APS considers broad changes to rate, run schools

Atlanta Board of Education chairman Jason Esteves said the goal of the work going on now is to create excellent schools for every child.

Atlanta Board of Education chairman Jason Esteves said the goal of the work going on now is to create excellent schools for every child.

Atlanta Public Schools is diving into a comprehensive evaluation of all its schools — the best as well as the worst — that could lead to significant changes, including new ways of running schools.

When Meria Carstarphen became Atlanta's superintendent four years ago, she and a recently overhauled school board launched an ambitious and controversial plan to turn around the district's poorest-performing schools.

APS needed to rise from the ruin of a test-cheating scandal that had plunged the district into chaos and crisis. Voters ushered in a largely new school board, who hired a new superintendent and together they made it a priority to made improve the most troubled schools. By March of 2016, the board had unanimously approved a turnaround strategy aimed squarely at the schools the state had identified, at the time, for potential takeover.

Since then, APS has closed and merged schools, turned five over to charter-related operators and brought in more academic support and social services.

Now, APS is examining all schools, not just struggling ones.

The result could bring autonomous ways of operating schools and possibly more closures or mergers. It could change the district’s mix of charter, partner-operated, and traditional, district-run neighborhood schools. Sixty-one of 89 APS schools now are neighborhood schools.

School board chairman Jason Esteves acknowledges the work will lead to “tough decisions,” but says it’s necessary to create excellent schools for every child.

Over the coming months, the district will develop a rating system to grade its schools as well as determine how to respond when schools excel or fail. The board that will consider any changes includes several members who joined after the 2016 turnaround plan was approved.

“The vast majority of the community has seen the progress that we’ve made, has endorsed the work that we’ve done, and … wants to see more of it,” he said. “The electorate has generally been supportive in the face of pretty significant changes.”

But there are critics, and they say the district needs to shift priorities, not redesign its structure.

Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, president of Southwest and Northwest Atlanta Parents and Partners for Schools, fears officials want to bring in more charter schools or charter operators to run neighborhood schools, especially in those parts of the city.

“We’ve had the most change on this side of town. It’s like trauma,” she said. “The parents are just tired. They can’t take it anymore.”

Helping APS with the planning work is Denver-based Foxhall Consulting Services, whose fees are being paid by RedefinED Atlanta, a local, charter-friendly nonprofit, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through a public records request. RedefinED agreed to give $235,000 to Atlanta Partners for Education, a nonprofit that supports the work of the school district, to pay for Foxhall's consulting services and travel costs on behalf of the district.

Ed Chang, RedefinED’s executive director and founder of an APS-authorized charter school, said the organization gave money to the project because it aligned with RedefinED’s goals “of ensuring that more children can attend great public schools.”

“Our hope is for there to be an excellent school for every child in every community in Atlanta,” he said, in a written statement.

Chang also sits on an advisory committee made up of about 50 principals, school employees, administrators, parents, and others who are providing feedback as the district develops the plan. He and APS leaders said public input will be critical as the plan develops over the next several months.

A key element is the creation of a rating system, tailored to APS, that grades schools and allows the district to identify schools that are excelling and those that are struggling.

The measurement tool would augment the state-issued school report card, which Esteves said taken alone doesn’t ensure that a school meets every child’s needs. The district’s customized rating system could take into account pre-kindergarten through second-grade academic progress, school culture, and how well schools support students’ social and emotional needs.

“The idea that we want to figure out (is) how to measure progress towards excellence as we define it,” said Carstarphen.

There’s been no decision on how the rating system would grade schools. Schools could be given a numerical score or assigned a color that signifies excellence or need for improvement, or it could simply indicate if a school meets expectations or doesn’t.

The district also is figuring out what would happen to schools that are doing well or not. In other places where similar models have been used, districts have closed or merged poor-performing schools, replicated and expanded successful ones, opened new charter or district schools, and redesigned others to give principals more freedom to operate without interference from the central office.

Esteves said all options are on the table in Atlanta, where there’s no “one size fits all” solution. The goal is to be quicker and more nimble in addressing problems and fostering successes.

The work could break up and rebuild schools and create new operational models, said Carstarphen. The approach would give all schools, including “high-flying” ones and those “right on the fence” the ability to innovate and better serve students, she said.

Roughly 30 districts across the country use a similar "portfolio" approach to running schools. The idea, disliked by some in education circles, is to create a variety of options and choices for students, give schools freedom to make staffing and curriculum decisions, hold schools accountable, and replace poor-performing schools.

One of the consultants assisting APS is a former administrator in Denver, where the district has embraced a broader mix of school types beyond traditional, district-run schools. The Denver portfolio includes charters and "innovation" schools that offer more flexibility regarding certain policies and union contracts.

Carol Burris, executive director of the New York-based Network for Public Education, decries the portfolio strategy, which she likens to playing the stock market: Districts invest in a variety of school models and governance types and regularly assess their performance. “If you have a bad stock, you dump your stock. In this case, you dump your school or you have the school taken over by a charter school or by someone else,” she said.

Burris contends that causes “a lot of disruption” and leads to the community losing its voice.

There’s no magic solution to improving schools, but a portfolio approach has been effective for districts who implement it in smart ways, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a pioneer in the field.

Each city adopts its own version, using different elements, but the focus is on “continuous improvement,” she said.

“What we’ve seen is more and more school districts saying ‘choice is helping’ and we can either create opportunities … or we can sit and watch it happen,” Lake said.

APS “Excellent Schools Project

Atlanta Public Schools is developing a way to measure school performance and determine what should happen to those that succeed and those that struggle. The work will be discussed at the following meetings, all held at APS headquarters, 130 Trinity Ave.

School board: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29

Advisory committee: 5:30 p.m. Nov. 12 and Dec. 17

Community: 6 p.m. Nov. 28 and Dec. 12