By John Schaffner

Representatives for neighborhoods throughout Buckhead heard two perspectives on the growing trend of independent start-up charter schools and the growing cooperation between those schools and public school districts — specifically Atlanta Public Schools (APS) — at the June 25 meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN).

A perspective from within the school district was presented by Graham Balch, a biology teacher at Grady High School who also is a candidate for the Georgia House and runs a scholarship program that has generated $20 million to help APS students go to college.

The second perspective came from David Jernigan, the executive director of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Metro Atlanta, which runs charter schools in Atlanta and Fulton County.

KIPP Ways Academy in south Atlanta, which has one of the highest numbers of poverty-level students, is also one of the top-performing middle schools in the state.

Balch and Jernigan organized the only symposium in the Southeast that brought charter schools and district schools together to talk face to face.

Balch said one of the things charter schools are supposed to do is test good ideas and have those ideas transferred into different schools. “But there is a little bit of conflict that restrains that from happening.”

The educator duo spoke specifically about independent start-up charter schools, which operate in cooperation with the public school district but are pretty much separate from it, as opposed to conversion charter schools. There presently are no independent charter schools in Buckhead, but that could change.

Jernigan explained that conversion charter schools usually are the result of parents of an existing public school saying they want the school transferred to a charter status. The request to change may come as a result of wanting to alter class size or educational programs.

“There is some additional federal funding when they become a charter school,” he said.

Conversion charters “operate very differently from a governance perspective,” Jernigan said. “They still are within the school district. The superintendent still manages them, and they are overseen by a school board. An independent charter school is run by its own governing board, separate and autonomous from the school district.”

Jernigan said the first misperception most of the time is that independent charter schools are private schools. “They are public schools. They operate in accordance with a contract between the schools and an authorizer. In the state of Georgia, typically, the authorizer is the local school district,” he added. “I run schools in both Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County, and APS and Fulton County are the authorizers, and the schools are ultimately approved by the Georgia Department of Education.”

The purpose of the presentation was to provide BCN members with an overview of the system so they can evaluate the education opportunities and performance of the public schools in Buckhead.

Jernigan and Balch pointed to four basic principles that guide the operation of independent charter schools:

“First and foremost is nonselectivity,” Jernigan said. “Even if selected by a lottery, there is more demand than there are slots. A common misperception is that they get the cream of the crop, the best and the brightest kids.”

A charter school offers choice for families. The third thing they provide is accountability. The charter school operates under a contract with the authorizer. “If you don’t meet the academic measures and financial measures placed in your charter goals, they can shut you down,” Jernigan said. “It is increased accountability in exchange for more freedom.”

Jernigan has complete control of his budget, strategies and curriculum. “My employees are all at-will employees. They can be fired at any time for nonperformance.”

Charter schools started in 1992. Today, 4,100 charter schools serve 1.2 million students in 40 states.

Charter schools are not “the answer to our education issues. They are part of the formula for solving some of our education woes.”

Jernigan said the relationship between charters and Atlanta Public Schools has improved greatly.

Superintendent Beverly Hall, he said, “would say she sees charters as not the answer, but as part of the strategy she is using to reform Atlanta Public Schools.”