Atlanta board puts off decision on scorecard for schools

It OKs general ‘vision of excellence,’ with school rating system possible later
Atlanta Public Schools Chairman Jason Esteves answers questions from the audience at a presentation on the “Excellent Schools Project” during a community meeting at Hope-Hill Elementary School on Feb. 25 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/

Atlanta Public Schools Chairman Jason Esteves answers questions from the audience at a presentation on the “Excellent Schools Project” during a community meeting at Hope-Hill Elementary School on Feb. 25 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/

The Atlanta school board delayed authorizing a controversial rating system that would grade schools' performance and instead gave only partial approval to an improvement plan aimed at ensuring every child can attend a good school.

Developing a customized school scorecard or rating system has been a core component of a plan the board has been working on for months.

District officials will begin to develop measures that could be used to create the rating system, or some other way to evaluate schools, for the board to vote on later, at a date not yet set.

Supporters believe creating a grading system for Atlanta Public Schools will enhance transparency and accountability. They say it would help parents understand how schools are doing and alert the district when schools are failing and corrective action is needed.

Critics contend that rating schools is a tactic the district will use to justify closing low-performing ones or turning them over to charter groups. They say the district already should know how its schools are performing without developing a complicated and costly measurement that adds another layer of bureaucracy.

The board had been scheduled to vote on the full plan, which the district calls the "Excellent Schools Project," on Monday.

But, in a surprise move hours before the vote, Chairman Jason Esteves recommended the board approve only a first phase, which establishes a “vision of excellence” and a description of skills graduates should have. He said that would allow more time to discuss the plan with the public.

The board gave that approval in a 5-3 vote.

“I get that there are concerns,” he said. “But that’s why you lay out a plan and you get feedback along the way to shape this plan and make it something that is Atlanta-focused.”

The measures to be developed would attempt to assess how well schools are doing compared to the “vision of excellence,” which focuses on things such as high-quality teachers, family engagement and closing the academic gap between white students and students of color.

The board’s action upset advocates on both sides of the debate. Parents who favor the plan said it’s been discussed for months and delaying it means students will have to wait to see needed change.

“A bar of excellence must be set,” Kimberly Dukes, a member of the parent group Atlanta Thrive, told the board. “Our children are the ones falling through the cracks … we are here fighting for students, not for schools. We are not fighting to keep failing schools open.”

Opponents, however, wanted the board to walk away instead of proceeding more slowly.

“It doesn’t appease me at all. I’m very worried that they are going to move towards a rating system,” said Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, president of Southwest and Northwest Atlanta Parents and Partners for Schools.

She fears the district will do something to low-performing schools instead of “giving them the support and help they need.”

Board members Leslie Grant, Erika Mitchell and Kandis Wood Jackson voted against the plan’s partial authorization. Esteves, Nancy Meister, Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Eshé Collins and Michelle Olympiadis voted yes.

Grant wanted more time for the board to review the plan, but her motion to table the vote failed in a 4-4 tie. Olympiadis joined Grant, Mitchell and Wood Jackson in voting to table the plan.

Grant said parts of the plan are things the district already does as part of its strategy to improve low-performing schools and other efforts, and she wants the district to be more transparent about that work before launching a new initiative that requires teachers’ and employees time.

APS began working on the plan in August using a Denver-based consultant paid for by the local, charter-friendly nonprofit RedefinED Atlanta.

Ed Chang, RedefinED's executive director, applauded the board for taking the first step but said it's "critical that the board move past vision statements to concrete plans with action steps."

He said the district hasn’t asked his organization for more money to further the work.

The original recommendation to approve the full plan would have come with $725,000 annual pricetag to develop the rating system, including finding data sources and surveys.

The board’s partial authorization means the district won’t spend that full amount, but Esteves said it likely will spend some money working on the potential rating system, or other evaluation tool, before the board votes again.