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.  

Mike Klein Reports on Proposed Opportunity School Districts

[Editor’s Note: Journalist Mike Klein shares his insightful, blow-by-blow account of yesterday’s two-hour House-Senate discussion on Governor Deal’s proposal to create Opportunity School Districts in Georgia.] 

By Mike Klein,

Governor Nathan Deal’s administration began to build the intellectual equity case for his “Opportunity School District” initiative during a joint House-Senate education committees hearing at the State Capitol. Deal is asking this year’s General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that if approved by voters would give the state a new tool to combat failing schools.

The worst failing schools could essentially become “wards of the state” until they are fixed or suffer some other fate. Deal has said 23 percent of Georgia public schools graded “D” or “F” for three consecutive years.  The administration needs two-thirds approval by the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before voters in  November, 2016.  Georgia is considered a school choice leader because of progress in charter schools and tax credit scholarships but it does not have a recovery school option.

The Governor’s Office announced legislation today:  “In the governor’s proposal, persistently failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 on the Georgia Department of Education’s accountability measure, the College and Career Performance Index (CCRPI), for three consecutive years. The Opportunity School District would take in no more than 20 schools per year, meaning it would govern no more than 100 at any given time. Schools would stay in the district for no less than five years but no more than 10 years.”

The administration did not testify about specific legislation during the State Capitol hearing, relying instead on building-the-case witnesses from two neighboring states — Louisiana and Tennessee — that have similar models.  In Louisiana they are called Recovery Schools and in Tennessee they are called Achievement Schools.  The intent is the same, to provide an alternative option to rescue failed schools.  With alternatives come challenges and questions including facilities, funding, attendance zones, attracting high quality teaching and leadership talent and accountability.  All of these will undoubtedly be addressed many times during the General Assembly’s consideration of Governor Deal’s proposal.

The final moments of the two-hour hearing might have been the most dramatic when Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), testified that millions of dollars spent in Race to the Top education federal grants does not appear to have made much difference at public schools where those millions were invested.  The question he was asked and his answer are quoted at the bottom of this article.  This exchange makes a compelling argument that spending money, more money, does not by itself work.

Here is a description of the House – Senate committee hearing discussion as it occurred.  Note: the joint committee did not release an advance witness list.  The hearing was held at the Coverdell Office Building across from the State Capitol.  Watching online, the room seems packed to overflow, including senior policy advisers from the Governor’s Office.

1:10 – 1:45 p.m. — The first portion of the hearing has been devoted to witnesses from Louisiana who are discussing the state’s use of recovery school districts, especially since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated public education facilities, specifically in New Orleans. The first witness is Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana school superintendent and considered a reformer in public education accountability.  Recovery School Districts were in place in 2005 but the state moved to re-emphasize non-traditional models as it rebuilt the ravaged public education system.  The second witness is Neerav Kingsland, chief executive officer at New Schools for New Orleans since May 2012.  New Schools is frequently cited as an education success story.

1:45 p.m. — Former Tennessee commissioner of education Kevin Huffman is discussing the state’s “Achievement School Districts” which are an alternative to traditional K-12 public education classrooms.  Charter schools are one part of this structure.  Huffman talked about trying to “make a match” between what communities need and charter schools that best fit the needs.  Huffman said one of the greatest constraints on growth is finding great leaders and teachers.  Memphis is a target area for this education innovation.  There currently are 16 Tennessee achievement schools.  Huffman said, “The early signs are promising but I think it’s early to judge because we have so few schools.  We look at New Orleans and that is what we want. We want the schools in Memphis to improve” similar to successes seen in Louisiana.  Huffman resigned his commissioner’s appointment in January 2015.

2:00 p.m. — The next witness is Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA).  A native Georgian, Rauschenberg moved to New Orleans in 2007 after he graduated with honors from Georgia College.  Rauschenberg taught math for three years at Joseph S. Clark High School in New Orleans. He described the experience as “a tremendous struggle” because many students could not perform at or anything near grade level.  The school converted to a recovery school model several years ago; Rauschenberg said today overall academic performance at Joseph S. Clark High School has increased about 20 percent.

2:05 p.m. — Question Time from Senate and House members.  At this point there has not been any presentation about Governor Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District.  Committee members are asking questions to the Louisiana and Tennessee witnesses about accountability, how the states attracted quality instructional talent and whether charter schools were for-profit or non-profit models.

2:50 p.m. — Toward the end of the discussion Senator Donzella James asked a lengthy question. In part, she said, “Who is going to identify chronically failing schools, what’s the root cause of them and are we just taking money away from the public school system rather than putting more in it which seemed to be the reason that we were having the problems in the first place?”  Her question was directed to Sam Rauschenberg.  This was his response:

“I haven’t been in all the conversations about the bill but I will say our agency (GOSA) has been part of the evaluation work, the Race to the Top work, much of which was to turn around low-performing schools.  The state received a significant infusion of money for low achieving schools as well as school improvement grants (from) the federal government.  A lot of these schools got millions of dollars to do so and our analysis which is available on our website showed that only a few of those have made some gains but overall they have not made tremendous gains.  The model that was chosen was a transformation model which had very limited changes in the overall structure of the schools relative to the other options but there was a significant infusion of money into those schools over a three-year period.  I would go to those as examples of schools that were low-performing and had a lot of resources to answer that part of your question.”

3:00 p.m. — The meeting concluded.  No next meeting was announced.

Mike Klein has written about Georgia K-12 public education since 2010.  He held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  

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.

 

Mom, Apple Pie, and Charter Schools

By Jamie Lord

The Georgia legislature convenes on Monday. Governor Deal begins his second term. A slate of newly elected House and Senate members from both parties will be sworn in. Incumbents return from the off-session hiatus ready to do business.

As lawmakers gavel in and prepare to do the people’s business, there’s one issue they might do well to consider: public charter schools. A new poll suggests the way to voters’ hearts is through charter schools.

Georgians support public charter schools by a greater than two-to-one margin, 66% to 24%. Once voters are reminded that charter schools are independent Georgia public schools that are free to be more innovative and are held accountable for improved student achievement, support jumps to 72% overall.

Dig a little into the crosstabs and the numbers get even more interesting. Women support charter schools 71%. Men support charters 74%. White voters? 70% in favor. There is even more support among African American voters with 74% favoring public charter schools. For voters with school-aged kids, support is almost 80% while voters who don’t have kids in school still support charter schools 70%/20%.

The poll went beyond asking about general support or opposition for charter schools and asked voters if they believed “Students in public charter schools should receive the same amount of money for their education as they would have received in their traditional district school?” Again, 70% of voters in Georgia said “yes.”

If I were an elected official (mercifully, for everyone, I have no such desire), I’d be looking for an issue that garners 70% or more support from every key demographic: men, women, White, Black, younger, older.

I don’t need your vote. I support independent, self-governing and highly accountable public charter schools because every student in Georgia deserves an effective education that prepares them for life. For many students, public charter schools are their lifeline to academic and lifelong success. For far too many other students, hope has been deferred another year, waiting for another lottery.

The great news in this week’s poll is that what is good for Georgia’s students happens to also be political gold.

While legislators, even those within the same party, often disagree, there is one thing they almost unanimously desire: reelection. With that in mind, legislators would be wise to take a long, favorable look at public charter schools this legislative session.

Jamie Lord is a government affairs consultant in Georgia. She lives in downtown Atlanta, where she observes daily a lack of educational equality, which makes her passionate about working to give kids more options. 

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.