Parents meet with APS to address concerns about Howard Middle School

Atlanta Public Schools bars AJC reporter from meeting
People enter the auditorium at David T. Howard Middle School in Atlanta, where a meeting took place on Thursday with parents, teachers and district officials. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

People enter the auditorium at David T. Howard Middle School in Atlanta, where a meeting took place on Thursday with parents, teachers and district officials. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Atlanta school district administrators met Thursday with Howard Middle School parents in an attempt to address mounting frustrations over what parents say are larger class sizes, teacher vacancies, and class scheduling for gifted students.

Parents also have expressed concerns about leadership of the school by its new principal, Janet McDowell. The year got off to a rocky start with several unpopular changes, from dress code enforcement to how students are grouped together. Roughly 100 people attended the meeting, though the district barred an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter from entering the room.

Sara Zeigler, mother of a sixth grade student, said school officials had good intentions by trying to meet with parents. But she and others left with unanswered questions.

“Unfortunately, I think, I left there still wondering what the plan is. It was lacking of specificity on what we’re really going to do to right the ship,” she said.

Among her top concerns is how honors and non-honors students are divided into different groups. She’s worried that sends a message to children that: “if you haven’t figured out how to pass the test to be in the honors program you never get a shot.”

Her child is in the gifted program, but said students should have the opportunity to be in classes with all kinds of students instead of spending the day with other gifted children.

“There’s multiple benefits of being a student in school in the city of Atlanta. You get to be with diverse kids from diverse backgrounds — socio-economic backgrounds, education backgrounds — and that’s part of this whole experience. That’s why my kids go to public school,” she said. “I don’t need them to be all day long with kids that maybe think like them.”

Another parent, who declined to be publicly identified because of fear that her child would be singled out at school, said the first month of classes at Howard has felt chaotic and confusing. She’s concerned that grouping gifted children together hinders the learning of students who are not in the program.

“I find my really motivated, straight-A student is in a class with other students who aren’t as motivated and it starts to feel a little uncool if you are the only one super-paying attention,” she said. “But if he was in a class with just like two other nerds maybe it would be more socially acceptable.”

In a message Thursday to parents, the principal said the school is trying to fill Algebra 1 and physical science teacher vacancies. She said she’s not sure how long it will take to make those hires. So students will start receiving instruction through the district’s virtual academy.

The meeting, which started at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, was advertised on the school’s website. Howard’s parent-teacher organization also sent out an email days before, announcing it as a chance for “community and stakeholders of DT Howard Middle School” to meet with associate superintendent Paul Brown.

But an AJC reporter who arrived at the school to cover the meeting was prevented from entering by the Atlanta Public Schools’ communications staff.

Seth Coleman, director of media in its Office of Communications & Public Engagement, said the event was for parents and that the presence of news media could change the meeting’s dynamic.

Instead, Coleman told the reporter to remain in the hallway, outside the auditorium, and said the reporter could speak to parents as they leave the event. Coleman remained outside the door in the hallway with the reporter.

AJC editors asked district communications officials to provide a legal reason why a community meeting featuring APS administrators should be closed to news media.

APS provided a written statement on its decision to bar the AJC after the meeting.

“Atlanta Public Schools provides school and cluster-level community engagements for our parents, families, and stakeholders that are free from media presence to support the open exchange of information and feedback. Thursday evening’s meeting at David T. Howard Middle School was an opportunity for school and district administrators to engage in open, honest, and productive dialogue with parents and school stakeholders, for the purpose of providing students with a high-quality, well-rounded, and fulfilling educational experience.”

Coleman said he was present at the event because district officials had heard that parents had been sharing the meeting information with news media.

He said the meeting was recorded and will be shared on the school’s website by Friday.