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Utopian Academy For The Arts| Georgia Approved Charter Middle School » UTOPIAN ACADEMY FOR THE ARTS TO OPEN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL


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Utopian Academy for the Arts has received unanimous approval from the Clayton County Board of Education to open a new public charter elementary school in August 2020.

The elementary school was authorized to operate as a local charter school that will be part of the Clayton County school district. The new facility will initially enroll 125 students in kindergarten through first grade, and then grow into a K-5 school that will accommodate up to 300 scholars at Utopian Academy’s current building at 2750 Forest Parkway.

“We are experiencing a feeling of euphoria right now,” said Dr. Artesius Miller, superintendent of Utopian Academy.  “As we think about the educational experience that we want for our scholars, and the educational experience that has occurred for the last five years, we now have been blessed with the opportunity to expand and extend our reach to include elementary school students. We appreciate the support of Clayton County Schools.”

“I am overjoyed,” said Joshua Menifee, who chairs the governing board of Utopian Academy. “This approval comes because of the success that we had with the middle school. I can’t wait for it to open.”

The Clayton County school board’s unanimous approval of Utopian Academy’s charter petition is representative of the new spirit of partnership that has blossomed between Clayton County Schools and Utopian Academy since Clayton Superintendent Dr. Morcease Beasley began his tenure. Concerned about competition, the Clayton school board had earlier denied Utopian Academy the right to open its inaugural middle school in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The local denial was later over-ruled by the state in October 2013 when the State Charter Schools Commission authorized Utopian Academy to open as Georgia’s first state commission-chartered middle school.

“We are so happy that we have joined together with Utopian Academy,” said Dr. Alieka Anderson, Clayton school board’s vice chair. “This has been a long time coming. We will support the school in any way we can. Clayton County Schools and Utopian Academy are one.”

Utopian Academy school leaders will spend the next year hiring staff, recruiting students, and ordering books, furniture, and supplies for the new elementary school. Utopian Academy developed an innovative model to young students that supports the needs of both the academically-challenged, as well as the high-achieving. The academic program follows national standards of excellence and best practices. It was designed with input from administrators, stakeholders, and members of the local community.
As a charter elementary school, Utopian Academy will provide gender-based classroom environments, instruction catered to the learning styles of students, and supplemental arts courses in the areas of theatre, dance, general music, chorus, visual art, piano, photography, and filmmaking — non-traditional areas that have become the cornerstone of its middle school program that are not typically offered at the elementary school level, Miller said.
“The demand for the expansion of the Utopian model in Clayton County has been consistent since the opening of the middle school program in 2014,” Miller said. “Utopian has enrolled students from various elementary schools from across Clayton County. For each school year between 2014-2018, nearly 33 percent of each enrolled cohort of new students have entered without several foundational skills necessary to be successful in middle school and beyond—literacy and numeracy skills. We seek to address the root cause of this problem by expanding vertically to create a pipeline of preparedness for middle school that includes a rigorous elementary school experience.”

Utopian Academy takes a no-excuses approach to teaching and learning among its largely economically disadvantaged population. The curriculum is designed to produce scholars who are well-rounded in the arts and well-prepared for success in high school. Middle school teachers use academic strategies rooted in research that have helped scholars to outperform Clayton County middle schools in all subject areas, from math to language arts, and the state in sixth and eighth grade English/Language Arts, sixth grade math, and eighth grade science on the 2018 Georgia Milestones Exams.

The school has managed to thrive despite early roadblocks. Its opening day was initially delayed in August 2014 when Riverdale city officials insisted that Utopian Academy needed a business license to operate as a free public school.

Utopian’s rocky start inspired legislation to protect state-approved public charter schools from similar struggles. Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill in April 2015 called the “Utopian Academy for the Arts Act” that 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 legislation was designed to protect public charter schools from being stifled by municipal governments.

Utopian Academy currently has a projected enrollment of more than 300 students for the 2019-20 academic year. The school serves students in grades 6-8.

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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