Atlanta Public School's massive redistricting plan, which has sparked debate from all corners of city, has drawn the attention of a new challenger -- Emory University.
Last week, Emory Provost Earl Lewis sent a letter to APS Superintendent Erroll Davis urging him to reconsider a segment of the plan which would close Coan Middle School and rezone its students four miles away to King Middle in Grant Park.
Coan remains on the list to close, Davis said late last week by telephone. Parents and children at the school protested the plan at a packed public hearing Friday. Students, some wearing red tape over their mouths, held signs with the words "We are not invisible" and "We are not inferior like you think."
Emory has heavily invested in Coan -- which serves Edgewood, Kirkwood, East Lake and East Atlanta neighborhoods -- with its Graduation Generation program, designed to lower dropout rates by strengthening and enhancing student, parent and teacher engagement. The program was funded by a $1 million gift from Emory alumni.
"This has to do with our focus moreso than anything," said Ozzie Harris, Emory's chief diversity officer. "We are not trying to promote any school over the other. This is where we were in the middle of doing our work."
Lewis wrote that it would be difficult to transfer that program to King Middle. He cited the substantial investments that have already been made in the Edgewood neighborhood, "the extensive network of relationships and community assets that have been cultivated over the past 15 years and its proximity to Emory which makes it easier for faculty and students to travel to and from Coan during the school day."
"In our view," Lewis continued, "closing Coan Middle School would not only be devastating to the children, families, and organizations in the greater Edgewood area, it would represent Atlanta’s turning away from a new direction for improving youth outcomes that the rest of the country is eager to embrace."
On Friday, Davis said the letter was "helpful and gives me better insight," but he reiterated his stance that Coan is not an effective use of district resources.
Under the redistricting plan, 13 schools, most with sagging enrollments, would close. Coan fits that mode.
Coan has space for 900 students, but only has around 300. Furthermore, only 56 percent of the students in the area who should be attending Coan actually go there. A bulk of the remaining 44 percent are in charter schools.
"Those are facts that you can't get rid of or ignore," Davis said.
Harris said while the university believes the program has regional and national significance, he understands the pressures APS faces in rezoning.
"We recognize that tough choices have to be made," Harris said. "We are supportive of that. But the challenge is how do you support children and schools? If you are going to enhance community engagement, that is important to consider."
Davis said he has not spoken to anyone at Emory about the letter, although he saw glimmers of hope in it.
"The letter ends by saying they will continue to remain engaged with us," said Davis, adding that each of the 13 schools slated to be closed have existing partnerships with other organizations, schools or corporations. "Emory is certainly not walking away. They are not saying they care more about the building than they do about children."