Atlanta school plan could transform city — or leave families stranded

Third-graders practice in Letricia Henson’s music and chorus class in Thomasville Heights Elementary School, the first school to be part of APS’ outsourcing experiment. A group called Purpose Built Schools took over the school this year. Among the changes at Thomasville are intensive instruction in reading/math; pre-K programs; daily “specials” including dance and robotics and a team of parents working at the school to better connect staff with the community BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Third-graders practice in Letricia Henson’s music and chorus class in Thomasville Heights Elementary School, the first school to be part of APS’ outsourcing experiment. A group called Purpose Built Schools took over the school this year. Among the changes at Thomasville are intensive instruction in reading/math; pre-K programs; daily “specials” including dance and robotics and a team of parents working at the school to better connect staff with the community BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Atlanta is in the midst of a complex, expensive effort to improve the city’s worst schools. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, with the school board’s backing, has hired charter school groups to run some schools, while the system closes and consolidates others and spends tens of millions to improve other low-performing schools.

But with every school board seat up for election this year and some parents unhappy about school closures, the political solidarity that enabled Atlanta’s first steps towards transformation could shift, putting Atlanta Public Schools’ reach for transformation in doubt.

Carstarphen’s plan could could reshape entire neighborhoods and put thousands of children on paths towards better lives. It could transform some of Georgia’s worst schools and rehabilitate the reputation of a district still known for the criminal cheating conspiracy that hid the poor job some schools did of educating students. It could prove that charter school-style reform works and make Atlanta a national model for improving big-city schools.

Or it could leave Atlanta with empty schools, hundreds of students stranded in low-performing schools, and yet another set of promises unkept.

If the makeup of the school board changes with this fall’s election, Carstarphen could leave or be forced out and promises of a better future could fizzle. Carstarphen left her last superintendent’s post in Austin, Texas, for Atlanta after voters angry over similar plans to outsource schools to a charter school organization helped elect new school board members.

“I’m not against charter schools. I’m not against Dr. Carstarphen,” said Kenny Hill, who runs a volunteer tutoring program at Adamsville Primary School, which will be closed at the end of this school year and rented to a charter school. “But I am against leaving these bright kids behind … because of whoever’s agenda it is for things to be different.”

“What’s possible”

In the past two years, the Atlanta school board voted to close eight school buildings, saving about $8.5 million, and open three new schools. It funneled about $17 million this year alone into 21 of the district's lowest performing schools to fund more tutoring, teacher training, longer school days and other work.

And the district has hired charter school groups — all nonprofits — to run half a dozen neighborhood schools. The charter groups can hire and fire staff, set school budgets, and determine how schools run. They can remove teachers without following the same state-mandated process other Atlanta schools must use. The outsourcing started this year with a single elementary school and will grow over the next three years.

Third graders practice in Letricia Henson’s music and chorus class at Thomasville Heights Elementary School, the first school to be part of APS’ outsourcing experiment. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

The district pays the charter groups a per-student fee — about $14,500 per student this year. That’s about $3,900 more than it spends per student on average at the low-performing elementaries it’s trying to turn around on its own. District officials say that gap is due partly to costs like central office spending and utilities that aren’t included in each school’s budget. Including those costs could close the spending gap between the two types of schools.

The charter groups expect to raise millions more from foundations and other sources — and they can bring in big donors who don’t quite trust Atlanta Public Schools.

In 2019, KIPP Metro Atlanta, part of a national chain of largely high-performing charter schools, is expected to take over Woodson Park Academy in northwest Atlanta. Carstarphen said the school is expected to be part of a larger community development effort that could attract more than $100 million. “KIPP is going to help raise money we could never raise on our own,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of juice in Atlanta, mostly because of the cheating scandal.”

Atlanta's openness to charter schools attracted the attention of the Walton Family Foundation, a major charter school supporter. The foundation helped pay for the consultants who drafted Atlanta's initial turnaround plans and donated $2.1 million  to the district and the charter groups hired.

Walton education program director Marc Sternberg said, "We think it can affirm something for this superintendent and team and prove something to other superintendents and teams … about what's possible."

But school board member Steven Lee, whose district includes most of the schools closed in the past two years and one of the schools to be outsourced, is dubious. Merging two struggling schools might make financial sense but isn't the best way to help students, he said. And Lee says it's a public school system's core responsibility to operate good schools.

“I have a hard time believing that APS cannot provide quality education for our kids. I don’t think we need an outside provider to do that,” he said.

Signs of hope

Thomasville Heights Elementary in south Atlanta is the first test of whether an outside group can succeed where Atlanta Public Schools has failed.

Thomasville, across the street from a subsidized apartment complex where many of its students live, received an "F" from the state for each of the past five years. Last year, just one fifth-grader passed the state reading test.

Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit with ties to Drew Charter School in east Atlanta, took over Thomasville this school year and will soon take on three more district schools, creating an entire pre-K-to-graduation path separate from district-run schools.

Purpose Built spent about $19,400 a student at Thomasville and took out a loan to cover the extra spending for the next few years. Over time, it expects per-pupil spending to drop to about $1,200 above what it gets from the district, thanks to economies of scale and increased enrollment. That extra money will pay for community support services the group says are essential to the school’s success. Purpose Built plans to raise about $15 million over the next five years to pay for those services.

Thomasville students now have daily specials, including art, band, chorus, dance, robotics and physical education and a two-hour after-school program. Two full-time therapists counsel students. An in-house legal clinic helps families facing eviction or poor housing conditions.

There’s intensive tutoring in math and reading. Teachers use a curriculum developed at Drew Charter School. Thomasville’s new leaders even planned lessons into recess, bringing in a nonprofit to coach students on teamwork and leadership.

Purpose Built officials declined to release internal school test results showing students performance to date, though Head of Schools Barbara Preuss said teachers have seen “marked improvement.” State test results that come out this summer will be the true test, she said.

But Preuss and Thomasville Principal Nicole Evans Jones, both former Atlanta Public Schools principals, aren’t expecting overnight success.

Have we closed the gap in a single year, Preuss asked. “Absolutely not.”

There are signs of hope. Suspensions are down 70 percent from last year, Purpose Built officials say. Three out of four pre-K students had already met year-end goals by February. And dozens of parents actually attended recent parent-teacher conferences.

Sherrilyn Cullins is one of half a dozen Thomasville parents who serve as conduits between the school’s leaders and families. Last spring, plans to outsource Thomasville angered Cullins. She didn’t need another group of outsiders coming to her neighborhood, promising help that would never come, she said at the time.

“I had to see for myself what was going on in the school,” Cullins now says.

Now, she says, her older son can’t wait until Purpose Built comes to his middle school.

What’s next

As Purpose Built’s network of schools grows, some traditional Atlanta schools will close.

One is Adamsville Primary School. Earlier this year, the school board voted to close Adamsville and send students to what is now Miles Intermediate School, putting about 700 students in one building. Two months later, the board voted with no public discussion to lease the Adamsville building to Kindezi, the charter school group that will operate Gideons Elementary this coming school year, to house one of its existing charter schools.

Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s executive director, says he never asked for the new building.

But it seemed to Arnella Fanning that her neighborhood school — where her daughter aces her math lessons, her teacher manages a class of nearly 30 with ease, and everyone greets you by name — was suddenly pushed aside to help a charter school.

Fanning attended some of the dozens of public meetings Carstarphen and board members held after the closure plans were announced, before the board vote. But “I don’t think what anybody said matters,” she said. “I think her mind was already made up.”

Carstarphen is already three years into her time as Atlanta’s school superintendent. That’s about the average tenure for big-city school leaders nationally.

At one recent school board meeting, speakers criticized Carstarphen and the board for their recent decisions. Afterwards, board chair Courtney English told Carstarphen the board had her back. “This board loves you for everything you do,” he said.

Carstarphen says she’s well aware that if new board members are elected in November, things could change. But for now she says she is focused on the work she’s doing in Atlanta.

“I think Atlanta’s a great match for me,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month. “So long as it stays that way I look forward to being in Atlanta for a long time.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered education in Atlanta in depth, from the cheating scandal to subsequent superintendents' efforts to move the district forward. To read more coverage of Atlanta Public Schools' work to transform local schools, visit