Atlanta Poised to Move Beyond Turnaround Effort, Adopt Improvement Model for All District Schools

Students at Thomasville Heights Elementary School, one of 17 turnaround schools in Atlanta Public Schools (Atlanta Public Schools)

Updated Feb. 22

Atlanta Public Schools could become the latest large urban district to adopt a type of school accountability and improvement plan that would open the door to a greater mix of schools, including adding more charter and partner-operated schools to the district’s traditional neighborhood schools.

The plan, called a “System of Excellent Schools,” moves beyond efforts begun in 2016 to address the poorest-performing schools in the 52,000-student district to focus on driving stronger outcomes in all 89 APS schools.

“This project came about because the board had a stated goal of improving quality seats and providing every student with a public school in their neighborhood of a quality that they deserve and would prepare them for college and career,” school board chairman Jason Esteves said.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the plan calls for a one- to five-star school rating system that takes into consideration “student attendance, suspension and graduation rates, and how much schools are closing the gap between how well white and black students score on standardized tests.”

“We will do what I believe a lot of parents and a lot of teachers have asked the school system to do, which is focus on more than tests,” Esteves told The 74.

Poorly rated schools could be closed or merged, the paper reported, or turned over to outside organizations to run and teachers could be displaced. Five-star schools could be expanded or replicated.

The oversight system that Atlanta is considering is sometimes called a third way because it involves a blend of autonomous schools and centralized district services. The schools typically have control of all operations, staffing, and curriculum, with the district acting as one option among many to provide support services. Some, like Denver Public Schools or the New Orleans Public Schools, are more permissive with charters, allowing them to open new schools and fill them much as they would have outside the district. Others require partners to submit to more district regulations. San Antonio ISD does not allow charter partners to control their own enrollment. The district determines which students will attend.

In Atlanta, those details would need to be worked out over the next few years, Esteves said. The March 4 vote only starts the process. It would not be complete until 2023. The largest responsibility of the board in that time would be to develop a performance standard and procedure.

“Evaluation is the key piece of the excellent schools framework,” he said.

Increased accountability is a hallmark of third-way systems. In exchange for all the operational freedom, school leaders must produce results. Third-way districts are quick to close underperforming schools. The district can bring in a new charter partner to run the school or change out school leadership and faculty.

Critics of the framework, including the Atlanta chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, say it will inevitably lead to one charter takeover after another.

“As a 41-year career educator, I know how hard it is to make our neighborhood schools better,” Atlanta AFT President Verdaillia Turner said in a statement. “I know it takes time and resources. And I know labeling our schools as failing will only give charter school companies license to come in and start buying off our public schools with lofty claims of improvement … and little evidence to back it up.”

Charter critics often cite their mixed performance nationwide, although the findings for low-income students of color in urban districts has been that charters significantly outperform district schools.

In Atlanta, there has been some evidence of incremental improvement. A just-released Mathematica study commissioned by APS found that there have been gains in student math scores at both charter partnership schools and struggling schools where principals have brought in targeted supports. The study found little to no evidence of improvement in other areas, however, from suspensions to other academic outcomes.

All efforts, charter partnership or otherwise, Esteves said, should be in the service of APS students.

“Our focus has been on improving traditional schools and where we can use assistance in capacity-building, partnering with local nonprofits,” Esteves told The 74. In school operations, that can mean charter networks.

Denver is well known for its portfolio model, a third-way arrangement that has been especially friendly to charters. A trip three Atlanta school board members took to visit Denver schools last month drew scrutiny and criticism because, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, it was paid for by RedefinED Atlanta, a nonprofit that supports charter schools and is already picking up the tab for the consultants working with APS to develop the excellent schools plan.

Working with nonprofit partners, as the board has done for “a variety of projects,” saves taxpayers money, Esteves told The 74. Esteves was among the board members who went on the trip, which the newspaper reported involved visiting a Denver elementary school, meeting with former Denver school board members, and talking with principals.

“I have not seen anything where RedefinED or any funder has forced us or driven us in any particular direction,” Esteves said.

Finding the third way

APS has been taking steps in this direction for some time already. The district already has partnerships with key nonprofits and an expanding cache of charters operating district schools. In addition to establishing the rating system, the March 4 vote means district officials wouldn’t have to wait until a school is in dire straits to intervene.

Some schools have been failing by state standards for so long, explained APS Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan, that the sentiment “why now?” greets administrators at the door when they arrive to announce turnaround efforts.

At Thomasville Heights Elementary, which was, at the time, the lowest-performing school in the state, APS brought in a charter partner to assist in running the school. Half the battle, Jernigan explained, was helping the community understand just how bad things had gotten. They had been underserved for so long, they didn’t expect much more from the school. No one shared performance data with them or pointed to examples of high-poverty schools where students were able to excel.

Universal performance standards would make it clear to campuses when they are due for intervention, rather than letting them languish in low-performance and uncertainty as in the past, he said.

Thomasville Heights is one of 17 schools in the massive APS turnaround initiative that laid the groundwork for the System of Excellent Schools. The district faced a rude awakening in 2016 when former governor Nathan Deal sought to create what he called the “Opportunity School District,” a collection of struggling schools chosen for state takeover under a newly appointed superintendent. This position would answer directly to the governor’s office and would select the most chronically underperforming schools in Georgia to either close, manage, or convert to charter schools.

Voters killed the Opportunity School District, but for APS, the alarm had sounded.

“We had many schools that were on that potential list,” Jernigan said. “It was certainly a wake-up call to us that we needed to take action before the state intervened.”

In the three years since, APS has put in place a raft of interventions — from math and reading specialists to Communities in Schools case managers, who work to keep students in school — at its 17 lowest-performing schools. Their efforts offer a glimpse of what to expect in the System of Excellent Schools, not just for failing schools but for any school that wants to improve.

Campus autonomy

For some schools, especially the elementary schools, Jernigan said, improvement was possible by simply getting the right supports in place. On many campuses, the reading and math specialists fortified instruction while social workers, counselors, and Communities in Schools staff provided wraparound services to help students and their families with emotional and behavioral issues and medical and mental health needs.

The district also adopted an incentive pay schedule to attract effective leaders and teachers to those campuses.

“I have a growing sense of confidence in the caliber of leaders we have in our schools,” Jernigan said.

Some of those leaders made large, symbolic gestures to signify a new era for the schools. The principal charged with turning around D.H. Stanton Elementary, Jernigan said, wanted a clean slate so that she could shape the adult mindset in the building, as well as the community’s perception.

Principal Robin Christian told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “At one point, it was not a place to be proud to work. It was not a place where people could be proud to send their kids.”

In raising expectations, empowering the community, and adding needed supports, Christian was sure that she could change the school’s reputation, and she wanted a name brand to match.

D.H. Stanton relaunched as Barack and Michelle Obama Academy in 2017, and its college and career readiness rankings have since gone from the bottom 5 percent in the state to the 46th percentile.

Charter partners for struggling schools

The district has also opened its doors to charter partners to aid its turnaround efforts. Right now, Atlanta-based charters Purpose Built Schools and Kindezi are both operating schools.

“The early signs are promising,” Jernigan said, though he admitted that Thomasville Elementary was still a tough case. The school was in the bottom 1 percent of schools in Georgia when Purpose Built took it over, with 77.5 percent of students performing at the lowest level rated by the state, “beginning learners.” That number now stands at 67 percent. Of the 17 schools to enact turnaround plans, all have seen a decrease in the number of students classified as “beginning learners.”

But that’s one metric among several, and they are not all moving in the same direction.

In the first year of the Purpose Built partnership, Thomasville Heights’s college and career readiness scores jumped to the 14th percentile. However, test scores have not improved as quickly since, and the state changed the measurement method, which has hurt the school’s overall rating. It is now in the first percentile again. Three other schools have also shown net losses in their college and career readiness ranking.

APS recognized that the Thomasville Heights turnaround would not be easy, and gave Purpose Built a 14-year contract so that it could focus on sustainable, cradle-to-college practices instead of quick fixes.

To connect to the community and take on the practical barriers to education, Principal Nicole Evans Jones had to think outside the typical school reform model. To cut the school’s very high student turnover rate, she installed a tenants rights lawyer from the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation in the school’s front office. The lawyer has been able to assist families who would be at risk of wrongful eviction or whose homes were falling into unlivable disrepair. Because the vast majority of Thomasville Heights students live in the same Section 8 housing development, the lawyer has become quite effective.

Jones told CBS This Morning in 2018 that student turnover had decreased from 40 percent to 25 percent.

Next year, APS will bring in a third partner, KIPP. While the country’s largest charter network has a long track record of success behind it, taking over an existing school is a different kind of challenge, KIPP: Metro Atlanta executive director Kinnari Patel-Smyth told The 74.

Only 5 percent of the students are reading at grade level at Woodson Park Elementary. When the district approached her about running the school, she asked for a two-year delay to build her team through teacher and principal residencies. She didn’t want anyone walking in unprepared.

New outside charter schools a different story

With 6,000 students on the waiting list at KIPP: Metro Atlanta, Patel-Smyth recently had to go before the APS board to ask for a renewal and expansion of her charter. She got both, but she suspects that this will be the last time APS agrees to a new non-APS KIPP school within its boundaries.

“The 5-4 vote for renewal by APS showed me that I don’t have too many friends in my corner,” Patel-Smyth said.

If she wants to continue expanding independent of APS, Patel-Smyth would likely have to go to the Georgia Department of Education, a sort of last resort for charter authorization in the state.

Or, she may be able to open new schools as part of the System of Excellent Schools. For charters willing to work with a school district, some third-way systems allow new charter schools to open as part of the district’s portfolio, an easy transition for APS, which already acts as authorizer for the charters within its boundaries. However, for charters thriving with full autonomy, like KIPP, taking the district relationship a step further would require them to do some adapting of their own.

The district currently authorizes 18 charter schools in eight networks, with KIPP being the largest. One of those, Atlanta Classical Academy, is located in Buckhead, an affluent neighborhood within APS. Middle-class families are drawn to novel curriculums like classical studies and Montessori. Charter schools that embrace those models can pull families from even suburban and wealthy neighborhoods.

Should the board vote to make the System of Excellent Schools official, they will have plenty of new school models to choose from. In addition to Montessori and classical, STEM, blended learning, fine arts, dual-language, and career-focused models have all popped up in other third-way districts.

Which ones make it to Atlanta is up to APS administrators and school leaders, Esteves said. “This is intended to be a process where we give the system guidance on the framework, but as far as the details go, we want recommendations from the administration and the experts.”

Nothing, he said, is in the works yet. No new charters, no new school models, no operational details. If the board votes to move ahead with the plan in March, Esteves said, “There’s a lot of community conversations that need to happen.”

Disclosure: The 74’s CEO, Stephen Cockrell, served as director of external impact for the KIPP Foundation from 2015 to 2019. He played no part in the editing of this story.

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