Fulton County schools are embarking on a first-of-its-kind initiative to offer parents significantly more options for what kind of school their children could attend.
Among the proposals are Montessori schools and dual-language immersion schools, where students from kindergarten through eighth grade can learn another language. Fulton is also looking to partner with a major local university to create an early honors college program that would provide an opportunity for the brightest students to get college credit.
Fulton hopes to have the schools running by fall 2016 and is creating them now, with board members expected to iron out plans this summer. The proposed schools are in addition to the magnet, charter and other alternatives Fulton currently offers. The school district wants to keep more families from leaving the public school system, as some in Fulton have done.
“Fulton County schools are in the midst of one of the more aggressive efforts of its kind in Georgia to provide school choice options for students,” said Louis Erste, associate superintendent for charter schools with the Georgia Department of Education.
“While they do not have the largest number of magnet schools, they do appear to have the most variety in the choice options they offer for students.”
Fulton’s school choice effort is aimed at giving parents and students an alternative to the traditional public school model. State education leaders are clamoring for more charter schools and alternatives to the traditional model, which they view as having failed students in some districts.
The fourth-largest school system in Georgia, with about 96,000 students in 100 schools, Fulton offers four magnet programs with another in the planning stages; it also has eight charter school programs.
Under the proposed initiative outlined at a recent school board meeting, Fulton is looking to create three dual-language immersion K-8 schools in the central, northeast and northwest areas of the district. Two Montessori schools serving K-5 students are also being proposed for the central and northeast areas.
The Early Honors College, which could be located on the college campus Fulton ends up partnering with, would offer increased academic rigor for high-performing students for entry into the University System of Georgia. Fulton leaders say a significant number of students are prepared to enter that system.
Fulton surveyed thousands of parents throughout the district to find out what school choices they’re looking for. Leaders say more options are needed in part because they are trying not to lose students to private schools and other alternatives to public school.
More than 15 percent of Fulton County school families chose private schools this school year, school leaders say. In addition, Fulton’s transition to a charter system has been popular, but more than 1,600 families are already on charter school wait lists for next fall, with most of those in south Fulton.
The district doesn’t know yet how much extra the proposed choice schools might cost, though they expect additional funding may be needed for the Montessori model development.
“It’s this idea … about empowering communities,” said Ken Zeff, Fulton’s interim superintendent beginning June 2. He’s taking over from Superintendent Robert Avossa, who was selected as the new leader for the school district of Palm Beach County in Florida.
“This is not an attempt to dismantle traditional public schools,” Zeff said. “Traditional-model schools are performing great for a lot of kids. But some parents want and some students would do better in a different environment.”
What is not envisioned in the school choice initiative: adding private school vouchers, removing attendance boundaries or creating countywide transportation to the new schools.
Education scholars say lack of transportation for students outside the immediate vicinity of the schools could be an obstacle to equity.
“If you provide busing, it becomes much more expensive,” said Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. “If you don’t provide transportation, then they’re basically saying those who don’t have a car can’t really make these choices. You’re making it a disadvantage for those who are less affluent.”
Fulton is trying to provide school choice options to all regions of the district to avoid potential inequities, and intentionally rolling out the new options slowly to see what works and what may not, Zeff said.
“It takes time. We’re trying to be very deliberate about it,” Zeff said.
State legislation in recent years has pushed for more charter schools and alternatives to the traditional public school model, but state educators and others say they have not seen enough high-qualified groups applying for charter schools to fill the demand.
Georgia has 115 charter schools, close to 4 percent of the schools in the state; nearly five years ago, the number was 110. Charter advocates and state education officials say the number of charter schools should be higher. They laud districts like Fulton that are attempting to offer more choices.
North Fulton County parent Diane Jacobi, who has two children in high school, said she’s encouraged by the district’s efforts to create more choice and believes there is a demand for it.
“Each community needs to figure out what works for them,” she said. “In some communities that may be a more traditional model, in others it might mean STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) labs or fine arts programs or dual-language immersion.
“These things take time to implement,” she added. “The largest hurdle may be getting the communities to understand that. To do things right, it can take time.”
By Rose French
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution