Charter schools are public schools that operate without many of the regulations that usually apply to public schools. In Georgia, a charter is a performance contract between the school’s administration and the school board and usually is re-evaluated every five years.

Georgia passed its first charter school law in 1993. Today there are more than 70 charter schools in Georgia and six in Sandy Springs alone, with another proposed to start next August.

Once granted a charter, a school has the freedom to pursue individual goals.

Fulton County Board of Education President Julia Bernath, whose district includes Sandy Springs, said charters take some of the pressure off schools to conform to rules and regulations and allow school communities to “focus on the areas that are important to them.”

“It gives the local schools more freedom to think outside the box. It oftentimes will provide an opportunity for the community to take a second look at a school they hadn’t paid much attention to in the past because of these fresh ideas,” she said. “They’re usually very well received in the community, and they generate a lot of interest and excitement.

A charter contract outlines each school’s mission, program and goals and defines the standards by which it is held academically and financially responsible.

The state offers a limited number of $5,000 planning grants to people petitioning to form a charter school, whether it’s a new school or a conversion of an existing public school. If the charter is approved, federal implementation grants of $200,000 for conversions and $400,000 for start-ups are available.

Any student in Fulton County may attend any of the charter schools in Sandy Springs, but preference goes to those who live within a school’s attendance zone. A charter school in Georgia may not establish admission criteria.

Sandy Springs parents whose children have a knack for languages may want to send them to Riverwood International Charter High School, while those whose children love the spotlight should consider North Springs Charter High School of Arts and Sciences.

The North Springs cluster of charter schools includes Dunwoody Springs Charter Elementary, Spalding Drive Charter Elementary and Woodland Elementary Charter School. The entire cluster will be composed of charter schools if Sandy Springs Middle School receives approval from the county and state to convert to a charter school.

The Riverwood cluster includes Ridgeview Charter Middle School, but none of the elementary schools has a charter.