When the Atlanta school district began crafting a strategy in 2015 to strengthen dozens of failing schools, the need was urgent.
Not only did students deserve a high-quality education, but the state had threatened to take over chronically low-performing schools.
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“We knew the public didn’t have a lot of faith in Atlanta Public Schools at the time,” said Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who was hired in the wake of a cheating scandal that made national headlines, left the district in shambles, and damaged its reputation.
In 2016, the school board unanimously approved a controversial turnaround plan. Carstarphen, currently in her final year at APS, said anything short of bold ideas likely would be unacceptable.
Although Georgia voters later spurned state takeovers of schools, APS still needed to clean itself up.
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The district outsourced a handful of schools to charter operators and closed or merged others. In some schools, the district replaced principals and required teachers to reapply for jobs.
Over the following years, APS budgeted $44 million to add social services, enhance math and reading instruction, extend learning outside the normal school day, and provide other supports in 26 struggling schools.
The results so far have failed to impress critics and underscore just how difficult turnaround is.
Some parents and activists have pushed for APS to enact tougher accountability measures to assess how schools are performing and to intervene sooner in failing schools. They point to low test scores that continue to plague schools and a wide gap between white students and students of color.
While schools have seen some gains, there’s minimal evidence it’s because of turnaround investments. Researchers hired by APS found little impact on academics, prompting calls to revise the strategy while continuing to focus on needy schools. Only four district-run schools that received the deepest turnaround support showed “consistently promising results” for those efforts in English language arts and math, according to a recent study.
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One of those four was Towns Elementary, where Dione Simon Taylor was principal before her assignment to lead the new Harper-Archer Elementary.
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