Atlanta school board OKs Carstarphen’s revamp plan

The details

  • Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit affiliated with Atlanta's Drew Charter School, will manage Slater and Thomasville Heights Elementary, Price Middle and Carver High schools. Purpose Built will run Thomasville Heights in the 2016-17 school year and phase in the other schools over time.
  • Kindezi, a charter school with two Atlanta campuses, will operate Gideons Elementary starting in the 2017-18 school year.
  • Bethune Elementary will close. Its students will attend a new K-8 school on the Kennedy Middle School campus.
  • Venetian Hills Elementary will close. Its students will attend school on the Connally Elementary campus.
  • Woodson Primary will close. Its students will attend school on the Grove Park Intermediate campus

Five Atlanta schools will be managed by charter school groups under a plan the Atlanta school board approved Monday.

It's one part of superintendent Meria Carstarphen's plan to turn around some of the city's worst schools.

The vote makes Atlanta Public Schools the first in Georgia to hire charter school groups to run local public schools, charter advocates say.

The plan approved also closes three other schools, including some that are succeeding by Atlanta standards. Students in the closed schools would be moved to two existing schools and a new school.

Few districts nationally have brought in charter operators under similar arrangements. Their results have been, at best, mixed. And the groups Atlanta is hiring have little experience turning around schools as poor and troubled as Atlanta's.

But if the plan works, Atlanta will have transformed high-poverty schools that have struggled for years. And Carstarphen will have delivered on pledges she made when hired nearly two years ago to bring a "sea change" to Atlanta Public Schools, and to transform a district known for a test-cheating scandal into one known for teaching children.

Before the unanimous vote, speakers asked the board to delay a decision, to give people more time to ask questions about the plan.

“There is always a reason not to do something. But there are 52,000 kids in this school system. And I believe there are 52,000 reasons we need to move forward,” board chairman Courtney English said.

Some of the schools targeted for outside management or closure are at risk of state takeover if voters approve Governor Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District plan this fall. Under that plan, the state could run low-performing schools itself, close them or turn them into charter schools. Erin Hames, the Deal adviser who helped create the Opportunity School District plan, now consults for Atlanta Public Schools.

Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit affiliated with Atlanta’s Drew Charter School, will manage Carver High School and two elementary schools and a middle school feeding into Carver for up to 15 years, under its contract with the district. Purpose Built will begin managing one elementary school this fall. The other schools will be phased in over the coming years.

Kindezi, a charter school with two Atlanta campuses, will manage another elementary school that feeds into Carver for up to seven years.

All five schools will keep the same attendance zones, but staff will have to reapply for their jobs. All hiring decisions will be up to the charter school groups. Rehired school staff will no longer be Atlanta Public Schools employees.

About 300 teachers and other staff will have to reapply for their jobs for the coming school year.

Purpose Built and Kindezi will be paid about the same amount from APS per student as other low-performing schools, according to an outline of proposed contract terms. But they’ll also receive other support, like funding for “principals in training” in the years before the charter school groups take over the schools. The district will also help both groups raise money from foundations and other donors.

The outside groups will be expected to bring the schools on par with other schools with similar percentages of low-income students within five years or at least be making progress toward that goal. By the end of 10 years, Purpose Built will be expected to raise Carver’s graduation rate to 82 percent, up from about 70 percent last year.

The pressure will be intense.

“All of these schools have to get on the hustle — fast,” Carstarphen said. “We need to show dramatic improvement as quickly as possible.”

Atlanta schools have faced ambitious goals before. Under former superintendent Beverly Hall, performance goals rose each year, in some cases driving teachers and principals to cheat on state tests.

A total of 27 groups applied to work with low-performing Atlanta schools, including for-profit education giant Pearson, nonprofits like Communities in Schools of Atlanta, and groups that run charter schools in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee. In addition to Purpose Built and Kindezi, New York-based Rensselaerville Institute was also selected. That group was awarded a contract of up to $600,000 to train teachers and principals at up to 10 schools on instruction and school culture.

The board Monday also approved closing Venetian Hills Elementary and sending students to the Connally Elementary campus; closing Woodson Primary and sending students to the Grove Park Intermediate campus; and closing Bethune Elementary and sending its students to a new K-8 school on the Kennedy Middle School campus.