Review of APS turnaround try shows lifting schools isn’t easy, quick

After Atlanta Public Schools spent several years trying to lift its lowest-performing schools, research unearthed gains in math but little evidence that certain pricey strategies are improving academic outcomes.

The district hired Mathematica Policy Research to evaluate turnaround work that began in 2016. Its study highlights the importance, and tremendous difficulty, of improving failing schools, where parents want children to learn more and where the district has spent tens of millions of dollars.

“I think they are doing a lot of the right things. It’s turning the Titanic right before it hits the iceberg,” said Richard Quartarone, president of the Atlanta Council of PTAs. “It is a lot of work because … these communities and schools have been neglected so long.”

In a multipronged strategy for schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, APS hired charter-school groups to operate a handful, closed or merged others, and poured money into about 20 schools to hire math and reading specialists and provide social services and other support.

Gains in math

Researchers compared turnaround schools to a select group of other Atlanta schools to see if the turnaround schools improved more. They found the turnaround work produced math gains at both district-run turnaround schools and those outsourced to charter operators.

In 2017-2018, students at the district-run schools gained the equivalent of about two additional months of learning. Three schools run by Purpose Built Schools saw similar math gains. Students at Gideons Elementary, run by the Kindezi Schools network, gained five months of math skills and three months of reading and writing skills but fell behind in science and social studies.

At most of the schools, researchers found the strategy had no significant impact on reading and writing, which experts said takes longer for students to master.

They also found little evidence that two specific strategies — hiring math and reading specialists and bringing in Communities in Schools of Atlanta to connect students with tutors and social services — improved academics or suspension and attendance rates.

Despite the uneven results, APS officials believe the effort is helping students.

“We could not leave APS where it was,” Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said. “We had to do something.”

In two years, she noted, the percentage of turnaround-school students scoring at the lowest level on state tests decreased.

Tony Ford, principal at Perkerson Elementary School, one of Atlanta’s turnaround schools, talks to students in August 2018. Jenna Eason /

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Mixed results at outsourced schools

One controversial element of Atlanta's strategy was hiring charter groups to run some of the most-troubled schools. Over three years, APS will have paid Purpose Built and Kindezi about $62 million to operate and staff five schools. A sixth, Woodson Park Academy, will be turned over to KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools next school year.

APS could hand more schools over to charter operators in coming years in a districtwide "Excellent Schools" plan, aimed more broadly at boosting all schools. That plan could lead to a rating system that grades schools and could lay out what happens to those that fail or excel. Carstarphen said the turnaround research will help APS know what works and what doesn't as it develops that plan.

A grant from the Walton Family Foundation is paying for Mathematica’s roughly $900,000 fee for three years of turnaround study.

It found “mixed success” for three schools run by Purpose Built. Math scores went up, but so did suspensions.

Barbara Preuss, head of schools for Purpose Built, wasn’t surprised. “I think everybody needs to remember that we are in a turnaround of chronically failing schools, and the research is saying that it takes more (time) to do this,” she said.

She said suspension rates have gone down this year as Purpose Built focuses on improving school culture, helping students resolve conflicts and teaching social and emotional skills.

The schools also are doing more for students who struggle academically and spending more time this year on hands-on projects, central to Purpose Built’s model.

Kimberly Dukes, a parent with children in district-run and Purpose Built schools, said the turnaround work hasn’t been perfect, but the key is for schools to involve parents and be accountable. She’s a member of Atlanta Thrive, a parent group that supports the “Excellent Schools” plan.

“It’s trial and error, and we have to do different things in different places so we know if it’s working for the children,” said Dukes.

Researchers found that Gideons, which Kindezi began operating in 2017, improved math and English test scores, but fifth-grade science and social studies scores dropped and suspensions may have increased.

Gideons’ experience illustrates one difficulty in teaching: Devoting more time to a subject where students lag takes time away from other areas. Principal Danielle Washington said the school is spending 40 more minutes daily on reading, but that may also be why science and social studies scores slipped.

“We were in a state of emergency with literacy,” she said.

Gideons is adjusting its schedule to expand science and social studies instruction, and has made other tweaks.

Specialists, social services

Mathematica’s examination found little impact from reading and math specialists and the services offered through Communities in Schools.

Over three years, the district will have spent about $35 million supporting turnaround efforts at about 20 schools.

In each of its 14 most-needy schools, the district invested about $680,000 this year. The money paid for extras such as Communities in Schools and included about $102,000 for each reading and math specialist. Next year, only eight schools will receive that amount, those the state has identified as among the bottom 5 percent in Georgia, determined largely by standardized test scores.

Eight other schools will receive lower amounts.

While the district will continue to pay for math and reading specialists and Communities in Schools, it's making adjustments.

In 2017-2018, each of the lowest-performing schools received at least one math and one reading specialist, who were expected to work in small groups with students who needed the most help. But researchers found they sometimes took on additional responsibilities such as training teachers and regularly worked with higher-achieving students.

Carstarphen said the district will focus on devoting specialists to the lowest-performing students instead of pulling them in other directions.

It also will continue to pay Communities in Schools to work in turnaround schools even though researchers found “no evidence” that work improved suspensions, attendance or academic achievement.

In the two years researchers studied, Communities in Schools site coordinators split their time between two schools. They checked student attendance, connected students with tutors, and provided services to families, among other work. Turnover was a problem at some schools. When a coordinator left, it could be several weeks before a new one arrived, the report noted.

This school year, APS brought in more coordinators so schools each had one full-time worker. It will give Communities in Schools time to implement its full program, “and then we’ll see what the results say,” Carstarphen said.

CIS spokeswoman Cecily Robertson declined to comment.

Expectations exceed results

Atlanta’s scattered results point to the difficulty of the challenge.

It can take three to five years for schools to turn the corner, said Kerstin Carlson Le Floch, managing researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

She said evidence backs up parts of Atlanta’s plan, such as providing students who have faced trauma some of the extra support CIS offers.

Hiring reading and math specialists can be a “reasonable approach,” but results depend on how the services are implemented. There’s less evidence, Le Floch said, that charter operators are successful at taking over and turning around existing schools.

School turnaround is complex, requires the right leaders and careful planning.

“The expectations are always really high,” Le Floch said. “Rarely do districts meet those high expectations.”

Why it matters

In 2016, Atlanta Public Schools launched a turnaround effort to improve low-performing schools attended by thousands of students. The initiative has cost tens of millions of dollars and included hiring charter-school operators to run some schools. A recent report, that comes as APS considers its next districtwide improvement plan, found the turnaround strategy has had mixed success.