Atlanta school board denies charter school for students with special needs

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Atlanta Board of Education voted Tuesday night to deny an application for a charter school focused on students with special needs.

The board voted unanimously to turn down Tapestry Public Charter School’s appeal to replicate its model in Atlanta. The school, with a population that’s 50% neurotypical and 50% neurodivergent (which includes disorders such as autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), opened in DeKalb County in 2013.

The vote was in accordance with district officials’ recommendation to deny Tapestry’s application, which cited three main concerns: the impact on enrollment at other APS schools; staffing shortages; and demographic concerns.

“While the (Tapestry) petition presented many strengths, the district’s administration maintains concerns about the timing of this petition for the district, the negative impacts the school may have on APS operations, and the school’s ability to maintain demographic parity in light of its issues with doing so at its DeKalb location,” the recommendation read.

Regarding enrollment, Atlanta Public Schools, which hasn’t approved a charter school in a decade, said adding this new charter school could decrease the population at schools that are already underutilized. District officials also claimed opening a new school would worsen staffing problems, including finding qualified special education teachers.

“Realistically a school with a maximum of 300 students over 7 grade bands serving the entire APS district cannot — and will not — materially impact either global enrollment or the teacher shortage,” Tapestry said in a statement. The school would have eventually served grades 6-12, but had proposed starting with grades 6-10.

When it comes to demographic concerns, APS said Tapestry in DeKalb enrolls a higher share of white students compared to their representation in DeKalb, claiming 40.3% of Tapestry’s students are white, compared with 10.3% of students in DeKalb schools. Devon Christopher, one of Tapestry’s founders, said that’s inaccurate.

“Currently, 32% of (Tapestry) students are African American, 20% are Hispanic, 18% are Caucasian, 10% are Asian, 10% have Native American heritage, and 10% identify as mixed-race,” Christopher said in an email.

APS said it conducted an equity assessment on Tapestry’s application as part of its review process. The APS analysis claims 7.5% of Tapestry’s students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds compared with 34.6% of students in DeKalb. Christopher also disputed this finding.

“More than 40% of our children are on free and reduced (price) lunch, which is significantly higher than what APS included in its demographic concerns,” she said.

More than 650 APS parents signed a petition urging the school board to approve Tapestry’s charter. Several Tapestry parents and staff showed up at Tuesday’s meeting to try and persuade the board to vote in the school’s favor. Some board members acknowledged their testimonies before ultimately voting “no.”

“It resonates, it’s important and we are listening,” said board member Jennifer McDonald. “We’re at a crossroads and a transition, but that does not mean that a door is closed forever.”

The school’s supporters aren’t sure what comes next.

“We are disappointed by the decision of the Board but also saddened that Atlanta families have been denied the opportunity to experience the small inclusive, individualized, and innovative program that Tapestry has to offer,” the school said in a statement after the vote. “The Tapestry Board is committed to replicate Tapestry and we will take some time to determine our next steps.”