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Atlanta, in search of “vision,” calls time out on new charter schools

Next year, Atlanta will have two new charter schools, but they won’t be part of Atlanta Public Schools.

Confused?

It’s the result of two events: a decision by voters in 2012 to create a state-level charter school agency, and the Atlanta school system’s apparent decision to tap the brakes on new charter schools.

The State Charter Schools Commission can authorize schools that don’t win approval at the local level, and last month it did just that, approving Ethos Classical Charter School and Harriet Tubman School of Science and Tech as elementary schools to open in the fall of 2019.

Both say they offer unusual content, a focus on the classics at one and on the use of data at the other. They have something else in common though: both were denied an APS charter last year.

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The school system rejected Ethos over environmental concerns about the proposed facility and a “lack of community support;” the Harriet Tubman school was rejected over concerns about its funding model, organizational structure, recruitment strategy and leaders’ knowledge of education law.

Both tried again this year, but gave up. The district wanted more time to make a decision — time these schools were unwilling to give.

Emily White, the lead founder and head of school for Ethos, said a delay would have pushed back the opening date, which would have been unfair to parents and students.

“After three years of making promises to families, it was just time to make it happen,” she said.

APS has generally been seen as receptive to charters: it’s hired charter operators to run some of its poorest-performing schools and eight months ago allowed one of its existing charter school operators, KIPP, to add 1,100 students.

The official reason the district gave Ethos and Tubman for the requested delay: “the Atlanta Board of Education required additional time to clarify and refine the district’s strategy related to charter schools,” the Aug. 6 school board agenda says, adding that the charter strategy is “part of a larger strategy development process that is launching this summer, focused on creating a system of excellent schools for every student.”

When asked for details about that nascent strategy, a spokesman sent a statement that said the district is trying to develop a “clear vision” to create a “system of excellent schools” for all students, along with a plan to “operationalize” it. But they’ve a ways to go: the school board still hasn’t defined their “vision of school excellence.” The board will hash out their vision at a retreat on Aug. 23.

The spokesman added this: “We wouldn’t describe this process as ‘APS tapping the brakes on charter schools as it figures out its strategy’ as you mentioned,” adding that charter schools “are one component and may be a critical part” of a system of excellent schools.

The school board rejected the Ethos and Tubman petitions on Aug. 6, but it was a formality. These schools had moved on, securing charters from the state commission along with two other metro Atlanta schools on July 25.

Charter schools typically must offer something the neighborhood schools do not. Tubman will serve students in west Atlanta, and will have an online component, plus a a “data-driven model” with “real-time” analysis. Ethos will focus on the classics, “conceptual and procedural math” and the arts; it will staff two teachers per classroom, taking students from the city and Fulton County.

Becoming a state charter school is more appealing now that lawmakers have increased their funding.

White attended the legislative hearings earlier this year, and is familiar enough with the new funding formula to know that her school will do better than it would have prior to the new law. Still, her school will get less money per student than it would have under Atlanta, schools, a top spender on a per pupil basis.

Even with a funding gap, White is confident her students will outperform comparable APS schools, which will be necessary to maintain her charter. She noted that the nearby public schools have just 30 percent of students reading on grade level by third grade, a crucial year for literacy.

Ethos will do better, she said. “That’s our promise to parents. We will work hard to make it happen.”

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