APS Redistricting: Cook Elementary Supporters Seek Closure Reprieve
'This is not only a school, this is a family.'
Parents — some with tears in their eyes — pleaded with Atlanta Public Schools officials last week to keep Cook Elementary School open and off the redistricting closure list.
Cook Elementary, which is in the Capitol Gateway neighborhood and is the zoned institution for other neighborhoods including Summerhill and Cabbagetown, is one of the 13 APS Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. is recommending for closure.
The closure of underutilized schools, APS says, would save the district $6.5 million a year, or $500,000 per school.
Cook, which has capacity for 638 pupils, has 312 enrolled students and 67 of those are transfer students from other zones.
District officials told parents the school's small population is hurting it.
"Right now, when we have schools that have fewer numbers, you don't get the full-time staff that you need," Betsy Bockman, APS' executive director of the cluster of schools that includes Cook said at the March 15 meeting.
"So if we can make schools about 400 to 500, at least, elementary, then you can get a full-time counselor, full-time foreign language that you all don't have now. We have got to have higher numbers so the children can get the resources that they need."
It explains why the Cook's kids would be split four ways with some going to D.H. Stanton Elementary in Peoplestown, Hope-Hill Elementary in Old Fourth Ward, Whitefoord Elementary in Edgewood and Centennial Place Elementary in Northwest Atlanta.
Combined the schools have total capacity for 2,486 students but only 1,618 pupils, Sharron Pitts, APS' interim general counsel, told parents.
The new schools children would be rezoned to would still have capacity for more students if there' is a spike in population, she said.
But some parents said the decision to close seemed to be made in a vacuum, with APS not taking into consideration that the school was not just a learning center, but also a lifeline for the community.
One parent was moved to tears as she explained how Cook's principal, Sharyn Briscoe, helped her son get the help he needed after she went to doctors to no avail.
Other parents questioned if their children were being sacrificed because Cook, the worst performing academically in East Atlanta Patch, was caught up in the cheating scandal that engulfed the district last year.
In a subsequent state investigation into the cheating two teachers admitted to erasing and changing answers. The report also said then-principal LaPaul Shelton covered up the cheating and allowed some kids to retake the tests. Shelton denied those allegations.
Schools officials reiterated the changes are designed to increase student enrollment at the remaining schools so they can get the resources they need.
But some parents, several from the Summerhill neighborhood questioned the sincerity of that statement because under the plan, children from Summerhill would be rezoned to D.H. Stanton, which like Cook, has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal benchmark designed to identify where a school needs to improve.
What's more, Stanton leaves much to be desired from a physical standpoint: the playground is full of missing or broken equipment, steps leading to the school are crumbling and the several letters in the sign at the main entrance are missing.
"We are the only neighborhood that's being zoned from one school that's not made AYP to another school that's not making AYP," one parent said. "Why has Summerhill been chosen to go from one under performing school to another one?"
Pitts said the parent should write her question and submit it to the district, but said AYP isn't necessarily the main factor on closures.
"I don't know that the AYP status was a driving factor," Pitts said, adding she didn't know Stanton's specific AYP status. "I do know that one of the criteria was to try not to send from a higher-performing school to a lesser-performing school. It wasn't an overriding one."
Even teachers from Cook spoke out saying the district's methods for garnering parental input, such as Internet questionnaires, put their school at a disadvantage because a good portion of Cook families don't have web access.
One teacher even said parents from other schools and neighborhoods had already met with APS officials and advocated for their schools before teachers at Cook even learned it was on the chopping block.
At times, Pitts, who was chief of staff under former APS superintendent Beverly Hall, seemed testy with parents who expressed frustration that she and other APS representatives didn't have answers to their questions.
At one point in the meeting, one Summerhill father asked why APS seemed to be ignoring the community's request that it be zoned for Parkside Elementary in Grant Park. The Summerhill neighborhood, in its official position statement, wants to be zoned for Parkside.
"This isn't a meeting about Parkside," Pitts quipped. "This is a meeting about Cook."