APS gives green light to turnaround strategy

Some community members, however, feel left out of process

Some lagging Atlanta public schools are in for a major overhaul, including being managed by charter school groups. And not everyone is happy about it.

On March 7, in front of a packed audience, the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to approve the APS Turnaround Strategy, a controversial plan aimed at preventing a potential state takeover of underperforming schools.

"I think at the core, this plan addresses very serious needs of our children that for far too long have gone unanswered," APS Chairman Courtney English said of the board's decision. "Our kids need help. And they need help yesterday."

Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal announced his "Opportunity School District" plan, which would give the state the authority to take control of schools that had scored less than 60 percent on the College and Career Ready Performance Index three years in a row. Out of about 140 schools eligible for state takeover, 26 were in the APS system. Voters will decide in November whether the OSD plan should be approved.

But regardless of the referendum's outcome, APS says, the turnaround plan will take effect. English said the board has been working on the plan since January 2014, which included hiring Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. But with possible state takeover looming and 26 APS schools considered at risk, the board decided to accelerate its timeline. In late January 2016, Carstarphen unveiled the Turnaround Strategy.

Smaller aspects of the overhaul include changes such as extending the school day and creating vacation academies where students can opt to continue their learning during school breaks in a safe environment. But what has parents and the community up in arms is the decision to merge some schools and put others in the control of charter groups.

Under the plan, Connally Elementary School and Venetian Hills Elementary in southwest Atlanta would merge, as would Grove Park Intermediate Elementary and Woodson Primary Elementary in northwest Atlanta. Bethune Elementary will close and a new K-8 science, technology, engineering, and math academy will open at the old Kennedy Middle School site in Vine City. Charters were drawn and signed with Purpose Built, the Kindezi Schools, and Rensselaerville Institute for Professional Learning Services for Principals and Teachers to manage some of the schools.

Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, a parent of APS students and part of the Neighborhood Collaborative Group, a coalition that had asked APS to hold meetings on updating the community about OSD, said some parents and teachers oppose the charter manager proposal because they think the board did not include them in the decision-making process.

"The community feels like it's being sold out," Hayes-Tavares said. "The community feels like the board members have not and do not understand how to address community engagement, how to involve and engage the community in the decisions that they're making."

Days after the strategy was approved, 11Alive reported, parents of Thomasville Heights Elementary students pulled their children out of school and staked a protest on former Mayor Shirley Franklin's front yard. Franklin is a board member of Purpose Built, which APS has selected to operate Thomasville Heights, Slater Elementary, Price Middle School, and Carver Comprehensive High.

Hayes-Tavares added the community feels there are gaps in the Turnaround Strategy that haven't been fully explained, like a breakdown of how individual schools plan to improve students' education. She also said the people involved with the new school managers aren't necessarily from the community or from the same income bracket. She says that could prove difficult for them to understand — and meet — students' needs.

"We don't feel like it's a coherent plan with real life action, with real life accountability, with real life expected outcomes and impacts," she said. "So of course we're concerned about their [the charters'] ability to address the issues and needs, particularly on a parent/family basis and academic excellence."

English said tweaks and revisions were made before disclosing the Turnaround Strategy. He also defended the systems' public outreach, pointing to town hall meetings, smaller group meetings, parent coffees, sessions with the superintendent and himself, and knocking on doors to talk face-to-face with stakeholders. He says he is sensitive to the community's concerns and "understands there's more community engagement and outreach to do."

"I get it," English said, adding that parents, teachers, and students can expect to see changes before the end of the year. "I understand that people don't have trust in APS. I think APS has a history of making big promises and follow-through hasn't been what we would have hoped. And so, I get it."

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