Looking down the 2012-13 list of America’s most charter-school-heavy districts, the top five look familiar—high-poverty urban districts such as New Orleans, Detroit, the District of Columbia, Flint, Michigan and Kansas City, Missouri. But coming out of nowhere to claim the sixth spot in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual report is a Georgia district of 26,000 about an hour’s drive from Atlanta.

Hall County Schools, a district where 88 percent of schools met growth targets under No Child Left Behind, didn’t register in the National Alliance’s top 10 last year, when 21 percent of students attended charter schools. This year, the district catapulted to sixth. Almost a third, some 32 percent, of students, are now in charter schools.

The number isn’t as dramatic as it seems, say district officials. Hall County has been quietly transforming its schools into district-run charters, but not in the headline-catching fashion of places like New Orleans, where charters often grew atop failing public schools and came with wholesale staffing changes.

In Hall County, the term “charter” signifies more a specific focus that’s used to improve student engagement. 

“We call ourselves a district of charter schools, not a charter school district,” said Will Schofield, the district’s superintendent. 

Charter schools are typically those that operate under an independent board, separate from a school district’s board of education but often located within its borders. Because they operate independently, they’re free to experiment with longer school days, disciplinary policy and teaching strategies. In return for public funding, they’re typically open enrollment and have to meet accountability standards.  

The process for becoming a charter school and getting authorization varies state by state. In Georgia, local boards of education can initiate charter applications, though they need the state board to sign off. A ballot measure passed last year also granted authority to a new commission to approve charter school applications that were rejected by local boards. 

Hall County’s charter expansion started about six years ago as an attempt to deal with dramatic demographic changes. A district that started in the 2000s as 80.75 percent white suddenly saw an influx of Spanish speakers (by 2010, the Hispanic population was 27 percent). Today, 61 percent of students qualify for free-or-reduced lunch, a standard measure of child poverty, and nearly 20 percent of its students are English-language learners. Looking to Charlotte and Houston for inspiration, the district launched World Language Academy, an elementary school that instructs all students in English, Spanish, and now Mandarin Chinese. 

“There were an awful lot of raised eyebrows,” Schofield said. “’Here you are a languishing, high-poverty district, and your focus is going to be to teach other languages?’ We said ‘yes.’” 

Since then, a steady stream of parents living within different school zones has lobbied along with educators to become charter schools focusing in areas like the fine arts, technology, math and science or international studies, said Gordon Higgins, a district spokesman with decades of education experience. When a proposal is granted, staff members don’t have to reapply for jobs, but they may have to undergo professional development to get on board with new programming, Higgins said. All schools also follow the same disciplinary policies, state education standards, administrative procedures and schedules, with the exception of the language academy, which adds extra instructional time, Higgins said. 

That makes them less staging grounds for radical experimentation, as many charters have sought to distinguish themselves, and more like traditional public schools with a focus that’s designed to fit the interests of students. Hall County's McEver Arts Academy, for instance, offers specialty classes in the performing arts while integrating the arts into the state curriculum in other classes. Mount Vernon Exploratory School is heavily focused on developing projects in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. 

Of Hall County’s 33 schools, 12 are charters and 9 are public magnet schools. Most recent growth comes from a new charter high school and several new elementary schools. Charter schools are open enrollment but revert to a lottery system if demand exceeds capacity.

The major problem with a system that’s heavy on student choice? Transportation. Students who don’t live within the busing zones of the charter or magnet they want to attend have to find their own way to school.

That's troublesome, but Schofield bristles at criticism of the reform. A decade ago, 40 percent of the district’s schools weren’t meeting annual improvement targets, he points out, but now it’s one of the top performing districts in the state, despite 60 percent poverty among students. The most recently available state data backs up that claim.   

“There’s a group of well intentioned people who think if you can’t offer it to everybody you shouldn’t offer it to anybody,” he said. “We can’t offer door to door delivery for all of these different programs but we can offer a culture that values innovation.”