Area students looking to pursue a science and career-focused curriculum in high school must now wait two years for Innovation Academy to open in downtown Alpharetta.
Officials with the Fulton County School System announced Monday the science, technology, engineering and math high school will not be ready to open next summer as planned, but will instead open in August 2021.
The delay is necessary to finalize the curriculum and to ensure vital business partnerships are in place, school officials say.
“[Innovation Academy] is such a promising new direction for this school system and our students, so it’s absolutely imperative we get it right,” said Fulton Schools Superintendent Michel Looney. “And the worst thing we can do is open the doors and not be fully prepared.”
Although construction of the school is on schedule for completion August 2020, the nuts and bolts of the curriculum are not, said Looney, who became the district’s superintendent in June.
“We need more time to fully articulate the curriculum design and to [train teachers] who will be charged with serving students,” said Looney. “This project is too important to not fully be prepared to receive students.”
Looney confirmed it was his decision to delay the opening after consulting with other district officials. Looney is the fifth Fulton superintendent — permanent or interim —to be a part of the high-profile project since its inception in 2015.
The decision to delay the opening has the backing of the Fulton County Board of Education which has pushed the district to offer education options beyond the traditional school setting. A second STEM-focused school is under construction in South Fulton which will also open in August 2021.
“We are doing what we promised the taxpayers we would do,” said Board President Linda Bryant. “The Innovation Academy will be completed and construction is proceeding, along with a great number of additional projects throughout the district that benefit almost every community.”
Just two months ago, more than a thousand parents and students attended a series of community meetings in North Fulton to learn more about Innovation Academy. The intent was to garner enthusiasm for the charter class of 9th grade students ahead of the October opening for applications.
During the meetings, the high-level concepts seemed clear, such as the focus on “design thinking”; but many of the details regarding coursework, curriculum progression and the “ideal” student were less developed.
Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones said those concerns were a large part of the decision to delay the opening for one year.
“After hearing feedback, district leaders determined the project needed to have the full, four-year curriculum model and offerings detailed for parents and students before beginning the admissions process,” Jones said.
Parents and students who have expressed interest in the school will receive updates on the process and progress of the school through multiple channels, including personal phone calls, Jones said.
Innovation Academy Principal Tim Duncan, who was named to the position last spring, will spend the next 24 months working on curriculum, student recruitment, staffing and preparing the school for its August 2021 opening.
“Principal Duncan will be a key communicator to the community about all things Innovation Academy,” Jones said. “He will also be leading the selection and training of the teachers as the year progresses.”
Construction of the Innovation Academy campus in Alpharetta continues on the site of the old Milton High School. District officials said the delay in opening should not impact the construction budget, although there may be adjustments to personnel budgets.
Looney confirmed he had accepted the resignation of former associate superintendent for Innovation, Doannie Tran, who had overseen the progress of Innovation Academy the past two years.
The $60 million school is being funded through the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax approved by voters in 2016. The referendum included funding for two STEM schools in the district: Innovation Academy in North Fulton, and a 6th-12th grade school in South Fulton.
Chief Operations Officer Patrick Burke said the one-year delay puts Innovation Academy back onto its original timeline. The Fulton School Board had agreed to move up the time line of Innovation Academy to provide quicker relief to area high schools struggling with overcrowding.
“The scheduled opening date for our North STEM facility (Innovation Academy) was not promised prior to the passage of the SPLOST referendum,” Burke said. “Had the Board of Education not approved a temporary borrowing from the general fund for school design in the fall of 2016 the school would have opened in 2021 instead of 2020.”
Innovation Academy was the only new school planned for North Fulton in the 2017-2022 Capital Projects plan for the district. With the one-year delay for Innovation Academy, Burke said relief to overcrowded high schools will come in other ways.
“We will continue to support existing schools as we always have, utilizing temporary classrooms and maximizing the efficiency of space until the facility is available to help overcrowding,” he noted.
During the year delay, Innovation Academy will be used as a hub for professional development and training for staff, and a location for student activities such as science and academic competitions.