Departing Atlanta school board chairman confident in course it set

Courtney English could barely make it through his last big speech during an Atlanta Board of Education meeting.

The school board chairman, who in 2009 at age 24 became the youngest candidate elected to citywide office in Atlanta, choked up as he bid farewell to the district to which he devoted his twenties.

“I’ll turn into a ball of mush, and I don’t want that to happen,” said English, now 32, as he offered his parting remarks during the December session.

He paused to compose himself.

Someone handed him a box of tissues. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen patted his back.

“It’s mush time,” English said.

For much of his eight-year board tenure, including the last four as chairman, it was crunch time.

He helped Atlanta Public Schools navigate a massive cheating conspiracy and its turbulent aftermath, a 2013 election overhaul in which he was one of only three to return to the nine-member board, the hiring of a new superintendent, and controversial decisions aimed at turning around struggling schools.

Despite the emotional goodbye, English said he's at peace with his departure. Instead of seeking re-election in November, he ran for an at-large city council post and narrowly lost to City Councilman Michael Julian Bond.

A new school board will be sworn in Jan. 8 and choose its next chairman.

English is confident the incoming board will support the strategies and vision set in motion during his terms. Six incumbents ran for re-election, and voters returned all of them.

“The one thing I am absolutely certain of is the voices of Atlantans as it relates to the progress of APS,” he said, in an interview last week. “People ultimately doubled down and said, ‘We want more of this.’ ”

Yes, English said, problems remain. Literacy rates must go up. The district needs to close the achievement gap for black students. More work has to be done to promote equity throughout the system.

“But the path we are on is undoubtedly a path that voters agree with,” he said.

That path has been bumpy at times, and not everyone has agreed with the direction.

Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, president of Southwest and Northwest Atlanta Parents and Partners for Schools, said she saw English grow from “an overzealous type of young person” to a leader who could better articulate his ideas.

They clashed over leadership styles and philosophy. She thinks the board should have sought more community input on big decisions, and she opposes the district's hiring charter school groups to run some schools.

“I have not appreciated this total charter takeover. He’s led the charge in the last eight years,” Hayes-Tavares said.

That move is "probably the most controversial" part of the district's improvement plan, English said. He contends APS had to do something "dramatic" to rescue low-performing schools and that early results are promising. Thomasville Heights Elementary School, which reopened last year under a nonprofit's management, scored a double-digit gain on this year's state report card.

English said the outsourcing is a small part of a larger strategy, which included reconfiguring and closing schools, shifting principals, offering more tutoring, and other interventions.

What nobody questions is the severity of the crisis facing the district during English’s early years on the board.

A brewing scandal involving teachers who corrected student answers on standardized tests erupted into a criminal investigation and led to racketeering convictions of 11 teachers and administrators. Superintendent Beverly Hall was indicted but died before her trial.

English recalls it as a district on fire.

In 2010, he was among a slim majority that sought to oust the sitting board chairman, LaChandra Butler Burks. (Around the same time, an ethics panel sanctioned English for misuse of a district credit card. He apologized and said he did not fully understand the terms of using the card.)

English said some people were more concerned about preserving reputations than rooting out the cheating problem and those who raised questions took a lot of heat.

“Some of us were persecuted, frankly,” he said. “I’m proud of the stance that we took. It was hard. It was ugly.”

What followed was an ongoing effort to regain trust and revive schools. English served on the search committee that hired Carstarphen, who replaced an interim superintendent.

The district implemented mandatory ethics training, cut money from the central office budget, and launched academic initiatives. APS improved graduation rates and opened health clinics, he said.

The board’s vice-chairman Nancy Meister, who was elected the same year, said English handled tough situations effortlessly and made sure everyone’s voice was heard.

“He kept the kids in mind as we maneuvered down a path to gain public trust and restore morale within the district,” she said, in a written statement.

English, a graduate of Frederick Douglass High School and Morehouse College, taught social studies in the founding days of the all-male B.E.S.T. Academy. He now works for an educational technology company and said he plans to run for public office again.