Ivy Prep plan shows how charter school’s fortunes can turn

After a rocky start, then becoming a shinning example for public charter schools, Ivy Preparatory Academy Gwinnett is at a turning point. Gwinnett County’s first free, single-sex school will learn Wednesday, Feb. 28 if it will continue.

In its renewal application to the State Charter School Commission, the school’s governing board asked to close the existing facility at the end of the 2017-2018 school year and re-open, after a year without classes, in a different location at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. The IPA board outlined plans to accommodate students who would be impacted by the school’s temporary closure, and — as a result — the commission’s staff felt comfortable recommending approval of a deferred opening in a new facility.

Charter renewal decisions are based on a school’s track record in three areas: academics, finances, and operations. IPA Gwinnett met academic standards in three of the first four years of its charter term, and as a result was eligible for renewal consideration. SCSC staff are recommending that commissioners renew IPA Gwinnett’s charter contract for three years.

The commission generally follows staff recommendations and is expected to grant renewal. If it doesn’t, the school’s renewal request will be denied, and there is no avenue for appeal.

That would end the story of a school that overcame a hurdle to start, quickly became popular and drew praise for academic accomplishments, then suffered the kind of woes common to charter school ventures.

In January 2008, the Georgia Board of Education unanimously approved Ivy Preparatory Academy, a planned girls-only public charter school. The final approval for the taxpayer-funded, tuition-free campus came seven months after Gwinnett’s school board members had voted against the proposal.

“We look forward to some wonderful things from your school,” state board member Linda Zechmann told Ivy Prep’s founders after the vote.

When a local school board turns down a charter school request, as happened with Ivy Prep, organizers may ask for state approval. Few take that option because of funding issues, which result in fewer dollars for teachers and textbooks. Ivy Prep’s supporters, however, were determined to open their school.

Gwinnett officials had denied Ivy Prep’s charter petition because of concerns the single-sex design would be discriminatory. Despite the state approval, Gwinnett spokeswoman Sloan Roach said the school system’s concerns remained.

After winning state support, the school was set to open in August 2008. The concept immediately caught the eye of parents metro-wide. About a month before classes began, the state board of education approved an amendment to increase the enrollment. State officials fast-tracked the amendment process so that more girls 160 instead of 100 could be accepted into Ivy Prep’s inaugural sixth-grade class. Because of the charter amendment, Ivy Prep would be allowed to have a maximum enrollment of 593 students for its first five years.

The community also was behind the new concept.

A $2,500 contribution was made anonymously by a local public school employee, and Buckhead Uniforms gave $6,000 in vouchers for school uniforms for the poor. It also received a $125,000 grant from the state education board to help meet its building needs.

Gov. Nathan Deal used Ivy Prep as the poster child for the 2012 constitutional amendment that empowered the state to authorize — and pay for — more charter schools.

Over the past few years, enrollment has dropped precipitously, and so has funding, which is based on head counts. The school cut nearly half its teachers last semester. The social studies teacher for one of Rina Mogos’ two daughters left around Thanksgiving, and the science teacher has been absent a lot, Mogos said. Sometimes there are substitutes, and sometimes there aren’t, said Mogos, who is treasurer of the Parent, Teacher, Student Association.

“The kids don’t have teachers,” she said. “I feel like they’re not learning anything.”

In its heyday, Ivy Prep had well over 400 students.

But Alisha Thomas Morgan, current head of schools, said transportation issues and an expensive lease are the main culprits in declining enrollment and funding. She said the move to a new facility will let the school get back to its core mission.

“We’ll have discussions with the board and community members to find an optimal location,” said Stephen Alford, a communications consultant and spokesman for the school. “We’ve done well in Gwinnett and we’ve done well in Kirkwood. We’d like to build on that legacy.”

But complaints of miscommunication and mistrust have led some parents to abandon the school, they’ve told the AJC.

“It is not uncommon for parents to contact the SCSC with concerns about state charter schools, including Ivy Prep Gwinnett. These concerns typically relate to daily school operations (e.g. homework, classroom discipline) and fall under the authority of the school’s governing board rather than the SCSC as the charter school authorizer,” said Lauren Holcomb a spokeswoman for State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia.

“As a result, we advise parents to address concerns with the school governing board. With regard to the renewal of Ivy Prep Gwinnett, several stakeholders have contacted the SCSC to express concern with the one-year suspension of school operations. As the request to suspend operations was prompted by the school’s governing board, we encouraged these stakeholders to work with the Ivy Prep Gwinnett governing board toward a positive resolution.”

Alford said the school doesn’t take those complaints lightly, but is working with parents to find placement for all students.

“I understand it’s an emotional time for parents,” he said. “We’re trying to better meet everyone’s needs in the long run and help alleviate some stress for parents in the short term.”

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