When its founder left, did Ivy Prep charter school lose its way?

One of the first education conferences I ever attended featured a presentation on the critical importance of leadership, purpose and vision in schools serving low-income kids.

Johns Hopkins professor Robert Slavin, creator of the Success for All, was among the speakers and talked about how often “islands of excellence” – schools defeating the odds and producing strong academic results -- are led by charismatic leaders with a clear vision for the school. When such leaders depart, so can the vision and the clarity and the progress can falter, he explained.

I believe that’s part of the reason for the decline of Ivy Preparatory Academy, the all-girl charter school in Gwinnett County that opened in 2008 and was held up as a model by pro-charter lawmakers. Ivy Prep was so successful that the concept expanded to DeKalb with schools for both girls and boys. 

But the boys school and high schools at all three campuses closed due to financial challenges. The Gwinnett flagship shut down this year but was supposed to reopen once a new location was found. Now, it appears the campus will not revive, leaving only the Kirkwood girls school still operating.

Several factors likely explain the fall of the Ivy Prep network, including a too-rapid expansion. But I suspect a key reason was the departure of founder Nina Gilbert. In 2015, former state legislator and longtime charter school proponent Alisha Thomas Cromartie  took over operations, but she resigned this summer.

As the AJC reported in 2011:  

Without knowing what a charter school was, Gilbert, a former Gwinnett County Schools administrator-in-training, quit her dream job at an alternative school in 2005. She said she no longer could sit quietly as students were labeled and shuffled by address, ability and attitude.

Gilbert didn't set out to open multiple schools. Born into a family of educators, she had a passion for teaching. Her father, Walter Scott taught high school in LaGrange.

Her mother taught, too. When Elizabeth Scott, a special education teacher, got a job in Gwinnett, the state's largest school district, Gilbert followed in her footsteps. She worked at Norcross Elementary and Richards Middle, and soon was on a management trainee track.

But bothered by the lack of options for students, she and longtime friend Howell launched a nonprofit organization called Turning Points Educational Services in 2005. They invited parents who were frustrated with their children's schools, discipline records and treatment by teachers to join them.

"Kids of color were not being as successful as other students," Howell recalled. "We started talking about what we could do as mothers to close the achievement gap."

Gilbert soon received so many requests from parents who wanted her to home school their kids that she and Howell decided to open a school. She learned about charter schools while surfing the web.

I saw how the loss of a visionary leader can influence the culture and the staff when an innovative principal at a local school resigned and was replaced by someone with no tolerance for new ideas and little interest in involving parents or teachers in decision-making. The best teachers bolted, and the school began a slide into mediocrity. The new principal’s tenure was short, but it took a while for the school to regain its footings.

As my AJC colleague Ty Tagami now reports:

Ivy Preparatory Academy, a once-esteemed Gwinnett County charter school, will not reopen next year, and signs point to permanent closure. In a unanimous vote on August 16, 2018, the school board reluctantly decided to end all planning efforts to reopen," says a statement from a spokesman.

The decision was reached after "an exhaustive" review of the financial situation that led the charter school's board to conclude that reopening next year, as a former director and the board had previously told parents would happen, is not "a viable option."

The decision marked a sharp turnaround from early in the decade, when the all-girl school became a symbol of the charter school movement. Girls, in their iconic green blazers, filled the halls of the state Capitol to lobby lawmakers.

In 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal used the school in his argument for passage of a constitutional amendment for charter schools, writing in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was "a great example" of superior performance relative to traditional public schools.

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