Westside Atlanta Charter … Changing Lives One Young Life at a Time

By Mike Klein,

Frank Sinatra made the New York myth and legend seem so attractive – “I want to be part of it, New York, New York” – but after living her entire life there Adrienne Brooks wanted out. “You rush through everything in New York. You eat fast, you walk fast, you go, go, go,” she said. “I’m like, I need more grass area, not so much cement everywhere.”

Brooks especially wanted something different for her son, Christian. Three years ago this single mother said good riddance Big Apple, hello Atlanta. “I needed more space for him. I needed him to be outside running, playing and just enjoying that. You get that here in Georgia.”

They moved into an apartment northwest of downtown Atlanta and then Brooks went shopping. Not in Buckhead, not for shoes and swag, but shopping for her young son’s education. Brooks enrolled Christian in first grade at Westside Atlanta Charter School when it opened in fall 2013. She enlisted as a parent volunteer and later was hired as the school’s parent liaison.

“My budget is tight. It’s just me and my son,” Brooks said. “Every little penny I’m looking at to see where can this go, how much can I afford to spend, am I able to send (Christian) to a great school where you get the private school experience but I’m not paying the private school price.”

A field trip to Westside Atlanta Charter School was part of the “Amplify School Choice” conference hosted April 24-25 in Atlanta by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Two days of wonky talk led by experts from prominent policy organizations was wrapped around an opportunity to tour Westside Atlanta’s 163-student campus northwest of downtown. 

“Most parents have had the experience where their kids were just lost in the sauce, meaning they were in these big classrooms,” Brooks said. “If your child is not that child that just stands out, the teacher has so many kids that they don’t get that one-on-one-attention. Here it’s very small. The teachers have personal relationships with the children and the families.”

Westside Atlanta is located on Drew Drive in what can appropriately be described as a revitalization community. “Homes are starting to come out of the ground again,” said executive director Pete Settelmayer. He describes the location as “between Bankhead and Buckhead.” Forty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Twenty-seven percent live in West Highlands which is a combination of middle class and subsidized public housing.

“This was set up to be the East Lake of the west side about 2004, 2005. Then we all know what happened in 2007,” Settelmayer said. The economic recession that started in 2008 significantly slowed down the aggressive project. And therein, an opportunity developed. Columbia Residential founder Noel Khalil gave Westside Atlanta Charter a $1-per-year lease to occupy unused commercial space for up to 11 years. The campus also includes a large modular facility for the Upper School.

Like every public charter school, Westside Atlanta is required to meet all Georgia state educational standards, but that is merely a starting point. “Our focus is to teach the children, not teach the test,” Settelmayer said. “We’re going to teach them to think critically.  We’re going to teach them to solve problems.  We’re going to teach them to have a go at things on their own with our support because at this level they need support.”

The Franklin Center conference brought together experts on virtually every subject central to parental school choice, especially funding formulas. The concept that public tax dollars should follow the student would do much to put parents in charge of education rather than the current model that favors funding school districts rather than funding individual student education.

“Americans want more freedom in almost every walk of their life,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice senior fellow Ben Scafidi told the conference. Scafidi is former chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. “The reason we’re not getting it in schools is because there is a very well-funded, entrenched opposition but it’s going to come. Intelligent people that aren’t paid by the public school system are not on their side anymore. The politics have changed.”

Politics were not part of what Adrienne Brooks was thinking about when she decided to start over in Atlanta. For young Christian she wanted to replicate the quality of the Catholic School education she had as a child in New York, but at a price that she could afford. Brooks looked at several options before she decided on Westside Atlanta Charter School.

“It works because you have huge parental involvement,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to have your teachers involved; that’s their job. They teach because they love it; that’s their passion. It’s another when you actually have the parental support. If the parent support is not there it’s hard for the school to survive. We make it feasible for them to be involved.”

Mike Klein specializes in criminal justice, public education and economic development journalism and event production. He has held leadership positions with several media organizations including CNN as Vice President of News Production. 

The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.  

Bobby Jones’ Words Inspire Education Reform

By Andrew Lewis

The great Bobby Jones once said, “competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course — the one between your ears.”

What’s at stake is way more than a 10-foot putt. That ‘five-and-a-half-inch course between your ears’ is what determines if a child will be successful, not on a golf course, but in life.

Which is why the recent release of results for Georgia’s new grading system for public schools, the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), is so disturbing. Only 23% (15 out of 66 schools) of Richmond County Public Schools are operating at an academic level of “C” or greater.

Richmond County is not alone. 43% of public schools across the state failed to meet an academic level grade of “C” or higher.

Do we need further proof that too many of our children are not prepared as best they can be for higher education or the job market? The Education Trust, a well-respected national education advocacy organization, notes that nearly one in four American children are unable to pass a basic entrance exam for the armed forces.

Unless we step our game in public education, we will only continue to fail our students and their parents. They deserve better!

It’s time to do things differently in K-12 education. One way is to expand public school options and empower parents by embracing charter schools.

For families who can’t afford to move to a “better” school district, and even for families who can, charter schools empower all parents with the ability to ask one simple question; ‘What is the best academic setting for my child — the traditional zoned public school or the charter public school?’”

In Georgia, the growth of autonomous, self-governing charter public schools, that are 100% open to any child who wished to attend, has been mostly limited to the Atlanta metro area. But improved academic results are already paying big dividends for districts like Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

APS charter schools outperformed the district across all grade levels. At the elementary grade level, APS charter schools outperformed the district by 7.1 percent, by 12 percent at middle school, and 12.2 percent at high school.

APS, still stinging from the black eye of a cheating scandal, can actually point with pride to its innovative charter schools. One teaches Mandarin Chinese, another pioneers small classes of just 15 students, another uses Latin to support vocabulary development and prepare students for success in rigorous high school and college programs.

And one APS charter school uniquely offers every student the opportunity to learn in the East Lake Community of Atlanta, located on the edge of Georgia’s second most famous golf course, Robert Trent Jones’ East Lake Country Club.

Drew Charter School is the signature piece of a community revitalization effort of the East Lake Community. From the 1920’s until the 1970’s, East Lake was a community gem in Atlanta. But in the 1970’s, East Lake fell on hard times seeing poverty, crime, and high school dropouts rates spiral out of control. The famous East Lake Golf Club fell into disrepair and almost closed.

That was until community leaders from East Lake and across Atlanta joined forces to rebuild the community and establish an autonomous, self-governing charter public school as its centerpiece. That school, Drew Charter School, is now considered one of the top performing public schools in Georgia, improving the lives of countless children.

It can happen in Richmond County as well, if education leaders and citizens are

willing to place all education options on the table. Charter public schools are just one tool in the K-12 tool belt, but they are tools of reform that we must learn how to wield, to improve our public school systems in Atlanta, Augusta and all over Georgia.

If our children are going to become successful members of our community, we must help them master the ‘five-and-a-half-inch course’ between their ears.

Andrew Lewis is Executive VP of the Georgia Charter Schools Association