On the Tuesday, Dec. 26 edition of Georgia Today: Emory researchers found a common thread among diseases affecting many Americans; Georgia Southern University launches the only environmental science Ph.D. program in the state; and while charter schools are the pillars of the school choice movement, sometimes choice can veer into exclusivity. 

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Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Tuesday, Dec. 26. I'm Peter Biello. On today's episode, we'll look back at some of the stories you might have missed during 2023. Emory researchers found a common thread among diseases affecting many Americans. Georgia Southern University launched the only environmental science Ph.D. program in the state. And while charter schools are the pillars of the school choice movement, sometimes choice can veer into exclusivity. These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.




Story 1:

Peter Biello: The Army Corps of Engineers is giving your old Christmas tree new life as a fish habitat. GPB's Devon Zwald has the details.

Devon Zwald: The Corps of Engineers will take Christmas trees that people drop off, tie them into bundles and anchor them with concrete blocks — then submerge the trees in Lake Thurmond and Lake Hartwell. This creates a fish habitat, says Cheri Pritchard with the Corps of Engineers.

Cheri Pritchard: It creates a shelter and attract bugs and stuff that the fish feed on. And those little fish, of course attract big fish. And the big fish, of course attract the anglers. So, those habitats that we create actually benefit the fish and then they ultimately benefit the anglers too.

Devon Zwald: Anglers can also pick up trees from drop off locations to take to their favorite fishing spot. Real trees, free of decoration, can be dropped off at four locations on Lake Hartwell through Jan. 26 and five locations on Lake Thurmond through Jan. 14. For GPB News, I'm Devon Zwald.


Story 2:

Peter Biello: As we approach the end of the year, we're bringing you some of our most noteworthy stories from 2023. Earlier this year, Emory University in Atlanta was the first recipient of funding through the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a new research agency funded through the bipartisan fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill that Senator Jon Ossoff helped pass into law. Researchers at the university found a common thread among many diseases plaguing Americans. GPB's Ellen Eldridge has more.

Ellen Eldridge: Scientists with Emory University will use up to $24 million in federal research dollars to look at how regulating the immune system might be used to treat a number of diseases, including cancer and autoimmune disorders. Many seemingly different diseases have dysregulation of the immune system at their core. That's according to Emory University lead researcher Dr. Philip Santangelo. He says doctors often target tumors in cells to boost the immune system when fighting cancer. But having the ability to turn down immune response is important as well.

Dr. Philip Santangelo: There are cases like Long COVID where we need to do the same thing. Your immune system is still too revved up. We need to turn it down. And so we want ways to turn it up when we need to and in a specific manner, but then also turn it down.

Ellen Eldridge: Santangelo's work is the first in the nation, funded under the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health as part of the Biden administration's cancer moonshot program. For GPB News, I'm Ellen Eldridge.


Story 3:

Peter Biello: Georgia's only environmental science Ph.D. program launched this year. Back in August, GPB's Benjamin Payne spoke with two of its first students.

Benjamin Payne: It's the first week of the fall term at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and its Armstrong campus in Savannah. And with the new academic year comes a new academic program for the school: the Ph.D. in Environmental Science. In fact, ii's the only such program in the Peach State. So what is it that drew the first eight students to the program? I asked two of them, starting with Ellesse Lauer.

Ellesse Lauer: I am from the Savannah, Ga., area. We have a very cool location as far as like we're a two-hour drive from the swamp, the mountains and the beach, essentially from any point along the Lowcountry. So that gives me a variety of questions that I can ask with my research. And the biggest thing that I'm interested in with organisms is epigenetics. So epigenetics is the way the environment changes how the genotype is expressed in animals. Evolutionarily, you're not supposed to be able to necessarily deal with change well in a rapid setting. But we keep finding that organisms really do adapt well and they'll change their molecular mechanisms to respond to the things in their environments. And that to me is like the coolest part of most biology at this point, because we can see really small and we can learn a little bit more about the mechanisms that are in place as organisms respond to things. I did not have that typical four-year experience with my undergrad. I think it ended up taking me seven years to complete because I had kids along the way and other life things come out. But I don't see a problem personally with the fact that I'm probably 10 years older than some of my cohort members. I know that this is something that I've been thinking about for 10 years and it's something that I've been dreaming about. So here I am finally doing it, and I'm okay with that.

Carisa MacPherson: So I'm Carisa MacPherson. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Actually, as long as I can remember, animals have always come to me for saving. Right? So even as a little girl, I was rescuing squirrels and seagulls and raccoons. All these creatures have come into my life, really, with that need to be helped. So I have my own plethora of scaly and furry creatures that live with me. Also, I always loved the water, so that's been a big part of my life, with swimming, with being right by Lake Erie. So when I got to thinking about is trying to really figure out where I could have the most impact during my short time on Earth, and it materialized to be supporting and looking at the coral reef environments. Coral reefs support 25% of all of our marine life. So to actually lose the coral reefs, we lose the beauty of the corals themselves, but we also lose many animals that most people don't think we would lose by losing the coral reefs. They rely on them, you know, in nursery or shelter or breeding grounds or whatnot. Science is repeating and repeating and repeating. You know, you can't be faint of heart when you're a scientist because you will fail. You know, I had shipment after shipment after shipment of seagrass sent up to me by my buddies in Florida and it never lived in Cleveland. I tried to do it in a tank. It died probably nine times. And I said, "You know what? Forget it. I'm coming to Florida." So I hopped on a plane. I went where the seagrass grew and we made it work down there. So you can't give up. I have always had a dream of living in the pine tree forests and working in the ocean. And I couldn't believe that Georgia has that. I had never come to this area. I came to visit in January and I was like, "This is amazing." There are so many more pine trees than I could ever imagine. So it's just been a real blessing that this is all works out.

Benjamin Payne: That was Carisa MacPherson and Ellesse Lauer, two students at the new Ph.D. program in Environmental Science at Georgia Southern University. For GPB News, I'm Benjamin Payne.

Movie theatre

Story 4:

Peter Biello: Macon's downtown Bibb Theater, which opened in the 1930s, has been shuttered for almost 40 years. However, the facade of the historic theater played host to an outdoor classic film series this fall. While the future of the building remains unknown, Macon residents hold fond memories of its past. GPB's Sofi Gratas has more in this audio postcard, where you'll hear from Emily Hopkins with NewTown Macon, local business owner Scott Mitchell and other Macon residents at a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Theater worker: Popcorn's ready for people. If you want some popcorn!

Emily Hopkins: This is a film series where we're screening classic movies that would have been made during the time that the Bibb Theater was open: about 1938 to 1964. My name is Emily Hopkins and I am the vice president of external affairs at NewTown Macon. So we're kicking it off with Rear Window, which is a Hitchcock thriller, just in time for spooky season.

Scott Mitchell: Good evening, everybody, and welcome to Classics of the Bibb. I'm Scott Mitchell. I am on the Main Street Board and also serve as the treasurer this year. Emily and I had worked on another grant for downtown. We were standing right there and we looked up at the Bibb and said, We can probably project movies onto that building if we can figure out how to do it. And so we wrote a grant.

Emily Hopkins: We jumped at the opportunity to save downtown Macon's last remaining historic theater. But it's been at least 40 years since it was opened to the public and operating here.

Candy Brewer: It's Candy. Candy Brewer. On Saturday, you'd come downtown to the theater and we just always did. But there were about five downtown theaters, but Bibb was one of the newer ones. And it was always one of the best. I can't remember the films. I don't remember exactly. It seems like it had the red chairs — you know, the red upholstered chairs. And like I said, it was one of the newer ones, so it was always real nice. But I was hoping they could have a theater here and show classics inside.

Jimmy Stewant in Rear Window: Just how would you start to cut up a human body?

Grace Kelly in Rear WindowJeff, I'll be honest with you. You're beginning to scare me.

Ken McEwan: People don't realize what they're missing. You know, I mean, you see your friends, you see, you know, it's just fun. This is what the old theaters used to be like. Ken McEwan.

Matty Fisher: Matty Fisher.

Ken McEwan: You know, it's nice to have the videos on TV and everything, but this is fun.

Matty Fisher: Why don't they reopen this theater?

Ken McEwan: They need to bring it back.

Emily Hopkins: We've been working for the past several years to stabilize the building. We had to rebuild the floor. The building itself was in pretty bad shape. Right now, it's kind of an empty shell. So there aren't the theater seats in it anymore. It's kind of just an open ramp. So it really is kind of a blank slate for anybody who has an idea.

Scott Mitchell: So I want y'all to look at your neighbors and I want you to say "Hey, y'all!" I need you to do that. We're here to build the community in Macon. With that being said, we are now going to light the Bibb Theatre for the first time in 40 years.

Crowd: Five...four...three...two...one...yay!


Story 5:

Peter Biello: In June of 2023, Atlanta officials joined families of the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders to unveil a new memorial honoring the lives lost. GPB's Amanda Andrews has the report.

Amanda Andrews: The memorial features a 55-foot steel wall with the names of the 30 victims, mostly children and adolescents killed between 1979 and 1981, as well as a burning flame. June Thompson attended the event. She lost her 10-year-old brother, Darren Glass, who disappeared in 1980 on his way to a Braves game. She says this memorial means a lot to her family.

June Thompson: It goes to show that they are never forgotten. It was sad back then but their memory is always alive in our hearts. And this eternal flame is very beautiful.

Amanda Andrews: This memorial is the second project commissioned by the city to honor the victims of the murders. The first was a series of portraits exhibited at Hartsfield Jackson in 2020. For GPB News, I'm Amanda Andrews.

Story 6:

Peter Biello: Earlier this year, GPB's Grant Blankenship brought us this story about how racial disparities in discipline can undercut school choice.

Grant Blankenship: Charter schools are a pillar of the school choice movement. These are public schools given autonomy to operate a lot like a private school and aimed at offering communities an alternative to traditional education. But in Georgia, many state charter schools in minority white communities end up with majority white enrollment. Statistically, white students at those schools are disciplined less often than their Black or brown classmates, too. And when that happens, it raises real questions about what school choice even means. Not long ago, Macon principal Laura Perkins came to the governing board of the charter school she runs with some good news.

Laura Perkins: We've been named as a No. 1 middle junior high school in Middle Georgia.

Grant Blankenship: An online site named her school, The Academy for Classical Education, the best in the region based on standardized test scores.

Laura Perkins: And speaking of that...

Grant Blankenship: A few years ago, the best school was exactly what Arnab and Garima Banerjee were looking for.

Arnab Banerjee: It was a new school. Brand new school came up and all around everybody was talking, having good reviews about the school.

Grant Blankenship: That's Arnab. Back then, the Banerjees, both of whom immigrated to the U.S. from India, were wondering how they would navigate the middle and high school years for their son Arvand. The same school that online site called the best, called ACE for short, was the school everyone was talking about. And Garima says when after two years they won the admission lottery:

Garima Banerjee: We were happy because that's what we wanted for him: to be in one place, make good friends, have a good time.

Grant Blankenship: But Arvand didn't even set foot in a classroom before the Banerjees began to have misgivings.

Garima Banerjee: It was the orientation meeting for a new class.

Grant Blankenship: Arnab said for him there was a clear message.

Arnab Banerjee: You're lucky to be in this school because this school is so secluded and so prestigious, almost like a — almost like a gated community.

Grant Blankenship: Arvand attended ACE for three years before the Banerjees were convinced they were better off on the other side of the gate. Exclusivity is not a fundamental trait of a charter school, at least not for Curt Fuller.

Curt Fuller: Part of the promise of charter schools is you get autonomy and flexibility in exchange for accountability.

Grant Blankenship: For ACE, autonomy means a curriculum grounded in the Western canon the school describes as time-tested for centuries. But Fuller, who's director of charter school operations with the nonprofit group Building Hope, also says:

Curt Fuller: Charter schools should be reflective of the community that they're in.

Grant Blankenship: That's part of the accountability. It's one of the central tenets Building Hope relies on when they advise charter schools on how to remain fiscally solvent. Schools like ACE, overseen by the State Charter School Commission, are divorced from the local property taxes that fund conventional schools, and they can't charge tuition. Those are prices for autonomy. So they borrow money. In 2017, Macon's Urban Development Authority helped ACE secure $36 million in bond lending. When ACE violated the terms of that loan, that triggered an audit performed by Building Hope and Curt Fuller.

Curt Fuller: But my audience, I don't — I'm more concerned about the school operating well than I am about the finances.

Grant Blankenship: Is that because when — when a charter school operates well, the bondholders will likely be made whole? Is that the logic?

Curt Fuller: Yeah.

Grant Blankenship: Fuller started his ACE audit the way he starts all his audits.

Curt Fuller: I would look at their, their minority enrollment and then I would open up the U.S. Census data for five miles around that school then compare it.

Grant Blankenship: Fuller says a school's demography should reflect the surrounding community. But in the case of ACE in Macon?

Curt Fuller: There was a pretty big gap between the community and the school.

Grant Blankenship: ACE is in Bibb County and where 80% of Bibb County School District students identify as Black, the Academy for Classical Education is like the flipped image: 70% white. There was more. Fuller found discipline at ACE was racially inequitable, too. In his audit report, he noted, quote, "significantly higher consequences" given to nonwhite students for behavioral issues. ACE is not alone. Data compiled by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement backs that up. Like ACE, most of the state charter schools with majority white enrollment are nested inside majority Black communities. Another similarity? White students are far less likely to be disciplined in those schools than students of color who were sometimes disciplined two or three times more often than their enrollment numbers would suggest. Statistically, it's an example of something that plays out across about a fifth or 20% of the schools overseen by the Georgia State Charter School Commission. Curt Fuller says when those patterns surface, it's a problem.

Curt Fuller: I think it defeats the purpose of education. If we want to give students a well-rounded perspective on life in the community that they're going to be in after they finish their education, they have to be exposed to those different viewpoints and other students.

Grant Blankenship: Fuller flagged racial inequity in enrollment and discipline as action items for ACE in his final audit. Garima Banerjee says her son Arvand was in middle school when the family began receiving unsettling emails from principal Laura Perkins.

Garima Banerjee: They sounded like something drastic had happened and it was like "Your son's behavior from so many months has been like this. And now it's when we're bringing it to your attention." And I'm thinking, if it's been happening for this long, tell me when it happens. Let's nip it in the bud.

Grant Blankenship: At first, the Banerjees went along with the emails.

Garima Banerjee: And initially we — like, we blamed him.

Vashti O'Bryant: This year I've received the most emails about Zoe and her so-called issues.

Grant Blankenship: That's another ACE parent, Vashti O'Bryant. The email that pushed her over the edge was about how her daughter Zoe would be punished after a field trip where kids passed around a rude photo.

Vashti O'Bryant: They sent me an email that said she would not be allowed to participate in any eighth-grade field trips for the remainder of — for eighth grade.

Grant Blankenship: Zoe is only in the seventh grade, so she'd have no field trips to look forward to for a whole year.

Grant Blankenship: What kind of what role do you think race played in her being singled out for that?

Vashti O'Bryant: A heavy role, because Zoe's been singled out all year almost.

Grant Blankenship: Zoe and her mom are Black.

Vashti O'Bryant: Discipline with children that — and I'm just being — blonde hair and blue eyes is swept under the table.

Grant Blankenship: Garima Banerjee says what she describes as a barrage of emails about her son's behavior followed directly in the wake of her unsuccessful attempts to talk to Principal Perkins about what Arvand said were anti-Asian comments a teacher made to him.

Garima Banerjee: It was hard to fight because no one was listening. Because every time you go and tell this is — this is what has happened, they wouldn't believe us.

Grant Blankenship: Eventually, Principal Perkins wrote the Bannerjees: "If you feel that this is putting undue pressure on Arvand, you're free to explore other educational opportunities for him." The Banerjees have since left ACE.

Grant Blankenship: ...sort of disparate discipline across racial lines.

Grant Blankenship: We tried to set up a time to talk with ACE principal Laura Perkins about the issues of racial equity at her school.

Laura Perkins: I'm not. I'm not gonna talk about it.

Grant Blankenship: The last time we asked Perkins to talk.

Grant Blankenship: That's — ever? You're not gonna say anything, ever?

Laura Perkins: No, I don't have any comment. Thank you, though.

Grant Blankenship: She shut the door on any conversation. The same was true for the State Charter School Commission, which supplements ACE's budget by about $14 million annually. Today, Garima Banerjee says she wouldn't advise parents experiencing what her family did, to wait three years to leave the Academy for Classical Education. And she says parents considering ACE should ask themselves:

Garima Banerjee: Will my child be happy? Especially if I'm not a white person? Is my child going to be happy in the school?

Grant Blankenship: Vashti O'Bryant takes a different tack.

Vashti O'Bryant: Because if we don't send our Black children there, if we don't send our Indian children there, if we don't send our Hispanic children there, if we don't send our Korean children, our Vietnamese children, if we don't send any of those children there, then what is — they win. They win. That's it.

Grant Blankenship: Meanwhile, in its strategic plan, ACE lists concerns about diversity as one of the, quote, "external threats" to the school. For GPB News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon.


Peter Biello: And that is it for this edition of Georgia Today. If you want to learn more about any of these stories, visit GPB .org/News. And don't forget to subscribe to this podcast. We'll be back in your podcast feed tomorrow afternoon. If you've got feedback, we'd love to hear from you. Email us. The address is Georgia Today at GPB, Dawg. I'm Peter Biello. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.


For more on these stories and more, go to GPB.org/news

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