Atlanta school board OKs more students in KIPP charters

A public charter school operator will be allowed to enroll 1,100 more students in Atlanta and add two more schools.

The Atlanta Board of Education — in a divided Monday vote during the final scheduled meeting before a new board takes over — authorized the expansion of KIPP Metro Atlanta Collaborative Inc., a nonprofit that runs seven charter schools within the Atlanta Public Schools district.

KIPP will be able to increase its enrollment cap from 3,100 students to 4,200 students, plus open a new kindergarten through fourth-grade primary school and a new fifth- through eighth-grade academy.

“At the end of the day, what’s best for children is to ensure that they have quality seats as quick as possible, so at the very least expanding KIPP’s reach and ensuring that they can provide quality seats quickly is important,” said board member Jason Esteves.

The district also authorized a one-year lease for use of the former Walter White Elementary School on Detroit Avenue NW, where KIPP plans to house its new KIPP Soul Primary School, which would open next year.

The charter operator plans to open KIPP Soul Academy in 2019 or 2020, according to spokeswoman Callie Hudak.

The enrollment zone would include the entire city of Atlanta, with “preferential weight given to economically disadvantaged students,” according to board documents.

The school board approved the expansion by a 6-3 vote, with members Byron Amos, Steven Lee, and Cynthia Briscoe Brown opposed. The same three board members tried unsuccessfully to table the decision for 30 days to give more time for public input.

The vote followed a lengthy debate in which several members worried about the negative effect the charter network’s growth would have on traditional APS schools, particularly in the Douglass High School feeder pattern.

“I am concerned that we currently have under-enrolled schools in these clusters which will not be helped by students moving out of them,” said Briscoe Brown.

That should be addressed head-on, said departing board chairman Courtney English.

“Let’s just be honest about that. Let’s not dance around it. Let’s own it and say, ‘Hey look: If we do this, APS will be in a position in one, two years (to talk) about potential school closings and mergers,” he said.

A compromise solution the board approved grants KIPP just a one-year lease for the former elementary school.

Walter White Elementary closed at the end of 2012 and then was leased for five years to Kindezi Schools, another charter group.

The school board members also want KIPP to provide transportation so students throughout the district can attend the new schools.

KIPP submitted a waiting list of more than 2,875 K-8 students interested in its schools. At least 50 supporters donned blue KIPP T-shirts at Monday’s board meeting, where students, parents, and teachers spoke in favor of the expansion.

“It’s a frustrating thing if indeed you’re on the wait list and year after year you’re unable to get a seat at one of the schools,” said Joe Arnold, chairman of KIPP Metro Atlanta board of directors.

The KIPP board has not yet approved the plan. Its next meeting is Dec. 19.