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'Timing Right for Cherokee Academies'

The Cherokee County School System plans to open the first elementary school academies next fall.

The may have voted earlier in the year not to give a local charter to , but officials said the board wants to give students more choices.

That’s why the school system is working to implement the Cherokee Academies, an initiative that will create several new schools focused on specific studies, such as performing arts and the sciences. Superintendent Frank Petruzielo said that the board’s decision to vote down “proposals with congenital defects” from Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based organization that operates Cherokee Charter Academy, doesn’t mean it is against more options.

“Clearly, that wasn’t the case, and that isn’t the case now,” Petruzielo said.

The superintendent said that plans have been in the works for several years to implement the academy-style programs. The school system has been in talks with Reinhardt University to create a performing and visual arts program. There are also plans to start a technical high school; a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program and possibly piloting an International Baccalaureate program at one of the high schools.

“I think if we were waiting for something, it was for the right time to pilot some of these ideas, and this appears to be the right time,” Petruzielo said. “We’re not going to implement these in any way that will break the bank or spend resources we don’t have.”

In fact, the new programs should have little impact on the school system’s budget. Petruzielo said a survey showed that there are enough teachers on staff with backgrounds and interests in the areas of the proposed academies, and he said he doesn’t anticipate hiring additional employees. There also is the possibility of using experts in the various fields to assist with the academies.

“The reason we surveyed our staff was to make sure we had enough people out there to get started on these academies and to sustain them,” Petruzielo said.

And, if Cherokee County , finding facilities to house the academies won’t be an issue. Plans are to build a new and use the current school for the technical high school. If the E-SPLOST is approved, the new school is expected to be in use by 2014. And, when the new opens in 2015, its current building either will be used to house academies or overflow from .

Other academy programs would be housed in existing school system facilities.

“It certainly would make sense to do that rather to search for capital outlay funds to construct facilities,” Petruzielo said. “While we have school buildings that are critically overcrowded, we do have a few that have space available. Our intent would be to fill those up with academy types of programs.”

The school system always tries to repurpose facilities, board member Janet Read said.

“This isn’t going to be a significant amount of funds,” she said. “It’s just reallocating resources.”

The current plan is to open one or two elementary school fine arts academies in the northern and southern ends of the county in fall 2012, as well as three or four elementary school STEM academies. The following fall, plans are to open advanced academies on the middle school level.

“This is not going to be a 100-yard dash,” Petruzielo said. “It’s going to be more like a 26-mile marathon. “

The time frame for opening a High School for the Performing and Visual Arts will depend on the ability to set up a feeder system where Suzuki, arts and dance programs are introduced in elementary school and built upon in middle school. That way, the high school program will be successful, Petruzielo said.

“By the time your HSPVA opens, you have a group of kids with the requisite skills needed to perform at that level,” he said. “It will take a while, but that’s the way you need to do it.”

While Petruzielo said the academies will be a choice for public school students as well as those in private schools and being homeschooled, some parents attended the last school board meeting to let the board know they were upset about not being included in a recent survey. Petruzielo said only parents of students enrolled in the Cherokee County School System were surveyed because they were the only people for whom the school system had contact information. The superintendent said it wouldn’t surprise him if students from other schools and other areas apply to the academies.

“In other areas, these kinds of schools are used to keep people from leaving the area,” Petruzielo said. “We don’t have that problem. We’ve got outstanding schools throughout Cherokee County. There isn’t one I wouldn’t put my child or grandchildren in.”

Read said that some parents move to Cherokee County for the school system’s special education program, and that the academies paired with one of the lowest property and sales tax rates in metro Atlanta will be attractive to others who might look to move to the area.

“I think people will see this as another plus for us,” she said.

Residents can submit feedback by emailing school system spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby at barbara.jacoby@cherokee.k12.ga.us.

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