teachers and business and community members will help decide the best way to raise achievement at each of the district's four schools.
"It's hard to say what it will look like, because it will evolve based on what our stakeholders think is our future," she said.
The options might include things such as class time spent at a community art center or a school-based science, technology, engineering and math center - two concepts that might have been tough to get past the state Department of Education if Calhoun remained a public school system, Taylor said.
"It may be several weeks until the state blesses something," she said.
Calhoun has a 91 percent graduation rate, and at least 70 percent of students score at or above grade level in most subjects. Because Calhoun already is a high-performing district, most people on the outside won't see huge changes, said Greg Petersen, the district's head of federal programs.
"It's going to be pretty seamless; it won't be astounding," he said. "This will help us be able to react faster and serve our kids better."
To gain even more flexibility and be eligible to apply for certain grants, some of Calhoun City's schools might apply for their own charters, Petersen said.
Calhoun City Schools will be required to submit an annual progress report each October. If the charter district doesn't meet its goals by 2015, the state could cancel the charter and return the district to regular system status.
Contact Kelli Gauthier at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423 757-6249. Find her online at facebook.com/reportergauthier or twitter.com/gauthierkelli.