Michele Neely knew nothing about charter schools when she set out to find a less regimented, less test-focused school for her children.She found the right fit at the International Charter School of Atlanta, a north Fulton County charter school that had a more relaxed attitude on test scores and offered classes in more than just English as a dual-language immersion program.

The experience was so worthwhile that once her kids aged out of the K-8 school, Neely hopped on the charter-school bandwagon and became president of the nonprofit State Charter Schools Foundation of Georgia.

“I was frustrated with everything being such a traditional approach,” Neely said of traditional public K-12 schools in a recent interview. “A school is so much more than just their (test scores) and their ranking.”

However, while Neely’s kids’ charter school has stayed open since 2015, dozens of other charters in Georgia have either closed or reverted to traditional public schools since 2009, according to an analysis of state data by State Affairs.

Meanwhile, dozens more charter schools have also opened during that time, many of which show promising trends in boosting academic progress for some of Georgia’s roughly 150,000 students at chronically low-performing schoolsThat track record paints a curious picture for the staying power of Georgia’s charter schools, particularly once the COVID-19 pandemic ends and many parents rethink where they want to send their kids to school.

“Our charters are really incubators for innovation,” Neely said. “If they see they need to make adjustments, they can quickly pivot and be very responsive to the community.”

Those less confident in charter schools see the high closure and reversion rate as evidence the charter model only offers better educational options on paper, but falls short when it comes to actually delivering a better school experience for lower-performing students.

“Charter schools have not been the panacea that some folks claim them to be,” said Jimmy Stokes, a retired Georgia educator and former executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.

“They thought this was going to be a marvelous invention of schooling that would result in academic achievement," he said. "And it hasn’t.”


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Part II: Charters Open, Charters Close