Parents: Controversial parental contract is ‘legalized discrimination’

The students’ removals were the result of violating a controversial parental contract some believe discriminates against financially strapped families. It happened in metro Atlanta’s Newton County.
Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 10:51 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2023 at 3:24 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - On the last day of school before Christmas, 13-year-old Celene Harris was having one of the best days of the semester with her classmates at the Newton County Theme School. Her teachers handed out hot chocolate and even Chick-fil-A.

“Everything was going so smoothly that day. It was fun,” Harris said.

That joy didn’t last long. Just before leaving school, Celene’s teacher handed her a letter. She immediately started crying after reading it. When she looked around the hallway, she saw other students sobbing.

The letter notified Celene and other students they were not permitted to return to the school next semester.

For Celene, it wasn’t for failing grades or behavior issues. It was because her mother did not complete 10 volunteer hours by December 16, a requirement under a contract parents sign upon enrolling their child at the school.

“Your child shall not return to Newton County Theme School on January 6, 2023, which is the beginning of the second semester,” said the letter signed by LaMoyne Brunson, the school’s principal. The letter instructed Harris to contact her child’s “home school” to enroll for the next semester.

The next day, the school district closed for two weeks for Christmas break, preventing parents from reaching out to school officials until the day before the next semester started.

“It was insensitive. It was cruel. For the kids, it was very traumatizing,” said Liz Harris, Celene’s mother.

When she reached out to Brunson, Harris said the principal blamed her for not following the contract. “It was very harsh. He said, ‘[Your daughter’s] non-continuance in this school has nothing to do with her grades. It’s the fact that you didn’t fulfill your obligation as parent to complete the hours,’” Harris said.

According to documents obtained from the school district through a state public records request, at least 32 students were kicked out due to violating the parental contract on the same day. The letters do not identify the students or parents, but they do disclose the reason for removing the students.

The majority of the contract violations include not maintaining an 80 percent in a class; because their parents did not complete enough volunteer hours; or a combination of both.

Here's a look at the qualifications for enrollment at the Newton County Theme School.
Here's a look at the qualifications for enrollment at the Newton County Theme School.(WANF)

Harris and other parents feel the school failed to adequately communicate how many hours parents needed to fulfill the contract.

From August to December last year, Harris received at least 41 emails from the school. The emails included reminders about making sure her daughter was prepared for fashion week, school spirit and the annual “Can-A-Thon.”

The only reminder Harris received about volunteer hours came in a letter sent on October 6, 2022. “The deadline to complete volunteer hours for kindergarten through 7th grade is May 12, 2023,” the letter said.

The letter did not mention the December 16 deadline listed on the parental contract. Harris thought she had several more months to meet her volunteer hours.

“It’s not like we wanted to ignore and neglect the fact that we had to do this, these hours, but we were given no reminders,” Harris said. “And you’re asking a parent to take time off [work] to do volunteer hours, which is not going to pay a bill. You don’t know how parents are surviving.”

It happened to Amy Jones’ 13-year-old daughter, Bella, too.

“My first reaction was, this has to be a mistake,” said Jones, whose daughter was also in seventh grade at the school.

The school notified Jones it was kicking her daughter out while she was on campus volunteering. Jones said she needed just four volunteer hours to fulfill the contract. By the time Jones reached her daughter to break the news, it was too late. “She was crying, she was hysterical. And I knew instantly, she’d found out,” Jones said.

Bella was put on probation at the beginning of the school year for not maintaining an 80 percent in a class. That meant Jones had to volunteer at least 10 hours before December 16. Jones said she met with school officials multiple times throughout the semester to make sure her daughter was on track to improve her grades, but teachers and the principal never mentioned the outstanding volunteer hours she needed.

“It blows my mind that something this significant, and this severe to remove a child from a school, that there was not more layers of communication, warning the parents, reminding the parents,” Jones said.

Jones said her daughter Bella worked hard to get out of academic probation, but in the end, grades didn’t matter. The school still removed her from school. “The damage is done. The embarrassment is done. The broken heart is done. What I want to see happen is the school system correct this from happening again,” Jones said.

The superintendent responds

Samantha Fuhrey is the Newton County School District superintendent. She regrets the way students learned about their removals.

“No, I’m not happy with what happened on Dec. 21. If I had known that this is what was going to happen, I would have definitely encouraged our principal to do something differently,” Fuhrey said.

Fuhrey also said the school will no longer remove students mid-year for violating the parental contract. “This year, we had a probationary period, which is why there is this interruption in the middle of the school year. We don’t plan to do that in the future,” she said.

Prior to December 2022, it’s difficult to identify how many students were removed for failing to meet the contract requirements. Fuhrey said the school suspended enforcing contract rules for about two and a half years during the pandemic, from 2019 to 2021.

According to records provided by the district, the last time the school sent letters notifying a parent their child was kicked out of the theme school was in 2017. It included three students removed for behavior, grades and unexcused tardies.

Fuhrey said more students may have been removed, but admitted she doesn’t know for sure. The district office doesn’t track it. The county allows the school’s principals to maintain those records. Brunson is the theme school’s fourth principal since 2016.

The Newton County Theme School is not a private or a charter school, but parents must go through a lengthy application process and agree to the terms of the parental contract for their child to attend.

According to the Georgia Department of Education (GDOE), there is no statewide definition of a “theme school” and it doesn’t know how many schools use parental contracts. When asked how she defines a theme school, Fuhrey said, “the theme of the school is what binds the school together. In this case, it’s a parental involvement theme school.”

GDOE said the school’s parental contracts are legal. “It is within a local school district’s authority to establish a specialty school or program and set requirements (including academic requirements) for admission and continued attendance. The district is within its authority to re-enroll the student in the school for which they are zoned,” said Meghan Frick, GDOE’s communications director.

‘That’s legalized discrimination and we’re financing it’

Stephen Owens, education director for the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, believes the theme school’s contract makes it difficult for poorer families to take advantage of Newton County Schools’ best school.

“They found a way to restrict enrollment by having these requirements for how much the parents participate and how high the kids’ grades are, when we know that, especially in the younger grades, those kids’ performances are directly tied to how much money their parents make,” Owens said.

According to the Governors Office of Student Achievement, the school district’s poverty rate throughout the system averages about 43 percent. It’s 13 percent at the theme school. Those numbers mirror the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch in the county, which is 73 percent districtwide. It’s less half that (29 percent) at the Newton County Theme School.

That means the majority of the school’s students come from the district’s wealthiest families. It is also one of the system’s best academically performing schools.

Newton County Theme Schools requires students to maintain an 80 percent grade and parents to...
Newton County Theme Schools requires students to maintain an 80 percent grade and parents to complete volunteer hours.(WANF)

Owens believes the contracts allow the school to cherry pick which students they want to succeed and participate. “These parents in Newton County probably thought they chose this great theme school, but if you’re not reading the fine print, you find out your kid is kicked out because they didn’t get an 80,” Owens said. “That’s legalized discrimination and we’re financing it.”

Fuhrey disagrees with Owens’ assessment, “but I do understand what he’s saying. There are situations where perhaps the rules are exclusionary and I don’t think that’s what we are doing.”

“It’s a choice school,” she said. “And so not every parent has the time or wants to connect the way the parents at the theme school have, the way they are connecting now. But all of our schools offer the same sorts of experiences of children who are performing very well.”

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