When he came to Mountain Education Charter High School last August, it seemed to Jeffrey Elledge that it was his last chance to get a diploma. The 19-year-old Canton resident had floundered at Creekview High School from the start. He skipped classes his freshman year and failed others. For a time he attended ACE Academy, Cherokee County’s school for students with behavioral issues.
Elledge eventually returned to Creekview for his senior year, but by the end, he still needed three class credits to graduate. Elledge considered going back to ACE Academy but balked.
Instead, a friend told Elledge about his experience of taking a summer class at Mountain Education. You could work at your pace, he told Elledge, and focus on one class at a time. Class sizes were smaller than at a traditional public school, so there was more one-on-one interaction with teachers. The school also had a program where each student was matched with a mentor.
“I thought, OK,” Elledge said.
So Elledge and his dad showed up at Mountain Education last August to enroll, adding to the growing number of charter school students in Georgia and around the country.
According to a report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published this past March, public charter school enrollment increased an estimated 5 percent from fall 2016 to fall 2017 with nearly 3.2 million students in more than 7,000 public charter schools. Georgia’s charter school growth was even more pronounced during the same period, according to the report, with a 9 percent increase in student enrollment to an estimated 70,500 in 87 public charter schools.
The growth in charter schools has coincided with their central place in the debate on school choice. They are free like public schools but exempt from many state and local regulations that govern public schools; that allows them more freedom to innovate with administrative decision-making and curriculum. In return, charter schools have stricter accountability, particularly on spending and academic performance.
The first charter school opened in 1992 in Minnesota, but charter schools really flourished under the Obama administration, which incentivized states and school districts to increase the number of charter schools with funding from the Department of Education. President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has been even stronger in her support for school choice. DeVos spent decades advocating for the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs in Michigan before joining the Trump administration in 2017.
Mountain Education opened in 1993 as the Mountain Education Center in Union County. It also pulled from Fannin and Towns counties to create a regional evening school designed for “at-risk” and dropout students. The model expanded across north Georgia. Mountain Education now has 16 locations, including Dawson and Hall counties.
Serving the at-risk
Forsyth County has two sites, one at the Almon C. Hill Education Center on Elm Street, another in a building behind the Forsyth County Schools headquarters on Dahlonega Highway that also houses the school system’s Academies of Creative Education. Mountain Education is independent of Forsyth County Schools but the two have a partnership that allows the charter school to use the system’s facilities.
Forsyth County’s Mountain Education sites are the southernmost locations, so students also come from Cherokee, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Almost 250 students take classes at the two sites from 4-8 p.m. on weekdays and complete coursework at their own pace. Mountain Education only has one full-time employee, the school’s registrar. The rest of the staff have other jobs, most with Forsyth County Schools.
The majority of students come to Mountain Education after struggling in public school for various reasons.
“They are in the process of maybe not doing a good job in their regular school, or they’ve dropped out of high school,” said Gary Morris, who retired from Gwinnett County Schools in 2007 and is one of the Forsyth location’s two site administrators. “... Usually we have the at-risk students coming in. That’s our school population.”
When Elledge began taking classes at Mountain Education, he found the charter school’s model “refreshing” and “liberating.” In public school, he felt anonymous as one of 30 students in a class. He didn’t see the point of homework assignments. He hated writing essays and struggled to juggle several subjects at once.
At Mountain Education, Elledge dictated what he worked on and how much he wanted to do. Given the freedom, he became laser-focused. He started with his Chemistry B class and finished the semester-long course in two months. Next, he tackled his senior literature class, a year-long course. He completed everything in nearly three months, except for the final assignment — an essay. No matter; he moved on to American government, which he finished in a month.
“I thought, I’m not going to get left in the dust by my old friends,” Elledge said.
The ability for students to work at their own pace has opened Mountain Education up to students with a variety of situations.
On a recent Thursday, Paige Fairbanks bounced between students in her math class. A longtime math teacher at South Forsyth High School who is moving to North Forsyth this school year, Fairbanks began working at Mountain Education in 2014, and it made a quick impression on her. One of Fairbank’s first students was pregnant. After the student had her baby, she worked during the day to save money and came to Mountain Education at night to get her diploma.
“I was a (teen) mom too,” Fairbanks said, “so that really spoke to my heart that we actually had a program that could help a (teen) mom.”
No student in Fairbanks’ class had the same story. Ashlynn Gilliland moved to Forsyth County from Louisiana during the middle of the school year to live with her mom. After two months at North Forsyth High School, she enrolled at Mountain Education and decided to stay. Justin Wlosko, a junior, sat at his computer working on an Algebra 2 assignment so he can take more advanced math classes at Lambert High School this school year. Kaila Rewis commutes from Alabama, traveling Monday afternoon to make it to class and staying at a friend’s house until Wednesday.
‘I’m in charge’
Ana Price was down the hall taking her End of Course Test in math. The Cherokee County resident came to Mountain Education two years ago. Growing up in the Dallas area, she was eager to see more of the world and convinced her parents to send her to a boarding school for her freshman year of high school. The plan didn’t seem too far-fetched to Price’s mother, who immigrated from the Central European country almost 20 years ago. After all, Price could visit her grandparents on weekends.
But Price found the transition more jarring than she expected.
“If American kids think math is hard in a different language, it’s even harder in an actual different language,” Price said.
Unable to make any progress, Price left the boarding school half-way through the year. But Price did not get to slip back into her old routine. Price’s family had relocated to Indiana by then. A few weeks later, Price’s family moved again, this time to Sandy Springs. After a month of house-hunting, they settled in Cherokee County.
All the moving put Price behind in school. By the time Price could return, only a few months remained of her freshman year. Price had been taking some online classes, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with her new peers at Creekview High School in Canton. Enrolling seemed pointless.
“I would’ve had no idea about anything,” Price said.
Price waited until she was 15, the previous age of acceptance to Mountain Education, and enrolled at the charter school. She was able to pick up where she left off instead of get thrust into a class that was ahead in the curriculum.
For Price, it was an empowering situation.
“I think one of the best appeals of the school is that it really lets you have control of your future,” Price said. “...To have that responsibility is really maturing.”
It was for Elledge too. Working with his school-assigned mentor, he set a goal of graduating by April 20, his birthday. He missed that goal, but not by much; he graduated May 27. A few weeks ago, he stopped by Mountain Education to get his diploma. Now, he’s looking for a job so he can make some money and get his own place.
Elledge isn’t sure of his next step. He might take core classes at a local technical college in hopes of attending a four-year school. He might stay in the workforce. He’s thought about enlisting in the military, preferably the Air Force or Navy.
“I’m in charge of where I’m going to go,” Elledge said. “That’s what this showed me.”