Half a dozen local and national foundations are footing the $500,000 bill for high-powered management consultants to develop a plan to improve Atlanta schools in the face of potential state takeover.
About half of Atlanta’s 80 schools are at high risk of being eligible for state takeover if voters next year approve Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed state takeover district.
It’s unlikely that more than a few schools throughout the state would be selected for takeover initially. Still, having so many schools at risk is one more reason Atlanta district leaders say they need to move even faster to improve some of the state’s worst schools.
“We have to get it right,” school board chairman Courtney English said. “Not just because of the threat of state takeover but because we have a moral imperative to make this right for our children.”
In November 2016, voters will weigh in on a constitutional amendment that would allow control of low-performing schools to be shifted to the appointed superintendent of a new “Opportunity School District.” That would mean decisions about how students are taught and how local tax dollars are spent would no longer be solely up to locally elected officials.
This summer, the Atlanta school district announced it would work with Boston Consulting Group, an international consulting firm that counts many Fortune 500 companies among its clients, to develop a plan for improving Atlanta’s lowest-performing schools.
The plan, which will vary by school, could include replacing principals and teachers or giving teachers more training. More controversially, it could also include closing some schools and turning others over to nonprofit charter school operators.
“We’re not taking any idea off the table at this point,” Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen will present an initial review of potential strategies at a Tuesday town hall meeting and reveal more information at her State of the District event on Oct. 8, district officials said.
The idea of bringing in nonprofit charter school operators doesn’t sit well with some.
“It would give the appearance of privatization of a public school,” Raynard Johnson, a member of a committee advising the district on school improvement plans, said.
Boston Consulting Group’s fee is being paid by the Walton Family Foundation, founded by the owners of Wal-Mart, and by family foundations with ties to Atlanta business leaders: the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation, Nonami Foundation, Kendeda Fund and the Sartain Lanier Family Foundation.
The Walton Family Foundation has given millions to support the growth of charter schools. The foundation’s other Atlanta recipients include Drew Charter School, KIPP charter schools, the Kindezi charter schools, Westside Atlanta Charter School, Christo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School and Teach for America, Walton spokeswoman Daphne Davis Moore said. Other Georgia recipients include the Georgia Charter Schools Association and the Alliance for School Choice.
Moore said the foundation’s support for the consulting work was not centered on any specific strategy.
“We are encouraged that this project will actively solicit the community’s input and rely on the expertise of national experts so that APS is well informed when crafting a strategy that best suits its needs. The progress made in cities including New Orleans, Memphis, and Washington, D.C., shows that this type of student- and community-centered process can make a real difference for school districts and the students they serve,” she said.
Several of the other family foundations have given to a variety of education and community-development groups including individual charter schools and Teach for America.
“Together, with other funders, we are supporting the development of a community-centric comprehensive strategy that will give APS tools and muscle to turn around its lowest performing schools,” Blank Family Foundation President Penelope McPhee said.
Other donors did not respond to requests for comment from the AJC Friday.
Representatives from two foundations — the Blank and Glenn family foundations — also sit on the committee guiding district decisions on the school turnarounds.
“We thought it was important to be transparent throughout the process so they could have insight as to how the strategy is shaping up,” Jernigan said. “We’ve really worked hard to have a very inclusive process.”
APS and the consultants have also sought input from parents, teachers, principals and other district staff in surveys, interviews and focus groups.
But many of the initial possibilities presented by the consultants sounded all too familiar to some parents.
“These are the same things that are being said year after year after year after year,” South Atlanta parent Tammy Dixon said at a recent advisory committee meeting. “We don’t need another survey. We need some action.”
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