Billed as an exclusive, high-achieving public school, ACE struggles with lack of diversity, finances

The Academy for Classical Education established itself as one of the most exclusive public schools in the state with a stellar academic record and a stately, expanding campus on the northern edge of Bibb County.

The school, called ACE for short, opened as a charter school in 2014. It has consistently received high marks for student achievement, including being recognized for its academic excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.

ACE made a lasting impression on Arnab Banerjee and his wife, Garima, who still remember how they felt in 2016 at an orientation for new parents.

“The general vibe was like… you are being honored or you’re lucky to be in this school because the school is so secluded and it’s so prestigious, almost like a gated community, and you’re lucky to be on this side of the gate and not on the other side,” Arnab Banerjee said.

ACE embraces a classical curriculum, a centuries-old model for education that is rooted in traditional western canon. Its roughly 1,800 students in grades K-12 learn Latin, memorize poems and speeches, listen to Bach, read Aristotle and study the Romans.

But in its strident focus on academic excellence, leadership at ACE has failed to address longstanding issues related to inclusion, representation, diversity and disproportionate discipline that have harmed its nonwhite students and their families.

In the nine years since the charter school opened, those issues have been highlighted in documents and data from the state and federal departments of education. The issues have also been flagged by independent consultants who audited the school’s operations in 2019 after it defaulted for the first time on a $34.9 million bond issued by the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.

The Banerjees, who immigrated from India and left Macon just before the pandemic, are not the only family to share a story about an experience at ACE threaded with descriptions of unfair treatment, exclusion and dismissal of nonwhite students and their families. However, they are one of just two families to go on the record about it. They only feel safe doing so after enrolling their son in a new school and moving more than 100 miles away.

School Choice

Charter schools are founded on the idea of school choice, supporting the right of parents to choose an alternative educational environment to public schools that better suit the needs of their child.

Academy for Classical Education Principal Laura Perkins, second from left, during a recent meeting of the school’s board. (Grant Blankenship | Georgia Public Broadcasting)

Proponents of school choice say it gives parents the ability to choose the best learning environment for their child. Critics say the movement diverts public money from public schools.

The State Charter School Commission, a board of political appointees created in 2012, is responsible for oversight of state charter schools. Its mission is to improve public education by providing students with better educational opportunities than they would otherwise receive in traditional public schools.

State charter schools are governed by nonprofit boards that can pick who to hire, choose how the school day is structured and decide how the state and federal dollars funding the school are spent.

The operational autonomy is granted to the school in a renewable multi-year contract with the State Charter School Commission. The deal is this: the commission waives some of the Georgia Department of Education’s rules and laws for the charter school. In exchange, the charter school agrees to outperform nearby traditional public schools and meet specific student achievement goals.

Witt Gaither, a founding and current member of ACE’s governing board, said the flexibility allows charter schools like ACE to operate with the speed and agility of patrol torpedo boats compared to the slow and gargantuan aircraft carrier-sized public school districts like Bibb County Schools.

“It’s the Sun Tzu ‘Art of War’: If your enemy is big and slow, you’re small and fast,” Gaither said. “We can make much more violent, much faster turns, right? But we can only carry 1,800 people. … The choice movement is not supposed to be the panacea for the entirety of the problem. The charter movement is designed to demonstrate that success can be had.”

When a parent chooses ACE for their child, Gaither said, “they’re agreeing to the model we’ve adopted.”

The Banerjees recalled Laura Perkins, principal and co-founder of ACE, speaking to new parents at the orientation meeting about the decades she worked as a principal and teacher for Westside High School in Bibb County – about how that experience and the problems she faced in the public school system led her to create ACE.

Perkins was principal at Westside for six years. State data shows that when she retired at the end of the 2011-12 school year, the school’s student enrollment was 90% Black.

ACE’s student enrollment is 70% white, the inverse of Bibb County Schools student demography, which is 77% Black, Georgia Department of Education data shows.


“They did not want the kids at ACE to look like the kids at Westside High,” Garima Banerjee said.

Though ACE has more than doubled its enrollment since it opened in 2014, its racial demography has remained static.

Traditional public school districts use student addresses to determine which school they will attend. Charter schools use an enrollment application and those with more demand than capacity, like ACE, use an enrollment lottery and waitlist.

For the first five years ACE operated, its enrollment zone was limited to students living in Bibb County. That changed in 2019 when it severed ties with Bibb Schools and became a state charter school with a statewide enrollment zone.

The school’s yearly waiting list typically is hundreds of names long, according to financial reports ACE provides to its bond holders.

The Banerjees entered their son Arvaan’s name for two years before his name surfaced to the top of the waiting list in 2016. Though the Banerjees were satisfied with the fourth-grade education he was getting at Springdale Elementary School, they were concerned about later years, particularly given what they heard about drug problems at local public high schools.

“We were happy because that’s what we wanted: for him to be in one place, make good friends, have a good time,” Garima Banerjee said of Arvaan’s enrollment at ACE. “We think, ‘Okay. I can’t send my son to a private school, but this is close to private.’ … I don’t think we thought things were a problem in the beginning.”

Disproportionate Discipline

Signs of trouble started with a trickle of emails the school sent shortly after Arvaan transferred from Springdale in fall 2016. The emails informed his parents  of minor incidents: Arvaan was distracted, refused to follow directions, was disrespectful or had misplaced things.

Arnab Banerjee began to think maybe his son had become more mischievous in his pre-teenage years.

“I say this with a kind of guilt as a father, but initially we were a little hard on him,” Arnab Banerjee said.

Eventually, the Banerjees  could not square the school’s emails with the character of and differing accounts from the son they raised.

ACE has a yearslong track record of disproportionately disciplining nonwhite students, according to data from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. Black, Hispanic and biracial students are disciplined at higher rates than their white and Asian peers.

Black students have annually represented about 15% of ACE’s total enrollment but are consistently over-represented in state discipline data. This was most pronounced in 2016, when Black students represented 43.5% of the school’s disciplined population. Last year, Black students comprised 30.2% of the school’s disciplined population.

Arvaan Banerjee, now 16, said those statistics match his experience during the three years he attended ACE.

“I had two Black friends. They would get blamed for every little thing by multiple teachers,” Arvaan said. “I was not motivated. I didn’t feel like going to school. I didn’t feel like talking to my teachers or seeing them. It was just a bad experience and the same feeling came from all my friends.”

In sixth grade, Arvaan told his mother he was being mistreated by a band teacher who he said called him “a Middle Eastern flute player playing for money on the streets” because he could not correctly play a note on his clarinet.

“The band teacher was very mean to me and my other two friends,” Arvaan said in a recent interview. “Sometimes, if they couldn’t play a note correctly, he would make them just pack up and not play for the rest of the day.”

Garima Banerjee emailed ACE co-founders and principals Perkins and Esterine Stokes and requested a meeting to discuss it.

The school leaders replied they were out of town but would look into it when they returned. There was no response to the request for a meeting.

Less than a week later, the Banerjees received a more strongly-worded complaint about their son’s “lack of respect” for school expectations and policies.

“What felt weird was there’s nothing for months and then suddenly you get an email that says, like, ‘Your son is like the worst kid around.’” Garima Banerjee said.

It came via email from Arvaan’s homeroom teacher.

“After daily reminders of what is appropriate behavior during the National Anthem, Pledge of Allegiance … He continues to lean against the wall, talk during these events,” according to the email. “Please address at home the importance of school policy.”

Garima and Arnab Banerjee were surprised to hear about what sounded like an ongoing problem, particularly since the school had not previously hesitated to email them immediately about minor issues.

“We don’t want to play the victim card, but what we’ve started to feel and see is that things were getting a little exaggerated and the emails were getting stinky,” Arnab said.

A couple of weeks after the teacher’s stern email, Stokes emailed the family on behalf of the teacher to say Arvaan’s behavior had not improved and he had been “asked repeatedly to be quiet” that day.

“He is being disrespectful,” Stokes wrote. “Please speak with Arvaan about this behavior.”

Garima Banerjee replied that she and Arnab had spoken to Arvaan and “explained to him that this is not acceptable as Arvaan comes from a good and highly educated family and goes to a respectable school like ACE.”

Garima Banerjee also mentioned she was still awaiting a response to her earlier email about the band teacher’s treatment of Arvaan.

Within an hour, Perkins replied she “spent a great deal of time investigating the issues you raised” and “found nothing to corroborate” allegations about the band teacher.

Perkins included a bulleted list of 21 documented instances of “improper behavior on Arvaan’s part” that the school logged by date since Arvaan had enrolled three years earlier.

Among incidents noted were: Arvaan did not keep his hands to himself, distracted others in a group by “constantly talking about a video game,” defied instructions about where to stand, and used inappropriate language for a fifth-grader when he said in art class, “this painting is crap.”

In closing her email to the Banerjees, Perkins wrote: “It is clear to me that you are unhappy with the educational services that Arvaan is receiving at ACE. …  If you feel that this is putting undue pressure on Arvaan, you are free to explore other educational opportunities for him.”

Vashti Obryant’s account of her interactions with school leadership echo those of the Banerjees.

Obryant said the rigor of academics at ACE was why she enrolled her daughter, Zöe Caldwell, in the first grade. Obryant withdrew Zöe in May after she completed seventh grade.

Vashti Obryant and her daughter Zoe’ Caldwell. (Grant Blankenship | Georgia Public Broadcasting)

Like the Banerjees, Obryant received similar emails about her daughter’s behavior. The messages increased in frequency and volume when Zoë started sixth grade.

“Every time she gets in trouble, I feel like you’re building a case upon her,” Obryant said in a recent interview. “It just seemed like everything was an issue. Very nitpicky, every little thing she does was a problem. … I know there’s always a social butterfly, so she likes to talk, but what little girl in the sixth grade isn’t, mostly?”

This past school year, Zöe was banned from going on any future eighth-grade field trips after an incident on a trip in which students were sending a photo of a student with a raised middle finger.  Zöe said the photo was old and other students had it too, but that she was the only one to receive such punishment.

It was the final straw for Obryant, who said she feels like race was a factor in her daughter being singled out for punishment.

Obryant noted the same actions by students with “blond hair and blue eyes is swept under the table.”

The environment at school became such that Zöe said she felt unwanted and lost interest in activities she once enjoyed, such as cheerleading.

Zöe will attend Mount de Sales Academy, a private school, for eighth grade this fall.

Perkins and Gaither refused to talk with reporters about school discipline but were willing to answer questions about the school’s grievance and discipline policies via email.

Most schools have a Title IX coordinator to ensure compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws. That role is usually independent from school leadership to avoid conflicts of interest, but at ACE Perkins is principal, the designated Title IX coordinator and the human resources director.

The student handbook says written appeals to the principal’s determination may be filed with the governing board, but it does not include a name or contact information.

ACE refused a request for meeting notes from the school board’s grievance committee, citing student privacy concerns.

The final recourse mentioned in the handbook is for parents to appeal the governing board’s decision to the State Charter Schools Commission based on the commission’s rules regarding appeals.

‘Attacks on diversity’ identified as a threat

The school’s longstanding issues of disproportionate discipline and its lack of diversity among students, employees and the governing board has not gone unnoticed.

A 2020 report by the Urban Institute based on federal data shows ACE is Bibb County’s strongest driver for school segregation in the middle and elementary grade bands.

The Georgia Charter School Association implored the ACE governing board in 2017 to take measures to increase student diversity such as offering transportation or adding a weighted lottery for disadvantaged students, according to the school’s meeting minutes.

The author of a 2018 law review journal article entitled, “Charter Schools and School Desegregation Law,” also took note of ACE’s reverse demographics compared to Bibb County. The author wrote, “In a place where Jim Crow exists within living memory, the racial split raises uncomfortable questions.”

ACE’s leadership refused to answer questions about race or discipline and identified “attacks on the diversity level” as an external threat in its strategic plan for 2017-2022. The plan also identifies the lack of diversity as a weakness.

Neither the disproportionate discipline or demographic uniformity have been flagged as issues by the Georgia Department of Education or the State Charter School Commission, which evaluates the success of schools based on their finances, operations and academics. But those issues stood out to independent consultants who audited the school’s operations and finances on behalf of its investors who stand to lose money if the school fails.

In December 2018, ACE defaulted for the first time on a $34.9 million bond issued by the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.

The bond was issued in 2017 to pay for improvements to the school’s 40-acre campus, a stone’s throw away from the Monroe County line and less than a mile from Bass Pro Shops.

The school failed to keep the minimum number of days of cash on hand or the debt-to-income ratio required by the bond covenant. The default event prompted an independent audit of the school’s operations on behalf of bond holders.

Curt Fuller is an auditor for Building Hope, a nonprofit that audits charter schools nationwide. Fuller visited ACE in January 2019.  In his 45-page audit report, Fuller highlighted ACE’s lack of diversity and disproportionate discipline as priority issues the school should address to ensure it operates efficiently and is able to meet the requirements of the bond covenant.

Fuller’s report noted issues in other areas of diversity, too.

Compared to Bibb Schools, ACE had a much higher percentage of gifted students – 30% compared to 7% – and a lower percentage of students with disabilities – 3.4% compared to 9.7%, according to the audit report.

Fuller noted in the report that principal Perkins explained “often families with special education students do self-select to not attend ACE once they see the level of rigor and academic accountability at the school. She feels this is a big part of the reason that the special education numbers of the school are lower than that of surrounding schools.”

Fuller also noted in the report that Perkins said the reason for the high number of gifted students is because ACE does “not shy away from testing any student who shows a propensity for being gifted.”

When it comes to operating a successful charter school and making bondholders whole, Fuller said the schools “should be reflective of the community that they’re in.”

“One of the criticisms that charter schools sometimes get is the idea of cherry picking,” Fuller said in a recent interview. “So charter schools need to be cautious about looking at their surrounding community and making sure they’re reflective of their community.”

Charter schools with a racial demography that is out of sync with the community, “should be putting steps in place to make sure that they are and that they cannot be accused of any kind of nefarious dealings in any way,” Fuller said.

A review of meeting notes for ACE’s governing board shows few sporadic discussions about race and diversity. None of those conversations resulted in it implementing recommended steps to increase diversity, such as offering transportation to students.

As a condition of its contract with the state in 2019, ACE included a weighted lottery that would give greater chances of enrollment to students with disabilities and those who are disadvantaged. Despite this, the school maintains a high percentage of gifted students and a low percentage of students with disabilities and disadvantaged students.

Asked if ACE’s governing board views the school’s lack of diversity as a problem,

Gaither, who has been a governing board member since the school’s inception, said in an email: “Our students come to us from diverse educational and socio-economic backgrounds. We are fully committed to serving them and providing the highest quality public education to each and every one.”

Obryant disagrees and said she would caution non-white families who are attracted to ACE’s academics to think twice about their child’s well being and happiness.

“It goes deeper than just one family,” Obryant said. “How many other families have felt lost in the system? How many other families have felt their back between a rock and a hard place and having to choose? How many other families put up with the foolishness just so their child can have the academia they deserve?”

ACE will begin its 10th year of operation in fall 2023.

Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter Grant Blankenship co-reported this story.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected].