In the years since Vanshelle Turner’s sister went to Thomasville Heights Elementary School, in the years since she herself taught there, Thomasville had been dubbed one of the worst schools in the state by Atlanta Public Schools’ own superintendent.
Turner didn’t have to come back.
But she chose to come back and be part of the team that hopes to finally get it right for Thomasville.
If everything goes as planned, the reopening of Thomasville this week will be the start of the most ambitious outsourcing of public education in Georgia.
This winter, after calling out Thomasville as one of the worst schools in the state, Atlanta school Superintendent Meria Carstarphen hired Purpose Built Schools to run the school. Purpose Built is a nonprofit affiliated with Drew Charter School, a well-regarded east Atlanta charter school.
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Purpose Built’s plan for Thomasville — classes taught through projects rather than lectures, more tutoring, after-school programs — isn’t revolutionary. The school’s new leaders and many of its new staff are former school district employees.
But Carstarphen’s hope is that an outside organization will succeed where she says the Atlanta school district failed.
It’s also an attempt to avoid the state potentially taking over Thomasville. If voters approve Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District plan this fall, the state could take over low-performing schools like Thomasville and close them, turn them over to charter school groups or run them itself. Carstarphen has said showing the state she’s making dramatic changes could help shield the school from takeover.
Her plan is for Purpose Built to run a cluster of three schools in south Atlanta feeding into Carver High School, and eventually Carver itself.
By 2018, as many as 2,000 Atlanta students could attend public schools managed by Purpose Built. Another nonprofit, Kindezi, will manage a fifth school. The schools aren’t technically charter schools — Carstarphen has pledged they’ll accept all students in their attendance zones — but they’ll have much of the same flexibility in how they operate.
Thomasville’s new leaders, Head of School Barbara Preuss and Chief Operating Officer Nicole Jones, have spent much of this spring finding the right people to work at Thomasville. The school’s former employees lost their jobs when the school was put under new management.
“We’re looking for people who want to perfect what they do,” Preuss said this spring.
Preuss used to lead Drew Charter School’s elementary school. Jones led Drew’s teacher-recruitment efforts. Both are former Atlanta Public Schools administrators.
Most of the Thomasville’s new staff are veteran teachers from Atlanta, nearby districts or charter schools, including Drew. They include some of Thomasville’s old staff who won their jobs back.
Frances Hunter is one of Thomasville’s new second-grade teachers. This spring, angry, insulted and in search of a new job after Carstarphen closed her Atlanta elementary school as part of the same school-improvement plan that put Thomasville under new management, she interviewed for a spot on the new Thomasville staff.
After working in schools where she says teachers were rarely asked for their opinions, the Thomasville interview was a surprise. The school’s new leaders actually cared what she had to say about teaching, she said.
Earlier this month, she clustered with other teachers at one end of Thomasville’s windowless cafeteria for a training session on building school culture and setting common expectations. A poster on the wall asked: “What type of world do you want to live in?”
A common thread emerged as teachers talked: a world in which change is possible.
Change won’t be easy, they acknowledged.
About 90 percent of Thomasville families receive public assistance. Most students miss more than a week of school. Less than 10 percent of fifth-graders read on grade level.
And many families were hurt by what seemed to them like a snap decision from downtown to fire their children’s teachers en masse.
“We’re going to have to rebuild the relationships and those trust connections,” Hunter said.
That “trust factor” is huge, agreed Vanshelle Turner, who will work with students with behavioral issues. So is getting all staff members on the same page, she said.
“The most important thing is having educators in the building who believe the same thing … that all kids can learn,” she said.
Thomasville’s new model will borrow extensively from Drew Charter School, which opened 16 years ago in a former Atlanta Public Schools elementary school. Today, the state rates Drew’s elementary school higher than nearly 80 percent of schools in Georgia.
Like Drew, Thomasville will focus on teaching through class projects. Students will get extra help through reading and math tutoring. And after-school programs followed by dinner will keep kids at school until at least 6 p.m.
Preuss expects a few tweaks in translating Drew to Thomasville. But “you don’t lose the model, even if you change things a little bit,” she said.
Purpose Built’s promises of tutoring and after-school programs are appealing to many parents. And some, disappointed after years of teachers who didn’t seem to teach or couldn’t control their classes, are open to the idea of a new, dedicated staff.
As her sons finished classes at Thomasville this spring, Kimberly Dukes attended information sessions and tours and pressed Purpose Built and Atlanta school district staff to answer her questions about whether Thomasville’s new management would work — and how it would work.
She heard a lot she liked. But she worries about how students will adapt to so many new faces and whether this new charter school group will stick around.
Still, she’ll send her children to the new and improved Thomasville again this year, even though she’s since moved to a new neighborhood.
“I just hope that it works,” she said.