After years of missteps during the founding of Brookhaven Innovation Academy, the school has received failing scores from a state oversight commission, ranking lower than all but one DeKalb County public school in the city. The school also recently has experienced administrative turnover and a teacher walkout over complaints about operations.

“We are actively working to improve academic and financial performance to not only be on track for a renewed charter contract, but to also remain on track towards our goal of setting the standard for how all children should be educated,” said Adam Caskey, the BIA board chair, in a written statement.

The state public charter school was founded in 2015 by Brookhaven leaders, but was unable to find a building in the city. It is temporarily located in Norcross and plans to permanently move to Chamblee.

City Councilmember Bates Mattison.

Brookhaven City Councilmember Bates Mattison helped found the school and was its first executive director. He stepped down in 2016 after concerns he would have a conflict of interest in fundraising activities, although he was legally cleared to be the director.

“I support the board in what it does to take corrective actions,” Mattison said.

Mattison said he is now no longer involved in the administration of BIA and learned of its troubles with the State Charter Schools Commission like other parents, through a letter sent from the board. His son and daughter attend the school.

“My kids love it and are doing well academically,” he said.

Failing grades

The State Charter Schools Commission, which decides whether a school is renewed to continue operating, in a March 21 report gave BIA failing scores on academic and financial sections. BIA passed the operations section, which includes complying with laws, protecting the rights of disabled students and reporting education data, among others.

The commission guidelines require schools to meet the standards of all three categories for three out of the first four years of a charter term. The standard term is five years. However, the commission provides some leeway for new schools, said Lauren Holcomb, the commission’s spokesperson.

If the school meets the standards in its fourth year, it can be renewed for an abbreviated three-year term to give it a chance to make improvements, she said.

“Research tells us there’s a little bit of learning curve,” Holcomb said.

Caskey said that although BIA will get some flexibility as a new school, it is not satisfied with the failing scores it received in the 2016-2017 school year.

“While our initial performance may be in lockstep with the performance of other new charter schools, we do not find that answer to be acceptable,” he said. “Of particular importance will be improving the individualized learning and computer coding components of our academic model.”

BIA was dinged for not earning a College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI, score that was higher than the district it serves, the entire state. BIA also scored lower than most DeKalb County public schools in Brookhaven.

BIA’s elementary grades scored 54.5, putting it lower than all but one DeKalb elementary school, Montclair Elementary. Woodward, Montgomery and Ashford Park all scored higher with scores of 59.2, 85.2 and 97.5, respectively.

BIA’s middle grades scored 54.1, lower than both public middle schools in Brookhaven. Chamblee earned a score of 82.6 and Sequoyah earned 64.4.

In the financial section, the commission found the school has less than 15 days cash on hand and not enough money to cover financial obligations.

Joe Gebbia
City Councilmember Joe Gebbia

City Councilmember Joe Gebbia, who helped to establish BIA and once sat on its board of directors, said he doesn’t think the problems are “insurmountable.” BIA was once touted as how a state charter should be run, he said.

“These are growing pains they are going through,” he said. “The board needs to get more aggressive to make sure requirements are met.”

Leadership changes

The school has undergone several leadership changes since opening in 2016. The first head of school, Laurie Kimbrel, was caught up in a controversy about her husband’s social media posts during her previous out-of-state post. She resigned from BIA after a year. She was replaced with an interim head of school, Terri Potter.

The BIA board announced in a letter to the board on April 27 that it has hired Julie Tolbert, who was previously at Oconee County Schools, to fill the position permanently.

Gebbia said he no longer follows the school closely. He heard the school has recently hired a new head of school and said management turnover frequently causes problems.

“I’m not surprised they are having trouble right now,” he said. Whenever you have management shifts, there are always issues that arise. That’s been my experience.”

The frequent leadership turnover was one reason the teachers held a walkout on April 19, Caskey said. But he said he is confident Tolbert is “devoted to BIA and will guide us through the charter renewal period and beyond.”

“With that stability in place, concerns rooted in uncertainty and change will evaporate,” Caskey said.

Addressing other concerns, including a lack of teacher raises and classroom materials, is an “ongoing process,” Caskey said.

–Evelyn Andrews and Dyana Bagby