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Atlanta considers elaborate rating system for public schools

Atlanta school board 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 Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, in Atlanta.
Atlanta school board 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 Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, in Atlanta.

The Atlanta school board will decide Monday whether to push forward with an improvement plan that includes a first-in-Georgia customized rating system and would represent a significant new tactic for Atlanta Public Schools.

The plan, which the district calls the "Excellent Schools Project," has sharpened battle lines between advocacy groups.

No district in the state is known to have its own scorecard to gauge how well schools are doing, according to the Georgia Department of Education. About 30 systems around the nation have launched related improvement efforts, sometimes leading to a surge in charter schools, something critics of APS’ plan fear.

The district would use its rating scorecard to identify low-performing schools, and then could close or merge them or hire an outside group, such as a charter network, to run them. Successful schools could be expanded or replicated.

Board Chairman Jason Esteves views the plan as an extension of work that began in 2016 to turn around Atlanta's most-troubled schools.

“How do we look at the schools that are doing well, doing great, are excellent and how do we apply what they are doing across schools that need improvement,” he said at a meeting this week.

Supporters of this effort include a charter-friendly local nonprofit that covered the $235,000 consultant cost to begin creating the plan. Proponents say the approach will boost accountability and transparency by allowing parents to see how schools are doing and help ensure every Atlanta student can attend a good school.

Critics, among them an Atlanta teachers group, deride the plan as an attempt to justify handing neighborhood schools over to charter groups. They question how effective the approach will be and said parents and the community are exhausted by frequent disruptions to their schools.

“ ‘Excellent’ schools is a private takeover. You are closing schools, giving large charter companies contracts at the taxpayer’s expense and restructuring communities,” said Verdaillia Turner, Atlanta Federation of Teachers president, in an open letter to Esteves.

Atlanta Federation of Teachers president Verdaillia Turner, right, speaks during a Feb. 28 news conference about the group's opposition to an Atlanta Public Schools improvement plan. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC
Atlanta Federation of Teachers president Verdaillia Turner, right, speaks during a Feb. 28 news conference about the group's opposition to an Atlanta Public Schools improvement plan. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

At a news conference Thursday, Turner joined representatives of a handful of other community groups and former state Sen. Vincent Fort in urging the school board to vote down the plan. She said the group plans to meet individually with each board member before Monday’s vote.

Fort called the proposal a way to “privatize schools one step at a time” and said the district should instead focus on community solutions to improve schools.

More than testing

If the board gives the green light, officials would spend a couple of years refining how schools are judged before using the new measuring stick.

The district estimates it would cost $725,000 a year to build and implement the rating system, including staff and consultant work, developing surveys and tracking data.

It wouldn’t be until the 2023-2024 school year that the district would intervene in schools based on the rating results. Esteves said no schools will close for academic reasons until leaders are sure the rating scale is properly developed.

The scorecard APS creates would be unique to the district. The state has its own report card that assigns schools a grade largely based on standardized test scores, but Atlanta’s ratings would measure things the state doesn’t.

“What we know is that the test is not everything,” Esteves said. “Schools can be excellent for a number of reasons, and what helps students do well on exams [isn’t] necessarily just what’s going on in the classroom.”

Atlanta’s rating system would place schools into five tiers based on success in areas deemed important. Schools would be graded on how well teachers and leaders are doing, how much families are engaged, students’ social and emotional skills, and if schools are closing the academic gap between black and Hispanic students and white students, among other measurements.

APS would need to find or develop surveys and data sources to measure some of the components. The district said it does not currently have a way to quantify 16 percent of roughly 70 different measures that would make up a school’s final rating, and more than half of the items the district wants to measure come from data sources that need to be evaluated and improved.

It's taken APS months to create the draft plan. RedefinED Atlanta, a nonprofit supportive of charter schools, paid for a former Denver school administrator-turned-consultant to help.

RedefinED’s funders include the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and other foundations.

A coalition of nonprofit and educational groups is campaigning for the APS plan alongside RedefinED. One of them is the Grove Park Foundation, which is helping the district raise millions to build a new elementary building in northwest Atlanta to house Woodson Park Academy, which will be run by the KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools charter network.

“By identifying what’s working in schools and improving on new ideas, we can replicate practices that work, end practices that don’t, and plan for schools that meet our promise that all students will be able to attend excellent schools within a generation,” said Debra Edelson, Grove Park Foundation’s executive director, in a written statement.

RedefinED also paid to send Esteves and two other school board members to Denver in January to check out that school system's similar approach, though local leaders say they want a plan tailored to Atlanta's specific needs.

Denver is a pioneer in this type of reform work, though some have criticized its rating system as a political tool to defend district decisions. That district has added more charter schools and given school leaders more flexibility to operate free from central office mandates.

In recent years, Denver’s graduation rate has gone up, and administrators point to a study that shows higher test scores. But there’s still a gap between white students and students of color, and other tensions have erupted. Teachers in February went on a three-day strike for the first time in 25 years over pay issues.

Some question how successful strategies have been in other places. Stephen Owens, who will have a student in APS next school year, said it feels as if Atlanta’s approach is driven by “outside money.”

“Philanthropy can have a really good influence, but we’ve seen all these policies in other cities, and there’s no research to back it up,” he said.

Looking for ‘heartburn’

One of the most contentious parts of the plan will be deciding what should happen to schools that succeed or fail based on the rating system.

Like the rating system, those options are in flux.

Parents and other attendees participate in round table discussion during the Atlanta Public Schools presentation on an improvement plan during a community meeting at Hope-Hill Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.    Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Parents and other attendees participate in round table discussion during the Atlanta Public Schools presentation on an improvement plan during a community meeting at Hope-Hill Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Some principals could be given more freedom over their budget, curriculum and operations.

Schools who land in the scorecard’s top tiers could be replicated, expanded or grouped with similar schools.

Schools that slide into the bottom tier would face consequences. They could be closed, merged or the teachers and principal forced to reapply for jobs.

The district also could look for an outside group to run struggling schools. By next school year, APS will have turned six schools over to groups connected to charter schools, and opponents of the plan fear it will lead to more outsourcing.

District leaders have not committed to specific actions. Several times in recent months, Esteves has asked board members if any of the proposed interventions give them “heartburn.”

A few board members have said they would need to see more information before they voted to make changes to specific schools. But no board members have demanded publicly that something be removed from the list of potential responses.

Why it matters

An Atlanta Public Schools plan to rate schools could prompt significant changes in how some operate. If the board authorizes the development of a rating system, it would cost an estimated $725,000 annually to create the scorecard. The district then would need to make crticial decisions about how to respond to failing schools, with options ranging from closures to mergers or outsourcing their operations.