Group seeks approval for charter school on Georgia side of Lookout Mountain

Group seeks approval for charter school on Georgia side of Lookout Mountain

June 23rd, 2015 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Lookout Mountain, Ga., may be home to a charter school serving middle and high school students if the state approves the establishment of Lula Lake Academy in upcoming months.

The school has passed a legal compliance review and is awaiting the approval of the State Charter Schools Commission.

"Lula Lake Academy is the school in response to what the community says they want," said Debbie Tringale, executive director of the proposed academy. " We are excited to enter into the next stage of the process and hopefully open a school next fall."

Lula Lake Academy will have an environmentally focused curriculum, and plans to partner with places like the Lula Lake Land Trust and Cloudland Canyon State Park to offer students a hands-on education in the importance of land stewardship and the environment, Tringale said.

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How the charter school application process works in Georgia
* Schools submit an extensive application that the State Charter Schools Commission then evaluates for legal compliance.

* A school that passes this stage will be evaluated by the commission’s staff and outside experts for the charter petition’s substantive merit. The educational programming, operational plan and fiscal viability are analyzed to see if the school presents a plan that will enhance public educational opportunities.

* If no substantive deficiencies in the charter petition are found, interviews will be conducted with the school’s governing board and any proposed school leader. This year the interviews are expected to take place around the end of July.

* After the interview process, a panel will decide whether to recommend the school for approval by the commission.

* The final decision is made by a majority vote of the commissioners of the State Charter Schools Commission in a public meeting, which is scheduled for Aug. 26.

* The State Board of Education then has 60 days to overturn the decision. If the approval stands, the school is authorized to open for the 2016-2017 school year.

Source: State Charter Schools Commission

If approved, this would be the only charter school in Dade and Walker counties. Plans call for it to start by offering sixth through eighth grade, and add a high school grade sequentially each year.

There are 15 charter school applicants in 2015, according to Bonnie Holliday, executive director of the State Charter Schools Commission. Twenty schools applied for charters in 2014, and 18 passed the legal compliance stage, but only seven were approved after reviews and interviews.

If Lula Lake Academy is not accepted this year, it is eligible to reapply next year, Holliday said.

Tringale said the community support for the school is strong and persistent.

"The odds are really against us," she said. "But on the second try schools usually have a better chance. We don't plan on giving up."

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Stephen Dolinger, president of the nonprofit education advocacy group Georgia Partnership, said the state is very welcoming to charter schools and the Charter Schools Commission is rigorous in its requirements, guaranteeing that strong business and evaluation models are in place.

"[Charter schools] take the handcuffs off the school and give them more flexibility in class sizes and how they schedule their time, but [the schools] have to agree to more responsibility and metrics," Dolinger said.

Charter schools give parents more choices, but also can pose an "economic challenge" by draining students and dollars away from traditional public schools.

Dolinger said that rather than pulling a block of students from one school, allowing it to eliminate a teacher, charter schools typically pull a few students away from each of several grades and schools. Public schools can be left with fewer students and less funding but unchanged requirements for teacher numbers.

Damon Raines, superintendent of Walker County Schools questioned the timing of the charter application. School districts across the state are deciding now whether they will stay as they are, become charter schools or seek designation as "strategic waiver" schools.

Charters sign contracts with the State Board of Education that free schools from some state-mandated rules and regulations. This option allows districts to be more flexible and innovative, and in return have increased academic accountability.

Strategic waiver schools also receive increased flexibility, but through waivers rather than charters, also in exchange for increased academic accountability.

Lula Lake Academy, if approved, will have statewide enrollment and not be tied to a specific school district. School governance in Walker and Dade counties would not affect Lula Lake's operation or state-mandated requirements.

Raines said he is not sure how Lula Lake Academy would affect his district, and added that he thinks the outdoor education and environmental sciences classes would be similar to those already being taught in public schools.

Dade County's interim superintendent, Cherie Swader, did not return a request for comment Friday.

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If Lula Lake Academy is approved it will receive $6,284.83 from the state for every student enrolled. This money cannot be used to buy land or construct buildings, but is designated for operational costs. Because of this, officials with Lula Lake Academy will try to raise $410,000 from private foundations and donors to open the school in a temporary facility.

The school's long-term plan envisions a $6 million permanent facility adjacent to the Land Trust or Cloudland Canyon, equipped with a community center, classrooms and an outdoor amphitheater.

"We want one of these parks to literally be in our backyard" Tringale said. "and we want to be a responsible to the community, to the faculty, and families and the state."

Contributed RenderingThis is a conceptual design of a typical classroom building at the proposed Lula Lake Academy.

Contributed RenderingThis is a conceptual design of a...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Bo Grimes, chairman of the proposed school's board, said he's confident that if the state approves the school, the funding will come.

He believes Lula Lake Academy will stand out because of the opportunity it will offer both teachers and students. The school is committed to paying teachers on the Walker County pay scale and allowing them to be eligible for state retirement and health benefits.

Lula Lake Academy also plans to offer high school students two academic tracks, one for skilled trades and the other for college or university.

"There is a tremendous gap of needs on the mountain," Grimes said. "We want to serve the diversity of the whole community."

Tringale said one of the school's founding principles is socioeconomic diversity. A dual-track curriculum will make the school unique and bring new students into the public school system, she said.

"This is the community's school," she said. "We already have so much support and we are eager to see what happens next."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.