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Charter schools grow in
Henry County


By Melissa Robinson
Contributing Editor 

  With one Henry County elementary school on the verge of opening its doors as a conversion charter school and a second Henry County elementary school committed to pursuing charter status, there is still some uncertainty about what it all means for staff and students.

  Principal Paula Crumbley has spent the summer readying her school, Hickory Flat Elementary School, to open its doors as Henry County School System’s first elementary conversion charter school.

Principal Paula Crumbley gives a walkthrough of Hickory Flat Elementary School’s new greenhouse, which will provide an innovation station to students in the upcoming school year.
                                                   Photo by Melissa Robinson

  Crumbley said that the process to go from a regular school to a charter school has been an intense two-year process and began because she was looking for ways to enrich her student’s experiences.

  “We were a high performing school and we have great test scores. Obviously we have some room to improve in social studies and science, but we stay in the 95th percentile in math, reading and language arts,” she said.

  She said the school continued to do well, but it was after a casual conversation with Ethan Hildreth, Henry County Schools Super-intendent, that she decided to explore ways to give more to her students.

  “Dr. Hildreth was here one day and we were talking and I said our kids just lack some experience and I think it’s up to us to give them something beyond where the core academics will take you. He agreed and together we looked at some charter schools and just started talking about it.”

  She said the decision to apply for charter status took close to two years and included many meetings with staff and parents, as well as research and visits to other conversion charter schools, including one in Hall County that was using the Multiple Intelligence Re-search program. 

  For Hickory Flat, leaders decided to take on the style of Multiple Intelligence Research, developed by Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Crumbley said that in essence, the instructional program identifies eight distinctive forms of intelligence and which allows student to learn in their best way.

  She said that teachers will create innovation stations based on the eight MI intelligences and students will have the opportunity to visit the stations on a rotating basis. These innovation stations will be hands-on, engaging, well-planned learning times twice a day that will integrate with the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards. She said that the school will still run on the same bell schedule and conform to the attendance policies.

  Also, being designated as a charter school allows the school to apply for certain grants they otherwise wouldn’t be eligible to apply for and have more autonomy on making decisions on how to use the funds to best serve students.

  One of those grants that the school was recently awarded was from Lowe’s for the schools’ new greenhouse. It will serve as one of the innovation stations where students will get hands-on experience in science lessons.

  With Hickory Flat opening as a charter school, another school in Henry County is still in the early stages of the process having made the decision to pursue charter status early last school year. Principal Debbie Collins said the decision to pursue charter school status came after a relatively low performance on the required CRCT tests in 2011. Unlike Hickory Flat, students at Hampton Elementary were struggling on the required standardized tests.

  “We’ve always been a good little school. We’re a Title I school with about 79 percent of our kids on free or reduced lunch and that continues to grow. I’ve been here for 10 years and that has increased by 30 percent in ten years,” she said.

  She said two years ago, Hampton Elementary was the lowest scoring elementary school in Henry County when it came to CRCT scores.

  “Two years ago we were actually at the bottom of the county in some of our CRCT scores and I said ok, we’ve got to do something, and everybody said that, not just me. We had a faculty meeting and looked at the newspaper article and we looked at the data and resolved to do something. We didn’t want to be in the bottom.”

  The meeting resulted in the start of a fine arts program for third, fourth and fifth graders.

  “We added a dance class, a chorus and a drama class. Nothing really structured, but every Friday those who wanted to participate could do so.  That year, the group of kids that participated not only outscored their cohorts here, but throughout Henry County. It was phenomenal,” she said.

  The following year, staff expanded the program for all students to one class a week where the students choose from a variety of opportunities, including sewing, photography, cooking with math, the arts and advanced technology. She said at the end of this school year, the same third grade students who were at the bottom of the list two years ago and were now fifth graders, passed the reading part of the CRCT on the first try--something that never happened in the history of the school.

  “It still gives me chills to say that. It was huge and when we looked back, we realized we did some other things differently, but the biggest change was offering the students these extra opportunities for learning,” said Collins.

  “When we saw that was working we said we need to expand this and in order to expand this we have to really change the way we structure our school and in order to that, we needed a charter because it’s so different than what the normal school system allows, although we do have a lot of autonomy within our school.”

  She said she formed a leadership team consisting of teachers, staff, parents, grandparents local leaders and a college professor and after consulting with Superintendent Hildreth, presented her idea to the Hampton City Council.

  “All of the council members attended this school so there is a lot of history here. I wanted to make sure that everybody was in support,” she said. “We’re a community school that has been her for 60 years and you can’t just change something that’s been here for 60 years without the community support. After that meeting they were all in support of what we are doing.”

  Collins and her staff are in the process of finishing the charter and they expect to present it for a vote by both staff and parents this coming August. If it garners majority support they will submit it to both the state Board of Education and Henry County BOE. She said that they are basing their curriculum on the STEAM model, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math. She said it was initiating the arts that really helped her see a difference in her students’ progress and she didn’t want to move away from that. She also said it’s important for parents to know that Hampton Elementary is not becoming a private school, simply a conversion charter school that will allow students enriched learning experiences. It all works out, they could be opening the doors to Hampton Elementary Charter School in 2014.

  Both schools are pursuing a five-year charter, which is an in essence a five year contract to meet or exceed the expectations they have set out. According to Crumbley, becoming a conversion charter school really allows for more autonomy and the ability to offer more options to students that help bolster the core requirements.

  Both principals agree that making the decision to change from a traditional school to a conversion charter is one that requires commitment and support from not only the teachers and staff but from parents and the community, but say that empowering students for success is the ultimate goal.



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