School Choice Abundant In Georgia

Last week I attended the event to launch the Georgia Consortium of Advanced Technical Training that I previewed in my prior column. The program is a pilot that will allow high school students to participate in a three-year apprenticeship program that will have not only graduating on time with a high school diploma, but with an associates degree in Industrial Mechanics and a German apprenticeship certificate.

Not only will the high school students be paid competitive wages while they are trained, but the certificate and degree they will hold roughly at the age of 18 will demonstrate the ability to hold jobs that currently offer starting salaries averaging about $40,000 per year.

While at the ceremony I was able to talk to one of the applicants for the competitively awarded slots in next year’s inaugural sophomore class. He’s currently a freshman at Newnan’s Northgate High School. That managed to make the program hit a bit more home, as Northgate is the school that one of my nieces will be attending next year.

My niece is also an example and product of school choice. Thus far, her entire K-12 experience has been at The Odyssey Charter School. She (and her mom) got to live through Georgia’s charter schools being ruled unconstitutional, a subsequent constitutional amendment to re-authorize them, and the various funding issues surrounding charter schools in Georgia. The nine years at Odyssey have been a hands on experience not only for my niece, but for my sister as well.

Odyssey was my first in depth exposure to charter schools in Georgia, and helped me gain a different level of appreciation and understanding of the opportunities and challenges they face. I’ve been receiving an even deeper level of understanding over the past few months after joining the school board of Georgia Cyber Academy, Georgia’s largest public school.

Georgia Cyber Academy is a virtual school, operating under a charter issued by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. We currently have over 14,000 students in grades K-12.

As a virtual school we serve a population that often is challenged in a traditional learning environment. We have a large number of students that participate in sports at a level that has them on a professional track, as well as children in the entertainment industry whose schedule requires constant travel. We also serve a relatively high number of students with special needs, who benefit from the flexibility that a virtual delivery system offers.

On Saturday, GCA had our graduation in the Cobb Galleria Center with Lt. Governor Casey Cagle delivering the commencement address. The school’s Salutatorian is going on to Georgia Tech next fall, completing his high school requirements at the age of 15. Another student was awarded an Associate of Science degree with her high school diploma that she earned as part of a joint enrollment program.

As I sat listening to the names called to walk across the stage and receive a diploma, I had a few moments to reflect on the various types of school choice and the unique programs and results I’ve been able to observe during the week. From a charter school where my niece began as a kindergartener and left last week as a rising high school freshman.

There’s the “traditional” that she and her mom have decided is the best fit for her high school years. That same school will be offering its students a joint enrollment program that will train and empower a few select students with skills allowing them to compete in the job market and earn professional wages at a time when most of their peers will just be beginning college.

Then there is the virtual school, that has allowed students to “move on when ready” and graduate at age 15, or joint enroll with a local college and be have way to their undergraduate degree when setting foot on campus in the fall.

The common thread in these choices is that each requires active management by the student and their families. Georgia continues to be a leader offering choice and flexibility so that students may find a program that best suits their needs, and best prepares them for success. Those willing to invest the time to build a plan and commit to a goal have many paths within our public schools in which to achieve.

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