The decision to close fewer Atlanta schools than had been recommended reflects the pressure on school board members by the community. Vocal community opposition fueled the decision to keep D.H. Stanton, Towns and F.L. Stanton elementary schools open.
Here is the challenge: How do you shore up academics in those three schools, none of which is a high performer based on annual test scores. The three clearly serve as community focal points, which has merit, but is not something measured or valued under the current accountability modes. Maybe, it should be.
But the question of academic performance has to be considered.
Despite a decade of reform efforts, APS has one of the lowest high school grad rates in the metro area, and I wonder if the system is doing enough that is radically different to change that.
Often lost in the discussion about the APS cheating scandal is that the system had a lot of the key factors in place to foster true reform: The system had stability, having one school chief in place for more than a decade, which is almost unheard of among urban districts. Atlanta had grant money pouring in, and the support of all the major national education players. It had professional development that even jaded teachers said was vastly better than what they used to get. It had a new generation of young, well-prepared teachers. It had — from all appearances — the momentum and resources necessary to spur real improvement.
Instead, much of the improvement was an illusion as the AJC test score investigation first revealed in 2008. And too many schools now remain where they always were — far behind the national average. (To be clear, there are some very high performing APS schools, but they tend to be in the neighborhoods with the highest numbers of college grads. The children from those areas would do well in almost any school setting.)
Given all Atlanta had in its favor, the system should have become a national model of how to revitalize urban schools. Instead, it became a cautionary tale.
More than 500 people, some carrying signs and chanting in protest, packed the school board meeting to dissuade board members from closing schools. Originally, 10 schools were slated for closure, but the board decided to close Parks and Kennedy middle schools and Capitol View, White, Cook, East Lake and Herndon elementary schools.
The goal of what could be the largest redistricting in almost a decade is to make better use of Atlanta Public Schools’ funding by eliminating empty seats, said Superintendent Erroll Davis, who presented the plan. APS has enough seats to serve 60,000 students but has roughly 47,000 enrolled in traditional schools. Consolidating schools, Davis said, would allow the district to devote more resources to students.
But several community members voiced concern about how closures would impact communities. Parents and students who opposed the plan waved signs and chanted “NO SCHOOLS CLOSE!” The meeting had to be stopped twice because of outbursts from the audience. One man was thrown out of the meeting, and then tackled by Atlanta Police officers as he ran on stage approaching the school board from behind.
“We don’t want you to leave our communities in a situation where our property [values] go down more, and then we have nothing to offer for people to move into our neighborhood,” said Stacy Merkerson, a parent and grandparent of students at Towns Elementary, which was slated to close under the original proposal.
Several parents raised concerns about last-minute changes to the plan – two elementary schools, D.H. Stanton and Towns were placed on the closure list March 31, when students were on spring break. The board decided to keep those schools and F.L. Stanton Elementary open after a groundswell of support from the community.
“Towns was put on at the end and it was wrong to put it on at the end,” said Pastor Kenneth Augustus Walker. “But I want to give the board credit, because it was a tough decision. They did the right thing.”
At-large board member Courtney English said it was important for the district to have a plan for how these closed schools would be used, and what proposed academic enhancements would look like.
A committee has been formed to come up with ideas to reuse empty schools. But English said the district has reneged on promises to repurpose buildings before. APS has 14 empty school buildings, some of which closed in the 1970s.
“Asking people to trust us, considering what APS has been through… is a long stretch,” English said. “We can’t just leave this out there for someone to pick up five, six, seven years from now. Let’s do it and do it right.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog