Atlanta Public Schools could lose control of more than 40 percent of its schools if voters approve a plan in November to let the state take over the ones it deems as “failing.” It could also lose money. The local revenue used to run the schools would go to the state instead of the district.
With so much at stake, APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen devised a plan to turn around the district’s underperforming schools. Whether it will work is an open question. But APS is moving forward with the $24 million plan. It includes merging some schools, closing others and hiring nonprofit organizations to help run certain schools and train principals. One of the nonprofits, Purpose Built Schools, has built an academic program based on Atlanta’s Drew Charter School. Drew will serve students in prekindergarten through 12th grades next year.
Drew Charter School opened in 2000 as the first charter school in APS. It’s a “shining star” in the district. It serves a mixed-income population, and its students score well above the state average on standardized tests. All of Drew’s seniors are on track to graduate next year. Elementary School Principal Barbara Preuss said some of that success is due to intense personalized teaching.
“A child that is struggling is going to get differentiated instruction in the classroom, they’re going to be provided intervention, and then they’re going to go either to a literacy center or a math lab,” she said. “So, it’s triple-dosing areas that they have deficits in.”
Drew’s gains are also the result of a lot of hard work. It has an extended school day. There are optional Saturday tutoring sessions, and students attend school five extra days during the school year.
“If you were to add everything up between a K-8, by the time they go into ninth grade, they’ve added another two and a half years of education,” Preuss said.
Another key piece of Drew’s success, according to Preuss, is its focus on early education. A visit to a prekindergarten class shows students learning about the life cycle of a butterfly — and using advanced words, like “chrysalis” and “emerge.”
Starting next year, Purpose Built Schools will manage four of Atlanta’s underperforming schools: Thomasville Heights and Slater elementary schools, Price Middle School and Carver High School. Preuss will leave Drew next year to oversee all of Purpose Built’s APS projects.
She plans to bring a lot of the methods that worked at Drew Charter School.
“Our day will be longer at Thomasville,” she said. “We will create literacy centers and math labs. We will do a lot of the interventions and early learning.”
A Fair Comparison?
As a charter school, Drew doesn’t have an attendance zone. Any students living in the APS attendance area can apply. Spots are limited, and preference is given to residents of two nearby neighborhoods. It has more than 1,500 students on its waiting list.
That’s a stark contrast to Thomasville Heights, Slater, Price and Carver. None are charter schools, and all of them will serve the families in their neighborhoods. The area has a much higher percentage, about 53 percent, of families who receive public assistance than Drew does. It’s more transient, too.
“It’s a dramatically different population, and at the same time you don’t have the application process that’s creating a more select group of students,” said Jarod Apperson, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgia State University, specializing in the economics of education.
He said there’s no guarantee the “Drew model” could work at those schools, but thinks it’s worth a shot.
“High dosage tutoring is something that has worked in environments where kids are coming to school with those kinds of problems,” he said.
Preuss is optimistic. She said Purpose Built won’t just replicate the remedial programs. She said students at the four other schools will have enrichment classes and a curriculum that promotes science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
By introducing attractive programs like that, Preuss hopes she can stop families from leaving the neighborhood.
“We’re hoping that once we get in there and get children and parents excited about being there, then perhaps they’ll find a way to stay,” she said.
Where The Rubber Meets The Road
At a recent meeting at Thomasville, Preuss and other representatives from Purpose Built welcomed parents and students, served them dinner and explained how the school will change next year.
Still, parent Danielle Cammy said she isn’t really sure what to think.
“I just have to wait and see,” she said. “It seems pretty decent.”
Pre-K teacher Malika Rodman is fully on board. She said children at Thomasville need a boost.
“I think it’s great that the kids are going to have so many different resources because they have been lacking resources for a very long time,” Rodman said.
A few tables over, second-grader Jaquan Jones is happily devouring a turkey sandwich, which has stained his light blue shirt with yellow mustard. His main concern about all of this is whether he’ll be able to keep his favorite ritual next year.
“I get Fun Fridays,” he chirped.
Asked to explain, he said it’s a reward he gets for finishing his work.
“It’s like, a little game where you get to play around, do what you want to do,” he said.
Fridays may get longer for Jaquan next year, but he may have a head start on a possible career path. Before leaving, he grabbed a microphone and said:
“This is Jaquan Jones, signing off.”
A note of disclosure: WABE’s broadcast license is held by the Atlanta Board of Education.