CHATTANOOGA'S CHARTER SCHOOLS
Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence
* Where: 5600 Brainerd Road, Suite A-24 (former YMCA at Eastgate Mall)
* Opened: 2011-12
* Enrollment: 168
* Grades: K-2 (will eventually add grades 3-5)
* Focus: Liberal arts curriculum, including foreign languages and fine arts
Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy
* Where: 1800 Bailey Ave. (former Tennessee Temple Academy building)
* Opened: 2009-10
* Enrollment: 160
* Grades: 6-11 (will add 12th grade next year)
* Focus: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)
* Where: 8443 Dayton Pike, Soddy-Daisy (near North Chickamauga Creek Pocket Wilderness)
* Opened: 2009-10
* Enrollment: 170
* Grades: 9-11 (will add 12th grade next year)
* Focus: Environmental
TENNESSEE'S CHARTER SCHOOLS
Tennessee's 41 charter schools educate about 9,000 students. Last year, the legislature lifted the cap that allowed only 90 charter schools across the state. Charters receive a per-pupil allotment, ranging from about $7,100 to $8,100, from the local school district's funds. Charters must gain approval from the local school board before opening and must then meet certain academic benchmarks, as evidenced by state assessments.
Source: Tennessee Charter School Association
Rose Mary Porter wasn't pleased with her great-granddaughter's kindergarten year at Calvin Donaldson Elementary School.
"I felt like my child was falling through the cracks at that school," she said.
So Marcia Griffin's knock on her door last year was welcome relief.
Griffin, founder and executive director of Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence, was making the rounds, recruiting families to give her new school a try. Formerly a certified public accountant, she had little educational experience and no substantial ties to the Chattanooga area. Before moving here from Florida, she'd only visited here once.
"I just felt called," Griffin said.
Porter was impressed.
"I could see it in her eyes and I could hear it in her heart," she said. "It sounded just like what I wanted for my child."
That same day, she enrolled her great-grandchild, Jamaya Gantt, at the county's third and newest charter school. And she hasn't looked back.
Opened in August, Chattanooga Charter has 168 students enrolled in kindergarten through second grade. Hamilton County's charter school enrollment has reached nearly 500 students -- a significant marker, but still only about 1 percent of the county's roughly 42,000 public school students.
But leaders of each charter school expect to see continued growth.
Sitting at the south end of Eastgate Town Center, Chattanooga Charter's fenced-in playground is blanketed by the constant clamor from the nearby freeway and the occasional roar of overhead airline traffic. Yet inside, the brightly painted classrooms, miniature furniture and small cafeteria and gymnasium look much like any other school.
Griffin said the school gradually will add a third, fourth and fifth grade. The county's first elementary charter school, Chattanooga Charter uses a liberal arts curriculum that includes a heavy emphasis on foreign language and fine arts.
Another big difference here is the school's gender-specific classrooms, which Griffin said help eliminate social distractions that can occur when young boys and girls are together.
"And girls and boys learn differently," she said.
Griffin, whose parents started several charter schools in Florida, entered a 10-year lease agreement with Eastgate for the school. She said it didn't take too much work to transform the 21,000-square-foot space, which formerly was a branch of the YMCA and already had some classrooms and a gym carved out.
Recently changed Tennessee law now allows students to attend charter schools regardless of their home school's academic standing.
Griffin contracts for one bus to make rounds to outer parts of the county such as Soddy-Daisy while another picks up children within the city.
But the parents must be involved if they want their children to attend Chattanooga Charter. To get their children enrolled at the school, parents agree to volunteer at least 20 hours throughout the school year.
"We're only a month in, and some of our parents have already exceeded that," Griffin said.
Though the school hasn't started open enrollment for next fall, Griffin said she already has more than 40 students on a waiting list.
Angie Markum, director of Soddy-Daisy's Ivy Academy, said the environmentally themed charter school has 170 students enrolled in grades nine through 11. Ivy will add a senior class next year, she said.
Enrollment is up by about 50 from last year's 120 students in ninth and 10th grades, Markum said.
Ivy sits on about 40 acres next to the North Chickamauga Creek Pocket Wilderness. Teachers use three portable modular buildings for classes. The school is adding four new portable units this year to accommodate growth.
But Markum said most instruction is completed outdoors.
"Our students are outdoors all day, every day," she said.
Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, now leasing facilities from Tennessee Temple University near downtown, survived its move this summer with about 160 students, said interim director Carolyn Towns.
Administrators had hoped for about 180 students this year at the all-girls school, she said, but the move from the James A. Henry building on Grove Street might have dampened recruitment efforts. Still, the growth numbers, although small, show promise, she said.
CGLA's high school classes are relatively small, though Towns said the middle school continues to grow.
"Our sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade numbers are very healthy," she said.
Towns said CGLA pulls students mostly from inside the boundaries for Orchard Knob, East Lake and East Side elementary schools. The new location is in the center of their target attendance zone, she said.
Because Ivy and CGLA are both in their third year, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said the pair's state test scores will be under the microscope. After a two-year window, charter schools must meet certain academic standards; school boards can close charters for failing to meet standards two years in a row.
"This year is very important to them," Smith said.