KATE BRUMBACK, Associated Press
ATLANTA - A group of several dozen middle-schoolers clad in pleated skirts and green blazers came to the Capitol on Tuesday waving signs to rally in support of their charter schools, which are facing an uncertain future after a Georgia Supreme Court ruling.
The young girls from Ivy Preparatory Academy in suburban Atlanta joined about 400 people gathered on the Capitol steps under cloudy skies to share their fears about what will happen to the 15,000 students enrolled in the 16 charter schools affected by Monday's state Supreme Court ruling. Justices overturned a law that had allowed the state to approve and fund charter schools over the objection of local school boards.
The ruling does not affect the 65,000 students attending charter schools approved by their local school districts.
"We don't know what's going to happen," said Victoria Hudson, dean of students at Ivy Preparatory Academy, an all-girls school in Norcross. "But we're going to continue teaching our students as long as we can."
Hudson said the school felt it was important for students to attend the rally "for the girls to learn that they have to speak up, to realize that they do have a voice."
Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem, Jan Jones, R-Milton, told the crowd she expects the Legislature to pass a Constitutional amendment and said lawmakers are working to come up with an interim solution.
Annie Sears went to the rally to support The Museum School in Avondale Estates, where her daughter Izzy is in kindergarten. The school opened last fall and has a unique curriculum, partnering with local museums and other organizations to give students a hands-on learning experience. The school has about 135 students in kindergarten through third grade and plans to add a grade each year through eighth grade.
Sears said it seemed foolish to close a school that is outperforming traditional schools and said she shudders to think what will happen if the school has to close.
"I'm not prepared to talk about that because I'm really hoping something will work out," Sears said. "I'm not ready to give up."
And neither is the school's principal, Katherine Kelbaugh, who attended the rally.
"We fought hard to get this school open and we see this as one more challenge we have to overcome," she said.
The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said they were upset that local school boards were rejecting petitions because they didn't like the competition. A year earlier, charter school supporters had submitted 26 petitions to local school boards and all were denied, according to Tony Roberts with the Georgia Charter Schools Association, a membership organization for the state's charter school operators.
Since 2008, the commission has approved 16 charter schools, which includes eight that are currently operating and eight more slated to open this year.
Parent Marcia Hooper, who also attended the rally, said she's seen a tremendous improvement in her 13-year-old daughter's motivation to learn since she began attending Ivy Preparatory Academy this school year. She said she is worried the school will have to shut down.
"I felt like I needed to be out here to fight so my daughter can go to the school she wants to go to," Hooper said.
Hooper's daughter, Jalynn Wynn, had attended traditional public schools before Ivy Preparatory Academy, which has about 450 students in sixth through eighth grades and plans to add a grade each year until it serves sixth through 12th grades.
"My daughter is 13 and she's already told me where she wants to go to college. She wasn't talking about that when she went to her old school," Hooper said.
Jalynn, whose favorite subject is math, said she wants to go to Georgia Tech or MIT to study to be an architect. She's excited that in her math classes at Ivy Prep she learns 10th grade and even college-level material.
"I like to challenge myself," she said. "It's really not that hard once the teachers explain it to us."
Even some who don't have children in charter schools attended the rally in support of the schools.
"The Museum School has had a tremendously positive impact on our community," said Avondale Estates Mayor Ed Ricker. "It's created jobs. It's contributed school taxes to the city. Property values have gone up. This is the key for the future of our city, a quality education."
John Spence of Edison - a school board member at Pataula Charter Academy, which serves five counties in southwest Georgia - drove three and a half hours to attend the rally Tuesday. His two sons, 8-year-old Avery and 6-year-old Grayson, used to attend private schools, but he prefers the hands-on learning they get at their charter school.
"I can afford private school tuition, that's not the issue," Spence said. "That's not the way I want my kids to learn. I may end up moving somewhere else if the school closes."
Michelle Bacchetta of Sandy Springs attended the rally with her three children, 12-year-old Roman, 11-year-old Bronte and 7-year-old Alex. Bacchetta homeschools all three using the K12 curriculum and the Georgia Cyber Academy, which she describes as "essentially the largest public school in Georgia." The cyber academy enriches the education she's able to give her children at home by providing certified teachers who interact regularly with students and also provides other resources, such as books and other materials.
"It just makes me very sad," she said of the decision. "It seems like every few months we're down here fighting one more time for the choice of how to educate our kids."