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Local Education
After a rough start, Brookhaven’s charter school hits milestone
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After a rough start, Brookhaven’s charter school hits milestone

After a rough start, Brookhaven’s charter school hits milestone
Photo Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Second grade teacher Leah Owen teaches her class at Brookhaven Innovation Academy in Norcross on Thursday. The state charter school opened in 2016 and has been in a temporary facility in Norcross. But it now plans to build a permanent school building in Chamblee after securing $12 million in tax-exempt municipal bond financing. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

After a rough start, Brookhaven’s charter school hits milestone

Back when the founders of Brookhaven signed the city charter, some viewed its feeder public school system as hopelessly corrupt.

Gov. Nathan Deal had fired more than half of the members of the DeKalb school board, and the superintendent had gone down during a racketeering scandal over school construction contracts. With the district’s accreditation hanging by a thread, it wasn’t long before Brookhaven families had amassed enough signatures on a petition for their own state public charter school.

“We had a crisis going on in DeKalb County and DeKalb County schools,’’ said Brookhaven Councilman Bates Mattison, one of the school’s founders.

The charter school got off to a tough start, though, marred by high staff turnover and lagging test scores. Now, after two years of operations, Brookhaven Innovation Academy is about to hit a major milestone. It has secured up to $12 million in tax-exempt municipal bond financing for construction of a permanent school facility.

“We could not be happier,’’ said Adam Caskey, a real estate attorney who serves as chairman of the board for the school.

However, municipal bond experts, as well as charter advocates themselves, say the financing is by no means a guarantee of success. Many similar projects have gone belly up within the first few years of operations. And Brookhaven’s school doesn’t have long to prove itself.

In Georgia, public charters must convince the state within five years of operations that they can meet academic expectations, among other requirements. Brookhaven leaders learned last week that the school for the first time had met educational standards. It is expected to earn “C” grade, said Bonnie Holliday, executive director of the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia.

However, for the 2016-17 school year, the school got an “F.” 

The Innovation Academy must perform to standards for the next two years. Otherwise, the state can come in and pull its accreditation, triggering an immediate shutdown.

It also needs to continue to convince parents that it’s a good option.

Some DeKalb public schools in Brookhaven outperform the charter school. Ashford Park Elementary earned a 91.6 overall performance rating out of a possible 100, state records show. Kittredge Magnet School, for grades four to six, reported a rating of 98.1.

Caskey said school leaders and board members have worked diligently to study best practices, conduct research and ensure good decision-making. They’ve also tackled problems, such as the poor test scores. Last week’s announcement that the school was among roughly half of 29 state charter schools that had met academic expectations affirms that the work is paying off, he said.

“Part of what we did overall in the last year was really surrounding ourselves and seeking out people who have done this before, experts in the field,’’ Caskey said.

A diverse campus

Advocates for the estimated 7,000 public charter schools in the U.S. say there’s good reason for Brookhaven to celebrate getting the bond financing. In most cases, public charter schools must dip into their limited operating budgets to support capital projects.

“Finding a facility remains one of the major challenges facing charter schools,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington, D.C. “It could be a big deal, I think, if it helps them move into a better facility that could be helpful for the educational program.”

At Decide DeKalb, the panel that reviewed Brookhaven’s bond application was impressed by the school’s commitment to diversity, said Ray Gilley, the development authority’s president. It was one of the key factors that drew support, he said.

Brookhaven draws more than 500 students in grades kindergarten through 7 from all over Atlanta to the school’s temporary location on Campus Drive in Norcross. The student population is 45% white, 24.4% African-American, 18% Hispanic, and 4.4% Asian, while 8% are multi-racial and 0.2% are American Indian, state records show. That’s more diverse than some DeKalb public schools in Brookhaven, although the student population in DeKalb school district as a whole is 89% minority.

About 10.4% of the population at the charter school is economically disadvantaged, 10.8% of students have a disability and about 11.6% are English-language learners.

“They are encouraging a diverse student population. It made you really want to help them to be successful,’’ Gilley said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Social Study teacher Susannah Sawnson talks her student Timothy Lewis, 11, during 6th grade social study class at Brookhaven Innovation Academy in Norcross. The charter school is about to hit a major milestone. It has secured tax-exempt municipal bond financing to construct a million permanent school building. But the school will have to prove itself academically in upcoming years to keep its charter. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
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After a rough start, Brookhaven’s charter school hits milestone

Photo Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Social Study teacher Susannah Sawnson talks her student Timothy Lewis, 11, during 6th grade social study class at Brookhaven Innovation Academy in Norcross. The charter school is about to hit a major milestone. It has secured tax-exempt municipal bond financing to construct a million permanent school building. But the school will have to prove itself academically in upcoming years to keep its charter. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Before the financing was approved, Gilley said the authority also conducted extensive interviews with Brookhaven’s leaders, and the information that was gleaned during a 90-day application process suggested the school was a good investment.

“We look at what I would say are deals that make sense for capable, competent businesses,” Gilley said.

But Gilley also noted that Decide DeKalb has a limited role in approving the bond financing. As a pass-through agency, the county has nothing to lose if the bonds default. That means investors who buy Brookhaven’s bonds won’t have any assurances that they will get their money back, unlike municipal bonds that are backed by local governments.

“We don’t have anything at risk here,’’ he said.

That’s one of the reasons that some investment firms won’t touch bond deals for charter schools.

“For us, as a firm, we generally don’t invest in that sector,” said Dean Myerow , a managing director for fixed income trading and sales at NatAlliance Securities LLC, based in New York City. Municipal bond investors want solid revenue streams and consider some of these charter school investments super dicey, he said.

One of the mistakes charters often have made has been to get into facility deals that aren’t sustainable. In many cases, their student enrollments can’t keep pace with their financial obligations, Ziebarth said.

However, Georgia, like a growing number of states, has adopted policies that trigger more dollars to support charters. This past year, state lawmakers approved legislation to provide additional funding for the schools. While charter schools must still be responsible for their own facilities expenses, the state increased state supplement funding, which advocates say improves the chance of success. During the current school year, House Bill 787 triggered more money for teacher pay raises, curriculum, classroom books and technology, according to an official at the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

‘Doesn’t need to be gaudy’

School officials are trying to be prudent with the dollars that have been secured, Caskey said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
After securing $12 million in tax-exempt bond financing, leaders of Brookhaven Innovation Academy plan to build a permanent school building in Chamblee.
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After a rough start, Brookhaven’s charter school hits milestone

Photo Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
After securing $12 million in tax-exempt bond financing, leaders of Brookhaven Innovation Academy plan to build a permanent school building in Chamblee.

They say they will stay within a strict budget for construction of the 50,000 square-foot facility that is expected to have 34 classrooms, a media center, administrative offices, cafeteria and outdoor recreational facilities. The campus is expected to be built on Shallowford Road in Chamblee.

“It needs to be nice,’’ Caskey said of the school building. “It doesn’t need to be gaudy. It just needs to be a solid building that will last.”

Mattison, one of the school’s founders, said he and other parents have been impressed with the school’s focus on personalized learning for every student. Youngsters get to do a lot of hands-on projects, too, he said.

The Brookhaven councilman even decided to pull his now eighth-grade son from a gifted program at Kittredge Magnet School to attend Brookhaven Innovation. His daughter also is a student at the charter school.

Bottom line, he said, when deciding what school to enroll your children, “it’s always got to be a leap of faith for a parent.”

---

Meeting standard

Brookhaven Innovation Academy has a statewide attendance zone, so the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia compares the school’s performance to that of the state as a whole, not to other public schools in the immediate area.

The academy met the state academic performance standard, according to CCRPI Content Mastery scores data in 2018.

The school’s elementary students scored 68.4 on a 100 point scale, compared to the state average of 65.7. The middle school students scored 65.9 compared to the state average of 65.1.

Content Mastery includes achievement scores in English language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

(Source: State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia)

Funding woes

The University of Arkansas recently issued a report on the state of funding for public charter schools. “Charter School Funding: (More) Inequity in the city” showed a widening funding gap between traditional public schools and public charter schools in major cities.

Some of the findings:

  • The per-pupil disparity in funding between public schools and charters is $5,828, a slight increase over the last two years. The main reason for the gap is that local funding sources favor traditional public schools by on average $7,958 per pupil.
  • The gap can’t be explained by a higher administrative cost or a higher disadvantaged population.
  • The cities with the greatest total funding disparities included Atlanta.
  • The funding gap can be eliminated with improved local or state funding, as well as donations. The permanent fix is to develop a consistent student funding formula based on student need.

(Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

Spotting risk

The tax-exempt revenue bonds that will be sold to fund construction of the new Brookhaven Innovation Academy may offer investors two times the yield of high-quality municipal bonds.

That higher yield reflects the higher risk to investors.

Most high-quality municipal bonds today provide about 4% annual yields. But bonds that are unrated, as the Innovation Academy’s are expected to be, or of lesser quality must pay a higher return to catch the attention of investors.

Adam Caskey, chairman of the school’s board, noted that the bond underwriter did an extensive review of the project. “The bank is going to loan you money to build a school, a significant amount of money, so they’re going to make sure the school is going to be around,” he said. “No lender wants to foreclose on the school … it’s not the easiest thing to get rid of.”

Angela D. Avery, vice president of public finance at the Atlanta-based IFS Securities, which served as the underwriter for the bonds, did not respond to requests for comment.

Investors who purchase Brookhaven’s bonds will be represented by a “bondholder representative.” In this case, Hamlin Capital Management, an investment management firm in New York City, is the representative, bond documents showed. Bondholders are informed that the bonds are not general obligations of the Developmental Authority of DeKalb County but are special limited obligations, documents show.

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News

  • More than 5.6 million people worldwide -- including more than 1.6 million in the United States – have been infected with the new coronavirus, and the number of deaths from the outbreak continues to rise. While efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak continue, states have begun to shift their focus toward reopening their economies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking cases in the U.S. here. Live updates for Wednesday, May 27, continue below:  Worldwide coronavirus deaths top 350K Update 4:46 a.m. EDT May 27: The global death toll attributed to the novel coronavirus reached 350,752 early Wednesday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. The United States – with nearly 1.7 million cases, resulting in 98,929 deaths to date – remains the nation with the highest number of infections and virus-related deaths. Brazil now reports the second-highest number of cases worldwide with 391,222, while the United Kingdom’s 37,130 virus-related deaths rank as second highest globally. Trump gives NC governor 1 week to decide if RNC stays in Charlotte amid coronavirus concerns Update 3:27 a.m. EDT May 27: North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday dismissed President Donald Trump’s tweets threatening to move the Republican National Convention from Charlotte. “I’m not surprised by anything I see on Twitter,” Cooper said. “It’s OK for political conventions to be political, but pandemic response cannot be.” According to WSOC-TV, the governor said state health officials will continue to work with convention organizers to draft guidelines that will ensure the event can be conducted safely during the coronavirus pandemic. In a series of tweets Monday morning, the president threatened to pull the event out of North Carolina if Cooper doesn’t immediately sign off on allowing a full-capacity gathering in August, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus has infected more than 62K US health care workers, CDC reports Update 2:10 a.m. EDT May 27: An estimated 62,344 health care professionals in the United States have contracted the novel coronavirus to date, resulting in at least 291 deaths, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed. The latest figures represent a nearly seven-fold increase in less than six weeks. According to CNN, the CDC last highlighted the number of cases among health care workers April 15, revealing a total of 9,282 cases at that time. US coronavirus cases approach 1.7M, deaths near 99K Published 12:40 a.m. EDT May 27: The number of novel coronavirus cases in the United States surged toward 1.7 million early Wednesday across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to a Johns Hopkins University tally, there are at least 1,681,212 confirmed U.S. cases of the virus, which have resulted in at least 98,916 deaths.  The hardest-hit states remain New York with 363,836 cases and 29,302 deaths and New Jersey with 155,764 cases and 11,194 deaths. Massachusetts, with 93,693 cases, has the third-highest number of deaths with 6,473, while Illinois has the third-highest number of cases with 113,195. Only 16 states and territories have confirmed fewer than 6,000 cases each. Five other states have now confirmed at least 52,000 novel coronavirus cases each, including: • California: 99,684 cases, resulting in 3,823 deaths • Pennsylvania: 72,778 cases, resulting in 5,163 deaths • Texas: 57,230 cases, resulting in 1,546 deaths • Michigan: 55,104 cases, resulting in 5,266 deaths • Florida: 52,255 cases, resulting in 2,259 deaths Meanwhile, Maryland, Georgia and Connecticut each has confirmed at least 41,000 cases; Virginia, Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana each has confirmed at least 32,000 cases; Colorado, North Carolina, Minnesota, Tennessee and Washington each has confirmed at least 20,000 cases, followed by Iowa with 17,703 and Arizona with 16,864; Wisconsin and Alabama each has confirmed at least 15,000 cases, followed by Rhode Island with 14,210 and Mississippi with 13,731; Nebraska and Missouri each has confirmed at least 12,000 cases, followed by South Carolina with 10,416; Kansas and Delaware each has confirmed at least 9,000 cases; Kentucky, Utah, the District of Columbia and Nevada each has confirmed at least 8,000 cases, followed by New Mexico with 7,130; Arkansas and Oklahoma each has confirmed at least 6,000 cases. Click here to see CNN’s state-by-state breakdown.
  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday dismissed President Donald Trump’s tweets threatening to move the Republican National Convention from Charlotte. “I’m not surprised by anything I see on Twitter,” Cooper said. “It’s OK for political conventions to be political, but pandemic response cannot be.” According to WSOC-TV, the governor said state health officials will continue to work with convention organizers to draft guidelines that will ensure the event can be conducted safely during the coronavirus pandemic. “I supported having the convention in North Carolina. But we have to put the health and safety of North Carolinians as the guiding star in this process, and we hope to continue the discussions and look forward to those discussions with the RNC later on this weekend and into next week,” he later added. 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Trump expressed his concern about spending millions of dollars without knowing if the state would allow them to fully occupy the space. “Plans are being made by thousands of enthusiastic Republicans and others to head to beautiful North Carolina in August,” Trump said. “They must be immediately given an answer by the governor as to whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied.” Trump said if he is not given an answer, he will find another location for the convention. “This is not something I want to do,” Trump said. “Thank you, and I love the people of North Carolina.” Cooper allowed the state to enter a second phase of gradual reopening Friday with some further loosening of restrictions on hair salons, barbers and restaurants. But he said the state must continue to closely watch virus trends and has ordered entertainment venues, gyms and bars to remain closed. On Monday, Cooper responded to Trump’s tweet, saying, “State health officials are working with the RNC and will review its plan as they make decisions about how to hold the convention in Charlotte. North Carolina is relying on data and science to protect our state’s public health and safety.” Cooper warned on Tuesday that it is still too early to give the president the assurances he demanded about “whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied.” “Already, we’ve been in talks with the RNC about the kind of convention that they would need to run, and the kind of options that we need on the table. We’re talking about something that’s going to happen three months from now, and we don’t know what our situation is going to be regarding COVID-19 in North Carolina,” he said. 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While I’ve remained consistent in my statements regarding the RNC being held in Charlotte, the science and data will ultimately determine what we will collectively do for our city.” Meanwhile, two GOP governors on Tuesday offered up their states to host the Republican National Convention. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp sent an open plea to Trump on Tuesday to consider his state as an alternate site. Kemp’s offer was followed by one from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The convention is expected to bring tens of thousands of visitors to the Charlotte area and millions of dollars to the local economy. In a letter that North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen sent to the RNC, she requested a written plan for how the convention plans to address COVID-19 safety protocols. 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And we look forward to the back and forth on that. We’d like to reach a resolution that everybody can be reasonable about that puts public health, safety, the science and the facts as the number one thing we’re trying to do here. So we look forward to those continue conversations. Everyone wants to get back into action soon, but I think everyone knows that we have to take certain steps to make sure we’re protected.' After Cooper’s news conference, Trump said the governor needs to confirm within a week whether the GOP convention in Charlotte can go forward. “If he can’t do it, if he feels he can’t do it, all he has to do is tell us, and then we’ll have to pick another location,” Trump said of Cooper. “I don’t want to have it where we get there and they announce ... ‘Guess what? You can’t put anybody in the arena,’ or you can put a tiny number of people in.” Read more here. –Visit WSOCTV.com for the latest on this developing story.
  • The body of a missing 5-year-old boy has been recovered in Ohio, Adams County Sheriff Kimmy Rogers confirmed Tuesday. According to WHIO-TV, Cameron Walters, who was reported missing from Mineral Springs Lake Resort in Peebles on Monday, was found dead in the water Tuesday, but authorities have not specified where. The boy went missing about 5:15 p.m. Monday, officials said. Groups of volunteers and water rescue crews returned to the campground Tuesday to continue the search for the missing boy, according to WCPO-TV. An Endangered Missing Child Advisory was issued for Walters late Tuesday morning, saying he was believed to be in danger. The Adams County Sheriff’s Office is asking anyone with information about the case to call their department at 937-544-2314. No further information was immediately available. – Visit WHIO.com for the latest on this developing story.
  • A hair salon in North Carolina is denying service to employees at a Tyson plant due to a coronavirus outbreak. SmartCuts posted a sign at their Wilkesboro location that read, in part, “Due to the number of Tyson employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, we are unable to serve Tyson employees.' The note was widely circulated on social media. Last week, 570 workers at that Tyson plant tested positive for the coronavirus. Some of the Tyson workers WSOC-TV spoke with were upset by the sign placed outside the SmartCuts, but others said they understand the owners’ decision. David Gentry, who has worked at Tyson for years, doesn’t agree with the ban. “Knock on the door, shoot them a bird and cuss them out,” he said. “That’s me.” The business is about two miles from the Tyson plant. The sign said the business would be “unable to serve Tyson employees until approximately June 8, once the recent COVID outbreak has been controlled.” The business has enacted several precautions to keep workers and customers safe, including mask-wearing, temperature checks and social distancing measures. “I think it’s a good thing because too many people are passing who’ve had this virus,” said one customer, Frances McManus. “That there is something this place has to deal with,” said another customer, James Spears. “Because if they come in with the disease, that’s bringing it into their business.” SmartCuts said it will give Tyson employees a $3 discount once they return to providing services to them. Bob Hartley owns SmartCuts and said he’s not only trying to protect his employees but his customers and the community. “If it is unethical in some way that’s still legal but unethical, we will stop it,” he said. “It’s just an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19 on the Wilkesboro community and among our employee group.”
  • The line to get into That One Place stretched down the walkway outside the restaurant. There was no social distancing and virtually no one wore a facemask as they waited for their party to be called to an open table inside. “I’m excited, I’m looking forward to it,” said John Weiman. “It’s about time. It’s time to make a change.” His wife Michelle Weiman added, “I’m looking forward to it, very hungry. Glad he’s doing it.” The Port Orchard restaurant has been open for takeout service during the statewide coronavirus shutdown. But restaurant owner Craig Kenady said he was encouraged by his employees to open his business on Memorial Day to customers seated inside as a way of protesting, saying smaller counties such as Kitsap have fewer cases of COVID-19 and should be treated differently than larger counties such as King, Pierce and Snohomish. “I do think if we’re going to take it on a case-to-case basis then we need to actually look at our county based off of our numbers,' said Kenady. “We’re not in it to break laws, not in it to cause problems. We’re not doing this for politics. We’re doing this for freedom.” Staff in the restaurant wore masks and gloves as they serve patrons. Some tables were kept empty to keep customers further apart from each other. Kenady said his protest would last just one day, on Memorial Day before he goes back to takeout only. “We don’t discount the virus at all. We believe in it and we believe in the severity of it. But we also feel at the same time we can safely operate,” Kenady said.
  • Dozens of tombstones dating from the 19th century were found near a North Carolina neighborhood. A Piedmont Natural Gas worker told WSOC-TV that he found dozens of what appeared to be decades-old tombstones in a wooded area behind the Crestdale Crossing neighborhood. The stones appear to be from the 19th century and have what looks like dates and initials carved in them. The discovery piqued the interest of local historian Jeff Houser who said burial grounds are often lost to developments. Houser believes they are footstones created for a family grave. “These were either pulled up from someplace and set into the woods for some reason,” he said. He said the stones might have never been used, but it would take some time to uncover the truth. “We’d like to know why are these are here, how they got there and who are they for,” Houser said. Historians are working to compare the initials on the stones with census records from that time. Houser said that as of now, there is no official record of a cemetery in the area.