Can charter school operators save sinking Atlanta schools?

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Denaya Todd’s heart sank when she learned where her son would attend first grade.

“Oh, no,” she thought. “Not Thomasville.”

For years, Thomasville Heights Elementary School has been one of Atlanta’s worst schools. It ranks near the bottom of all Georgia schools under the state’s rating system.

Just a quarter of fifth graders pass all their core classes and state tests. About 90 percent are on welfare or food stamps. Many walk to school from the apartment complex across the street where parents say gunfire is all too common.

Atlanta school Superintendent Meria Carstarphen wants to fix Thomasville.

She’s proposed hiring charter-school groups to run Thomasville and four other schools.

Her plan tests the theory that outside groups can do a better job of educating black, low-income students than their local school district.

If it works, Atlanta will have succeeded in turning around high-poverty schools that have struggled for years — a task at which dozens of other districts have failed. Carstarphen will have delivered on her promise that under her leadership Atlanta, home of one of the nation’s largest school cheating scandals, would actually educate all of its students.

“I was hired 18 months ago for this very purpose,” she told parents earlier this month.

But her plan is risky. Few districts nationally have tried similar plans, and their results have been mixed. And the groups Carstarphen would hire have little experience turning around schools as poor and troubled as Atlanta’s.

Still, if Carstarphen doesn’t do this to Thomasville now, the state might do it later.

If voters approve Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School district plan this fall, Thomasville could be among about two dozen Atlanta schools up for potential state takeover the following year. The state could close them, turn them into charter schools or run them itself.

As districts nationally face takeovers under similar plans, Atlanta is one of the few to attempt drastic steps to get ahead of the bulldozer and cling to some measure of local control.

“Right now we have a choice. If the state takes a school, they could close it, end of story,” Carstarphen said.

In Thomasville’s gray bunker of a building down the road from the federal penitentiary, Denaya Todd said her son has been doing the same lessons for months. Last year, he was in the accelerated program in his Fulton County kindergarten class.

“Something has to be done,” Todd said.

The plans

Atlanta Public Schools is recovering from the legacy of another leader with ambitious school improvement plans: former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who died last year while under indictment for her alleged role in a districtwide conspiracy to cheat on state tests.

Today, the district is still too broken to fix its worst schools on its own, Carstarphen says.

She has pushed plans to hire charter operators, though district surveys of parents and school staff ranked that below other school improvement options. About half of respondents said bringing in charter operators could work, though. She allocated one month for the public to learn about the final plans, which also call for merging or closing five other schools, before the board votes in March.

School district officials instructed the charter groups Atlanta would hire not to respond to interview requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, officials with the groups said. The district refused to release the groups’ full written responses to its solicitation for the turnaround project, and it refused to release responses from all 27 groups who applied.

Some parents say the targeted schools are already improving and they they don’t know much about the outside groups.

At a community meeting this month, former Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit affiliated with Atlanta’s Drew Charter School. Purpose Built would take over Thomasville next school year and three other schools — Slater Elementary, Price Middle and Carver High — in the coming years. Another local nonprofit charter school operator, Kindezi, would run Gideons Elementary School starting in the 2017-18 school year.

“We only go where we’re invited,” Franklin told parents.

“We didn’t invite you,” parent Sherrilyn Cullins called out.

“Yes, you did. APS did,” Franklin responded.

Cullins loves her fourth-grade daughter’s teachers. They go out of their way to help students, even buying them coats or school supplies, she said. And Cullins said she sees signs of improvements at Thomasville.

“Don’t go messing with this just ‘cause you have a new superintendent,” she said.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has asked Carstarphen and the board to slow down.

“I think we need some more time to talk about these things,” he told Carstarphen at a public meeting. “Don’t tell me there isn’t time to do the right thing.” Carstarphen did not respond.

Classroom success

Drew and Kindezi are some of the highest-rated public schools in Atlanta.

Drew attracts substantial donations from local foundations and other groups, and Purpose Built says it could bring similar donations to the schools it would run. Kindezi offers classes of about 6-8 students, paying for more teachers by cutting administrative expenses.

This is a chance for them to prove that charter schools’ successes are due to how they teach — not the students who choose their schools. Charter schools have been accused of skimming the best students and pushing out difficult ones. The schools in Carstarphen’s experiment — which technically will not be charter schools — will have to accept the students they have now, she said.

In its sales pitch to the district, Purpose Built cited its work with a yet-to-open charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Like Drew, the school would be part of a neighborhood revitalization effort. And it cited the training it's providing to an Omaha, Neb., school trying to replicate "the Drew Model." That work is expected to fully launch next school year.

Kindezi opened its first school in 2010 and took over the campus of a low-performing Atlanta charter school this school year. Students in the school it took over have improved in reading and math by more than half a grade level, Kindezi said in its pitch.

Most Kindezi and Drew students come from low-income families. But students at the targeted schools are even needier. About 80 percent of their families are on food stamps or welfare. At Drew, about 35 percent are, though school officials say that rate was higher when the school opened. At the first Kindezi school, that figure was about 45 percent.

School board member Leslie Grant, who represents all but one of the schools that would be turned over to the charter operators, declined interview requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, though at a board meeting she called Carstarphen’s plan “extremely well thought-out.” Board member Eshé Collins, who represents Gideons Elementary School, said she was “listening closely to the community feedback.”

Atlanta already has one of the highest proportions of independent charter schools of any large Georgia district.

District officials have said teachers at the targeted schools could reapply for their jobs, but if hired back they would no longer be district employees. Their pay and benefits would be set by the charter groups.

The schools would be “designed to create the operational conditions” of charter schools, according to Purpose Built’s sales pitch.

Teachers are afraid, said Karen Floyd of the Georgia Association of Educators. The day after Carstarphen announced her plans, more than half of teachers at Thomasville were absent.

"They've done everything they can do." Yet, "They're being thrown out," Floyd said.

No guarantees

Carstarphen has tried this before.

As superintendent in Austin, Texas, she led the district to hire charter school group IDEA Public Schools to operate a low-performing elementary school. Some families at the school left, and a year later a school board with newly elected members ended its partnership with the IDEA. A year after Austin's contract with IDEA ended, Carstarphen was named a finalist to lead Atlanta Public Schools.

In Philadelphia, 45 low-performing schools turned over to outside managers by a state commission in 2002 showed little difference in reading and math performance compared to other local schools.

Early results from a separate, smaller group of Philadelphia schools turned over to charter operators in 2010 show reading and math performance has improved, in contrast to district-wide declines. Improvements at many of the charters have outpaced those in schools the district tried to turn around itself. But a few operators have been put on notice or had their schools transferred to others due to poor performance.

Green Dot Public Schools' transformation of Los Angeles' Locke High school from one of the nation's worst schools has received national recognition — though at Locke, teachers wanted to bring in the charter group, against district opposition.

In Denver, the state forced the district to hand over its lowest-performing middle school to charter operator KIPP. Three years later, the school closed. Officials said they couldn't find a principal capable of running it.

Nationally, what Atlanta is attempting just hasn’t been tried a whole lot, said Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“There is not a deep base of examples in terms of evidence to draw from.”

Carstarphen’s plan could work — if the schools get enough freedom from the district’s bureaucracy, if they forge strong relationships with families, if Carstarphen and her board stay in place — he said.

At that point, “It has a pretty good chance of working … but there are no guarantees,” he said.

Omari Hargrove, a junior at Carver School of the Arts, isn’t looking for guarantees.

At a recent community meeting, Carver students spoke about daily fights on campus, gambling at school and classmates more focused on selling drugs, than studying.

“I’m not sure if the changes they’re introducing are the ones they need, but the situation we have now is not acceptable,” Hargrove said.

“Maybe they’ll work,” he added. “At least it’s a plan.”