Some Atlanta-area communities could lose control of their struggling schools if voters approve a plan proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal next fall. The two districts with the most schools at risk are DeKalb County and Atlanta Public Schools. The pressure is on, and the districts are pulling out all the stops to avoid a potential state takeover.
Pressure To Perform
At a recent DeKalb school board meeting, Morcease Beasley, DeKalb’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained the district’s plan to avoid a potential state takeover.
“Not only [will we have] additional support for academics through our student success tutors, our Georgia Milestones mentors and after-school extended-day programs, we also have our engagement coaches that are strategically placed at various schools, our student success coaches, our post-secondary transition specialists that help by improving the graduation rate,” he said.
Beasley took almost 20 minutes to explain the entire plan. DeKalb has identified 54 schools that could be vulnerable to a potential takeover. Beasley’s challenge is making sure they all improve enough this year to avoid that possibility.
Tosha Croom teaches at Columbia Middle School, which is on the list of 54 schools. Her students vary widely in their academic abilities. Columbia is a magnet school for high achievers, but it also has a large percentage of children from poor households.
“It’s hard to teach a child when a parent tells you, ‘You know, Mrs. Croom, I can’t read,’” she said. “And that kid is the sweetest kid; they’re not the troublemaker. So, I will be intrigued to see what the state comes up with that we’re not already doing.”
An Unclear Alternative
Croom is active in her classroom. She walks to every corner, talks to individual children and makes sure they understand. Because her students are constantly assessed, she’s also honest with them about their progress. She explains their performance on a recent test.
“These three standards, as an eighth-grade class, 48.3 percent mastered those standards,” she tells her class.
Scores like these put the school at risk of a potential state takeover. So, teachers at Columbia decided to turn testing into a competition. The class with the highest scores next time will get a pizza party.
If it works and helps improve the school faster, that’s good news for Deal.
“Nothing would please me better than for us to have no chronically failing schools in the state of Georgia, and that the constitutional amendment would simply be something we could put in the closet and never have to use,” Deal said at a recent conference of educational leaders.
Deal says there are 139 failing school now that could be targeted for takeover if voters say “yes” to his plan next year.
“So, as you work hard to get those schools in your systems off the list, just know that the state board, school superintendent’s office, the governor’s office, will be there to help you,” he said. “We want you to do it.”
Columbia Middle School’s principal, Keith Jones, said he’d welcome that kind of help.
“If the state has some initiatives they know will work, I wish they would share them with us now,” he said. “I mean, if they have something special that they have, they’re going to come in and take us from ‘focus,’ to just a regular, traditional school, we would like to know so we can implement it now.”
Some details of the potential state takeover plan are yet to be determined. Officials say some decisions would depend on the needs of the individual schools, but money would play a big role. A takeover could deeply cut into the budgets of systems like DeKalb and Atlanta. Money that would go to individual schools would instead go to the state to run them.
Committing To Change
That threat is enough for APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to hold town hall meetings about failing schools. More than 100 people showed up at a recent meeting at APS headquarters, where Carstarphen was challenged by some community members. Parent Michelle Head said she was tired of hearing officials talk about change, especially in the wake of the test-cheating scandal.
“These are our children. These are our schools. This is our city. These are our neighborhoods, and we’ve all invested our time, our energy in trying to save all of this,” she said. “You haven’t invested anything in this; you’re just getting paid a salary. This is our life. This is our life’s blood. When you’re gone, we’re all still going to be here.”
But Carstarphen said she’s committed to improving APS.
“It’s a broken system,” she said. “I don’t know why, as a community, we don’t understand that Atlanta Public Schools is effectively broken. We have the lion’s share of every problem you could possibly imagine in urban public schools. But I am here. This is my community. They are my babies and my children, and I expect of myself to do a good job with or without the support of anyone else.”
But she does have some support. APS hired a consulting group to help develop a plan for low-performing schools. It’s also hired one of Deal’s former advisers, who designed the takeover plan. But Carstarphen made it clear to the crowd — state takeover or not — it’s time for huge improvements in APS.
“I try not to judge people, but I will say this: I know what I do in my life,” she said. “I know that I care about Atlanta. I know I didn’t come here by accident. I’m from Selma. I’m Black. I have seen what has happened to our children, and I can’t stand it for this city. I cannot stand it. We cannot do this to our Black community, and it’s got to be fixed.”
APS says 26 of its schools — or 60 percent — would qualify for state intervention if the governor’s plan were signed into law today.
With so much money at stake, heavy lobbying is expected in the coming year by supporters and opponents of the takeover idea. But school systems aren’t waiting for the vote count and have already started their own improvement plans.