Savannah charter school placed on probation

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The Georgia Department of Education placed a popular Savannah charter school on probation at the end of July.

The state department of education placed Savannah Classical Academy for "failure to adhere to material terms of its charter" and "SCA's violation of applicable federal, state or local laws or court orders."

"We know that we've been struggling with our test scores, and we've been talking to the DOE about it," said Benjamin Payne, director of Savannah Classical Academy. "I just hate for the parents and the students that it's just sort of a negative vibe for the school, but we know how serious it is and are taking action to make sure we do what we need to do this year."

Payne the Savannah Classical Academy Board of Directors and parents said students are learning and growing, but their success isn't showing up on state tests.

"We equate it to teaching Italian all year long and then taking a test in Spanish," he said.

The Georgia Department of Education measures success using the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCPRI) and Beating the Odds scores. It breaks the schools probation into two categories:

  • SCA’s failure to adhere to material terms of its charter, including but not limited to failing to meet or exceed the performance-based goals and measurable objectives that are designed to result in improvement of student achievement:
    • SCA has not met or exceeded the local school district or state averages on the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCPRI) for the past three years. In addition, SCA appears on the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement’s Chronically Failing Schools List which lists schools earning a CCRPI score of less than 60 for three consecutive years.
    • SCA has not Beat the Odds in any year of its charter term.
    • With the recent release of the 2016-2017 Georgia Milestones Assessment scores, the Department has compared these interim academic results with SCA’s performance over the previous 2 years. Based on the below data, SCA has not shown progress in improving in academic achievement
  • SCA’s violation of applicable federal, state, or local laws or court orders, including but not limited to:

    • Failing to comply with Teacher and Leader Keys Effectiveness System requirements in a timely and substantive manner

    • Failing to maintain and implement a written student discipline policy that is consistent with due process (as documented in the Department’s February 3, 2017 Letter of Concern and associated correspondence).

    • Failing to ensure that the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are met (as documented in the Department’s February 3, 2017 Letter of Concern and associated correspondence)

    • Failing to respond to the Department’s requests for information/public records in a timely manner.

Shaundra McKeithen's son Christopher is an incoming sixth grader at Savannah Classical Academy. After just one year at the school, McKeithen said the difference in her son is astounding.

"Last year, he learned more at Savannah Classical Academy than I think that he has in his entire years in Chatham County schools," McKeithen said.

Teaching a classical, liberal arts curriculum is specific to Savannah Classical Academy's mission, but it's also made it hard to align their standards with state tested grade-level requirements.

"We are unique in that we are a Title I charter school, and we're very unique in that we're a Title I classical charter school," Roger Moss, a board member at Savannah Classical Academy, said. "That comes with challenges."

The Governor's Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) lists the school as chronically failing after three years of failing grades, but McKeithen thinks it's just growing pains.

"The first three years, it's just a little bit getting used to and trying to make the curriculum and that test kind of meet up," McKeithen said.

Despite the overall "F", Payne says there's been success.

"Our middle school was one-tenth of a point away from passing last year," he said.  "It was 59.9. It was actually above the district average. The highest rated Title I middle school in the district, but when you start to parse out the scores, that stuff loses traction."

Aside from academics, Moss says it's the personal development students learn that makes the school successful.

"There is a reason there are 1,100 children on the waiting list to get into the school, and a lot of it has to do with the culture of the school," he said.

Board member Coren Ross said that culture helps children learn to be upstanding citizens, and believes it could have a major impact on young people in Savannah.

"As many people know, I'm the mother of a murder victim, and I am completely convinced that the young men who took her life would've had entirely different lives, would probably have had lives that wouldn't have taken them down that road if they had had the type of opportunity that the children at the Savannah Classical Academy are being given," Ross said.

McKeithen said she's seen improvements in her son's social and interpersonal skills.

"These children are uniform," she said. "They know what they should be doing. It's taught him to be more articulate. Just all of the things you want to see in your child."

Probation or not, McKeithen says because of that growth, she wouldn't change a thing.

"I would take the curriculum that they're on right now over a standardized test any day," she said.

The school must submit a corrective action plan to the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools and the state department of education by Aug. 18, and must implement all or a substantial portion of the approved corrective action plan by no later than Oct. 2, 2017.

"I regret that it's come to this for the parents and the students," Payne said. "They're catching some of the flack for that and having to defend the school, but they also know what we're about and what they're learning. (We're) taking this year and reorienting our curriculum toward those (Georgia Department of Education) standards of excellence. It's going to be great. We're also trying to get better every year, just like any school would, so we're going to push on acceleration or academic enrichment and on our remediation techniques."

Moss said Savannah Classical Academy accepts any student and does not test them before they are accepted.

Payne said the school was slotted to enroll 540 students for the 2017-2018 school year. However, charter schools on probation cannot enroll new students without the consent of the state department of education, so Payne said the school will start its fifth year with about 40 open spots.

Savannah Classical Academy's 5-year charter is up at the end of this school year, and Payne said the school is in the renewal process for Fall 2018.

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