When Utopian Academy for the Arts opened in 2014, the school faced significant challenges from local school and city officials. The school was forced to open late after struggles over inspections with the city of Riverdale. These challenges came despite the public charter school, which is authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission, already receiving the necessary state inspections to open. The school was also not allowed to place a sign bearing its name in front of the building and had to shut down its food service program due to a licensing requirement that did not exist for other schools in the city.
Dr. Artesius Miller, Founder and Executive Director of Utopian Academy for the Arts says the delayed opening and other battles with local city and school officials contributed to a significant loss of students and operational funds in the school’s first year. He says that put the school on shaky academic and operational ground for years to come. However, Miller says the school has been able to recover through a combination of hard work and determination and is now starting to thrive. In 2018, the school scored an 81.7 on Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), significantly surpassing the performance of both the state and the Clayton County School District.
“We pride ourselves on being a very small school with humble resources that will turn the narrative. We have been able to stand our ground and show our parents and our staff that what we’re doing is working,” said Miller. “I believe we’re going to see continued growth and more success in the future. That’s because the ingredients that made for a successful year, we’re not only adding to them, but we’re looking to collaborate with more organizations as well as colleges and universities to really support our program.”
Miller believes a high faculty and retention rate and the decision to invest in teachers through the use of instructional consultants has contributed to the school’s recent academic success. He also says hiring a principal who is strong academically and having a board that has allowed him to make the necessary adjustments have been key factors in moving the needle academically and operationally.
Miller also says the local environment between the school, the Clayton County Board of Education,local officials and the community has improved. Moving from Riverdale to the school’s current location in Ellenwood has also helped with those relations. He says Ellenwood officials have embraced the school. Miller has also been able to forge a positive relationship with Morcease J. Beasley, Superintendent of the Clayton County Public School System.
“I extended an olive branch, and it was accepted,” said Miller. “Upon notice that there was going to be a new superintendent, I reached out to the district office to say, ‘we are a school in the community, and we want to become a partner.’”
Miller says he believes the positive relationship resulted because Beasley is supportive of school choice and understands that parents should have the opportunity to select the type of academic program that is best for their student. He also says Beasley understands charter schools and has educated his staff and the Clayton County School Board to ensure that Clayton County students have access to an opportunity that is different from what they receive at traditional middle schools in the district.
Miller says the school offers a unique and rigorous educational program in the dramatic, media and culinary arts. The school is the only middle school in Clayton County with a specific arts emphasis. He says the school’s teachers and staff are passionate about coming to work and that shows in the classroom and the school’s culture.
“It’s an environment where students want to be,” says Miller. “A number of students who have gone through our program and are now at various high schools. Many of them are juniors now at Martha Stillwood School of the Arts. When you talk with those students about academic preparedness for high school and the talent discovery they have been able to embrace at early ages, many of them will say, ‘I got my start at Utopian.’”
Students at the school are exposed and given the opportunity to work alongside industry experts in music, dance, television and film. To accomplish this, the school has established a number of key partnerships with organizations like the Ludacris Foundation. The Ludacris Foundation has provided financial support and given Utopian students opportunities to gain exposure to potential career opportunities such as the making of music videos. Utopian Academy is also working with the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics & Computing (CEISMC) at Georgia Tech to create a music production and computer coding course that will be offered to students next fall. The school is also working to establish a partnership with Morehouse College in Atlanta that seeks to encourage Utopian students to attend the Historically Black College (HBCU). The school is also working with Clayton State University’s Teacher Preparation Program.
Miller hopes to establish more partnerships with organizations and educational institutions. He says the school also wants to give more students in Clayton County the opportunity to attend a rigorous and unique school with an arts emphasis and is seeking to replicate in the coming years.