Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal spoke about charter schools at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce’s Business Expo & Job Fair in front of an audience that included longtime Gwinnett schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.
Deal was explaining his support of the constitutional amendment on the the Nov. 6 ballot that will expand the state’s ability to approve charters schools even over the objections of local boards of education.
“In many parts of our state, students are stuck in schools that are failing and … are not making adequate yearly progress, ” the governor said. “We must ensure that those students and their parents have a quality public education system for their future and the future of the state of Georgia.”
Deal cited Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett as an example of a successful state-approved charter school. He said Ivy Prep outperforms local schools, a claim that Wilbanks later disputed.
The AJC reported:
Wilbanks said after the luncheon that the governor was apparently given the wrong information on Ivy Prep. He said the school may be “good, but it is not one of the highest-performing schools.”
Test scores at the charter school peak in sixth grade, its lowest grade level, Wilbanks said. He attributes that to the fact that most of its sixth-graders were in the county’s traditional schools in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Wilbanks said charter schools are not the issue.
“This is about expanding state government, ” he said. “It is about bypassing the elected boards of education and leaving it in the hands of seven bureaucrats [with a state charter school commission] who are going to approve and decide on the funding without any accountability to the taxpayers.”
That comment led to this rebuttal sent to me last night by Nina Gilbert, executive director of Ivy Preparatory Academy, Inc.
Gwinnett County Public Schools leaders have fought Ivy Prep since we opened our doors. The school board has toyed with our charter and our students over the last five years by denying, suing, approving and significantly underfunding us, and then abruptly ending our charter contract once they determined that we didn’t have enough revenue.
We, however, have not allowed Gwinnett school board’s actions to distract us from our mission.
Improving access and equity in public education is a civil rights imperative. All students deserve a free, high quality, public education, and when a school has an unsuccessful track record, parents should have the inalienable right to choose a more suitable environment.
We are grateful for the parents and children who have chosen us. Many of our kids have never experienced success, and come to Ivy in search of it. We call them scholars, and they respond in kind. The consistently successful academic performance of our scholars is evidence of what is possible when social change is embraced rather than feared.
Despite receiving less than half of the funding of other Gwinnett public schools, our scholars routinely outperform their peers from their home schools. This has been accomplished without the latest technology, textbooks, school buses, gyms, labs or the latest curriculum trends.
We have proven that even with limited funding, it is possible to close the achievement gap between minority and white students. The number of students who have joined our rosters from other districts, states and countries is proof that the demand for educational choice is not just a local issue. (One family left Africa to enroll in Ivy Prep after finding us on the Internet.)
Gwinnett Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks recently made statements alleging that student performance at Ivy Prep drops off after the sixth grade, and that our school’s success should be attributed to the education students received at their neighborhood elementary school before transferring.
We have dozens of scholars who didn’t attend a Gwinnett school before enrolling. And dozens more who didn’t feel challenged enough in their Gwinnett schools. It is disconcerting that the academic success of minorities, who have been traditionally underserved in this community, could be so callously minimized when the educational outcomes for children of color in Gwinnett are so strikingly disproportionate.
Obviously our district does not oppose charter schools as a choice for certain students, as the highest performing high school in Gwinnett County, the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, is a district-created, state-of-the-art charter school that serves gifted and talented students.
Unfortunately, there is a low probability that many African-American, Hispanic and students with disabilities will have access to this great option, as this is the subgroup that is most frequently processed through Gwinnett’s disparate discipline system. More than 8 in 10 Gwinnett alternative school students are minorities and are educated on campuses that produce more dropouts than graduates. Coincidentally, that same population is thriving at Ivy Prep.
In 2012, there are Gwinnett students, who because of their zip codes, have been sentenced to schools with average graduation rates of 47 percent. We work hard to combat this trend and believe that our “middle school to college” model promotes a culture of high expectations and achievement. Although we’d prefer all of our scholars to remain with us until they graduate, we are elated when our scholars, who have been taking the SAT since sixth grade, are accepted into magnet and theme schools that align with their career goals. Some receive scholarships to elite boarding schools or acceptance letters to prestigious metro Atlanta private schools. We prepare our scholars to leave us with the confidence and academic ability to be successful anywhere. We embrace and respect choice, even when the choice is not Ivy Prep.
The millions in public dollars that Gwinnett Schools has spent on legal and lobbying fees to wage war against us, and preserve local control over public schools and funds, could have been used to “fix” some of the public education problems that opponents of the referendum are so concerned about.
We will remain steadfast in our relentless pursuit of academic excellence for those who many have forgotten–the children. We ask that parents be allowed to make their own educational choices.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog