New Gwinnett charter school opening in August to focus on performing arts

Former Buford City Schools superintendent and Gwinnett County Schools administrator Beauty Baldwin is opening a new charter school in Norcross that focuses on the performing arts to cut down on the number of students who drop out. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

NORCROSS — Beauty Baldwin has an issue about kids finishing high school. There aren’t enough doing it.

The problem stretches from Gwinnett across the country, and the long-time educator who has worked in Gwinnett County Public Schools and led Buford City Schools believes she has a solution.

While there have been programs established to combat the dropout problem, Baldwin believes reaching children as early as possible and introducing a way for them to want to stay in school is key.

She hopes to do that by opening in August the North Metro Academy of Performing Arts, the newest charter school in Gwinnett, which will open with kindergarten through sixth grade, but eventually reach eighth grade.

By high school, Baldwin believes it’s too late to reverse bad habits.

“They know they have to be in school,” she said. “Some of them are waiting around to drop out, so all they do is cause problems in school, get suspended. Go back to school, get suspended. What we want to do is catch these kids at an early age. If we can show that, maybe we can reproduce this model in other areas.”

Written in a mission statement to the Gwinnett and Georgia school boards in its application, the school plans to “integrate academics with the performing arts to engage and motivate students who might otherwise struggle with behavioral, social and emotional issues that impede their academic achievement.”

The school is located at 182 Hunter St. in Norcross, the same location as the recently-closed Hopewell Christian Academy, which fell victim to the Great Recession. It expects to start with about 420 students — who will wear uniforms to curb discipline problems — and 25 staff members, including 23 teachers, Baldwin said.

The principal will be Burrell Pope, who was the principal at Hopewell Christian since 2010, and who previously worked in Gwinnett County Schools and Clayton County Schools, Baldwin said..

The teachers will be certified elementary school teachers who also have an interest in music, art or movement.

During the registration period, Baldwin said about 450 students or families have expressed interest, and depending on residence clearances, there could be a waiting list.

Baldwin credits support from State House Rep. Brooks Coleman, who chairs the House education committee, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson and Rusty Warner, who heads Norcross’ economic development efforts. It was Coleman who years ago encouraged Baldwin to pursue a charter concept.

“Children can get state support, you can do creative, innovative things, you can have a lot of flexibility and freedom,” Coleman recalled saying. “That’s critical. Music, art, is such a critical area for young minds, and many times it’s overlooked. It’s really important because research will show you children who participate in band, orchestra, theater, they’re good communicators; it’s another dimension of life-long learning.”

Coleman acknowledged that this concept gives children a reason to come to school.

“We need to do anything we can to encourage children to stay in school and encourage anything they’re interested in,” he said.

The charter school is considered a sort of pilot program that appealed to the state charter school committee, which is known to look for new schools that are innovative. The school’s format includes two extended school days on Tuesdays and Thursdays when students will be tutored or practice for two performances they are required to give throughout the year.

“We’re integrating the performing arts with academics beginning in kindergarten so that these kids can get focused on something, dance or voice or acting or whatever the performing arts piece is,” Baldwin said. “We want to get them all exposed to that from kindergarten through the fifth grade.”

It starts in kindergarten when Baldwin said children can learn letters by dancing or singing them out.

“You don’t really know you’re doing it but you are,” she said. “Plus they have fun doing that while they’re learning.”

By sixth grade, students could be expected to know an interest in the performing arts, such as guitar or voice. The school would then provide a professional to give lessons in that focus.

If the school can help develop that interest in students, “they’re not going to want to quit school in eighth grade,” Baldwin said. “Gwinnett offers a lot of electives in high schools, so these kids are going to want to stay in school so they stay focused on that particular thing they’re interested in. Nobody’s ever done that before this young. There’s not one like this in the state of Georgia.”

This is considered the last hurrah for Baldwin in her career in education, which began with her work in Schley County, near Columbus, before she came to Gwinnett and Buford. She said she’s motivated to instill an elementary foundation and is simply doing what she knows is good for kids.

“You may not find a classroom where students are copying or writing, you’re going to have kids that are active and up and about and learning,” she said. “That’s the cool thing about this whole idea of integrating the arts with academics. They need to know academics is not boring. You’re going to learn, but it’s going to be somewhat in a fun way. You think you’re playing, but you’re really learning. You can tell the difference because it will be an air of everybody getting involved and doing things and yet you can see learning is taking place.”

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