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Utopian Academy For The Arts| Georgia Approved Charter Middle School » BLACK HISTORY MONTH PROGRAM DEBUTS WORK BY OPRAH NETWORK ACTRESS



Utopian Academy for the Arts will host a special Black History Month Program today that was written and directed by a Hollywood television star who is an artist in residence at the public charter school.

The show will take center stage at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Utopian Academy, which is located at 6630 Camp Street in Riverdale. The production was a labor of love for stage and screen actress Tonia Jackson, who has a recurring role in Oprah’s hit drama “Greenleaf” and has appeared in the Golden Globe Award-winning series “Atlanta.” img_1097img_1098

Jackson was hired as a part-time teacher at Utopian Academy in the fall to expand the drama program. Her presence gives scholars a first-hand view of what it is like to be a professional actress in show biz. Jackson has appeared in more than 150 plays, seven television shows, and several films.

Her passion for sharing the arts with children brought her to Utopian Academy. She discovered the school when a fellow actor told her that Utopian Academy was providing a high quality education for children of Clayton County Public Schools who wanted to study the arts as they learn core subjects.

“My way of giving back is to work with children,” Jackson said. “During the civil rights movement, it was young people that were on the front lines. Martin Luther King Jr. was in his 30s when he died. I think if we can continue to pour positive things into our young people, we can change our community and the world.”

Jackson has made a commitment to students to juggle her work schedule as an actress around her work schedule as a teacher. And she hopes other professionals in and outside of the entertainment industry join her at Utopian Academy.

Some have visited her at Utopian Academy to tour the building and speak to scholars. The special guests include Walter Dallas, award-winning stage director; television show director, Christopher Permian, manager and father of Raven Symone; Cas Sigers, television/movie screenwriter; Brandi Harvey, executive director of the Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation; and Angel Massey, mother and manager of Hollywood stars Kyle and Chris Massey.
“I think it’s critical for all of us to get on board to help children in schools like Utopian so we can figure out as individuals what it is that we can do besides talk,” she said. “It has to be about action. Programs like this are crucial for Clayton County.”

Jackson’s Black History Month play was written to inspire audiences to get active in the movement to improve living conditions, job opportunities, and access to the ballot box for people of color, immigrants, and the economically disadvantaged.

“The kids are doing some fantastic work in the play,” she said.

The play opens with a celebratory scene depicting life in Africa before the slave trade. The drama then unfolds with scenes from slavery, emancipation, the Great Migration North, the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights and black power movements, the “War Against Drugs,” and the fight against police brutality that continues today.

“We go into music and how much music is the soul of black folks,” Jackson said. “We used music for everything, the good times and the bad times. In the play, you will hear music by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, and Marvin Gaye.”

In one scene, dance soloist Janiah Turner uses her lyrical movements to artfully depict a lynching as the song “Strange Fruit” sung by Nina Simone plays in the background.

The play also has cameos by students portraying popular figures in black history from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Booker T. Washington. The show ends with Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise,” which depicts the strength of the black community to overcome obstacles in history and challenges in the present day.

“The poem shows that the future is hopeful, not hopeless,” Jackson said. “Black people figure things out. We just keep going.”


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    August 31, 2015August 31, 2015
    RIVERDALE - When 300 students at Utopian Academy for the Arts reported to classes last week, there was no sign on the lawn letting them know that they had reached the right place. The name of the school had been removed by order of the City of Riverdale.This week the sign is still bare.The City of Riverdale has prohibited Utopian from using its school sign to welcome visitors or identify the building until administrators secure a business license. School officials, however, maintain that Utopian is a public school so a business license is not necessary. The debate has caused the school to accrue fines in the hundreds of dollars for violating city code. Administrators say the fees and threats are just another attempt to “bully” Utopian into pulling out of Riverdale.“They don’t want people to know that a school exists at 6630 Camp Street,” said Artesius Miller, executive director of Utopian. “They have stripped us naked and said basically ‘You all will not have anything so that people will know that you are even here’.”Similar tactics last year resulted in delaying the opening of school for more than a week. A Clayton County fire marshal denied administrators, teachers, and students the right to access the building saying that Utopian needed a last minute inspection among other things to occupy the premises. Utopian lost 80 students after its delayed opening.Utopian’s rocky start inspired legislation to protect state-approved public charter schools from similar stall tactics. The "Utopian Academy for the Arts Act," which went into effect in July, prohibits local governments from requiring public charter schools approved and inspected by officials with the state Department of Education to be forced to obtain any other licenses from local government entities to operate their school.The law does not protect a charter school’s signage, however.In the weeks before classes began this school year, a City of Riverdale code enforcement officer left a violation notice on Utopian’s door warning administrators to take action immediately: “Remove banner until permit is issued and apply for a business license.” Miller said that a member of the Clayton County School board advised him that other county schools in Riverdale are not required to have a sign permit or a business license. “Every time that we have attempted to have some type of signage, we were told that we needed a permit or we were being fined because we are not affiliated with the Board of Education in Clayton County,” he said. [columns] [column half][pullquote left]

    Where Is Utopian Academy for the Arts? City Prohibits School From Using Sign[/pullquote][/column] [column half]

    “It got really nasty,” Miller said of a recent surprise visit from code enforcement before school began."

    Miller said that he has received calls and notes from the city warning that Utopian has accrued fees in the hundreds of dollars for violating city business license and sign codes. “It got really nasty,” Miller said of a recent surprise visit from code enforcement before school began. “The guy came and tossed the [fee list] in the face” of a school supporter.Miller took video footage of the visit that shows a code enforcement officer telling him and a school supporter that an inspection of the school’s signage was necessary because “the Georgia Department of Education does not look for stuff like this on buildings.”For the second year in a row, Miller turned to the State Charter Schools Commission for reinforcement. Miller got a letter explaining to the city that schools authorized by the commission are indeed public schools, not businesses.“Utopian Academy for the Arts is a public charter school authorized by the SCSC- a state level authorizing entity under the authority of the state Board of Education,” wrote Gregg Stevens, general counsel for the commission.“Accordingly, Utopian Academy for the Arts should at all times be treated like a public school with the privileges, rights, and obligations afforded thereto …” Utopian opened in August 2014. It was denied the right to exist by the Clayton County School board in 2011, 2012, and 2013 when the district rejected its charter application. The local denial was over-ruled by the state in October 2013. The state Charter Schools Commission granted Utopian Academy the authority to serve kids for five years as a state charter school. It was the first charter school to win approval from the new commission.[/column] [/columns] State Rep. Valencia Stovall, who supported the opening of Utopian in Clayton and co-sponsored the new law protecting charter schools from harassment, said it was “disheartening” to learn that Utopian is still having trouble with local government.“They should be treated as any other public school opening in the city,” Stovall said. “Instead, they have been hit from both sides from the City of Riverdale and the Clayton County School Board.” Stovall said that in addition to racking up fines from the city, Clayton Schools is exercising its right to charge Utopian much higher rent than the building’s earlier tenant. Utopian pays $3,000 a month to use the building compared to the Riverdale Development Authority, which had a lease allowing it to pay $1 annually for 20 years.School leaders say they refused to be forced out of Riverdale by local leaders who see them as competition. “Being in this fight for so long has been a tedious journey for me not only as a board member, but also a parent,” said Sharon Daniel, who chairs Utopian’s governing board. “We will not give up. We will educate the City of Riverdale.Utopian is a public school. We have a right to be here.” CLICK HERE FOR THIS RELEASE IN A DOWNLOADABLE FORMAT