The Atlanta school board will decide next week whether to move forward with a plan to create a custom rating system for its schools that could lead to closing struggling schools and expanding high-performing ones.
Atlanta Public Schools has been working for months to develop what it calls the "System of Excellent Schools" project. The board is scheduled to vote March 4 on the creation of a rating system to gauge how Atlanta schools are performing. If approved, officials would spend a couple of years refining how schools are judged before using the new measuring stick. The district also must decide what should happen to schools based on their scores.
Options for struggling schools include closing them, merging them with a higher-performing school or hiring an outside group to take over their operations. The latter would be an extension of a controversial turnaround strategy the district has used in recent years. By next school year, groups connected to charter schools will be running six schools through contracts with APS, and critics of the pending rating plan fear it will lead to more outsourcing.
Successful schools could be replicated, expanded and their leaders given more freedom to operate away from the mandates of the district’s central office.
Here are five things to know about the proposal:
Why it matters
If the board gives the green light, the rating system and the restructuring that it would prompt would represent a significant new approach for APS.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education said the agency isn’t aware of any other school districts in the state that have created their own school scorecard.
Adoption of the plan would add APS to a list of about 30 districts around the country that have launched related efforts.
Critics and supporters
Advocates have lined up to oppose and praise the plan.
Proponents include school board Chairman Jason Esteves and a coalition of nonprofit and educational groups, including RedefinED Atlanta.
RedefinED, a charter-friendly local nonprofit, covered the $235,000 consulting cost to create the plan and also picked up the bill to send three Atlanta school board members to Denver last month to check out that school system's similar model.
Those in favor of the plan believe it will make schools more accountable by annually grading their progress and pushing APS to intervene when schools are failing. They think it will help ensure that all Atlanta students can attend a good school.
Critics, however, have blasted the plan as a way to justify handing over schools to charter groups, citing examples in Denver and other school districts where such work has led to a surge in charter schools and schools with more autonomy.
They’ve criticized the district’s previous attempts to turn around schools and said parents and community members are exhausted by frequent changes and disruptions to their schools.
“‘Excellent’ schools is a private takeover. You are closing schools, giving large charter companies contracts at the taxpayer’s expense and restructuring communities,” wrote Atlanta Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner, in a Feb. 18 open letter to Esteves.
At a February board meeting, Esteves acknowledged the tension: “I recognize that for some the System of Excellent Schools work creates anxiety or frustration, nervousness. For others it has ignited hope and excitement.”
The rating system APS develops would be unique to the district.
The state has its own report card that assigns schools a grade, but Atlanta’s ratings scale, or “framework,” would measure some things the state doesn’t.
Atlanta’s scorecard would place schools into five tiers based on how well teachers and leaders are doing, how much families are engaged, students’ social and emotional skills, and if schools are closing the academic gap between black and Hispanic students and white students, among other measurements.
Numerous details of the rating system still need to be worked out, and APS would need to find or develop a data source to measure some of the components. The district reported this month it does not currently have a way to quantify about 16 percent of about 70 different measures that would make up a school’s final rating, and more than half of the items the district wants to measure come from data sources that need to be evaluated and improved.
The district would spend this summer and next school year developing the rating system, finding data sources and determining how much weight to give specific components.
The rating system would be piloted next school year, and its first year of implementation would be in 2020-2021, according to a district timeline. It wouldn’t be until the 2023-2024 school year that the district would make the first structural changes to schools based on the rating results.
One of the most contentious parts of the plan is the menu of options that spell out what could happen to schools that succeed or fail based on the rating system.
Like the rating system, those options are in flux.
Schools who land in the scorecard’s top tiers could be replicated or expanded. Their leaders could be allowed more freedom to operate and create a cluster of similar schools.
Schools that slide into the bottom tier would face consequences. They could be closed, merged or the teachers and principal forced to reapply for jobs. The district also could look for an outside group to run the school.
District leaders have not committed to specific actions. Several times in recent months, Esteves has asked board members if they oppose any of the proposed interventions.
“Is there anything on this list that gives you heartburn?” he asked this month.
A few board members asked questions and said they would need to see more information before they voted to make changes to specific schools. But no board members have demanded that something be removed from the list of potential options.
“Are there things on this list that I am unlikely to vote for? Yeah, probably. Is there anything on this list that I could never vote for in a million years? No, because I don’t know what the specific circumstances would be,” said board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown at February’s meeting.
The public has one more chance to learn about the plan before the school board votes.
The district will host a community meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, at Hope-Hill Elementary School, 112 Boulevard N.E.
The school board is expected to vote on the plan a week later at its March 4 meeting.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com