Editor's note: Emory University, which has deep ties to Coan Middle School sent this letter, dated March 12, advocating against its closure to Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. The University shared its letter with East Atlanta Patch.
Dear Superintendent Davis,
We have some concerns, noted below, about your recommendation released last week that listed Coan Middle School as one of the schools that Atlanta Public Schools would close as part of its school redistricting. It is our hope that you will reconsider your decision to close Coan Middle School and that you or your representative would be available to meet with us and officials of the Zeist Foundation, Families First, the H.J. Russell and Company, and Pastor Toni Belin-Ingram to discuss our concerns.
As you may know, Coan is the site of Emory’s most ambitious university-community-school partnership, and the culmination of more than 15 years of Emory’s collaboration with APS and a wide range of community partners in the Edgewood neighborhood. Emory University has a long history of partnering with Atlanta Public Schools to enhance educational opportunities and improve learning outcomes. Our faculty, staff, and students are currently engaged in many APS schools at all levels throughout the district. Our partnerships include a wide range of activities including student mentors, a nationally acclaimed urban debate program, teacher enrichment and professional development to improve math and science instruction, and the placement of pre-service teachers and teaching interns in APS classrooms, to name but a few.
I am writing to provide you with a brief of our history and work with the Edgewood community and its schools, and in particular Graduation Generation, Emory’s flagship university-community-school partnership. Emory’s involvement in the Edgewood neighborhood dates to the early 1990s when the late Dr. George Bramley, then head of pediatrics in Emory’s School of Medicine, founded the Whitefoord Community Program, anchored by the state’s first school-based health clinic at Whitefoord Elementary School. Since its founding in 1994, the full-service health clinic has been staffed by Emory physicians, residents, and student volunteers, and additional school-based health clinics have been established at Coan Middle School, Toomer Elementary School, and Crim High School. Over the years, the Whitefoord Community Program has expanded its programmatic offerings to include a variety of programs in support of child and family development, and most recently the development of affordable housing, due largely to the generous support of the Zeist Foundation, which was founded by the Brumley family. In addition, over the past five years, Emory, through its Community Building and Social Change Fellows Program, has invested over $300,000 in the Edgewood Community, working with the Zeist Foundation, the Whitefoord Community Program, Mayson Avenue Cooperative, residents, and other organizations to enhance the place-based community building underway and to foster stronger connections with the neighborhood’s public schools.
One year ago Graduation Generation was formally launched at Coan Middle School. Graduation Generation is a collaborative, comprehensive, cross-sector, community-based initiative designed to fully mobilize a community’s assets in support of its schools to increase the academic achievement and personal development of Coan students as a means to lower the dropout rate and increase high school graduation rates. Graduation Generation is led by an executive committee comprised of representatives from Coan Middle School, Atlanta Public Schools, Communities In Schools of Atlanta, and Emory University’s Office of University-Community Partnerships. A governing council, consisting of a broad group of stakeholders who are deeply invested and committed to the success of Graduation Generation, includes representatives from Atlanta Public Schools (Middle School Transformation, central APS administration), the Zeist Foundation, the Whitefoord Community Program, Mayson Avenue Cooperative, Greater Smith Chapel, and residents, business leaders, and parents.
Graduation Generation was made possible by a $1 million gift from an Emory alumnus and other gifts that have been raised on behalf of Graduation Generation. Emory and Communities In Schools have leveraged additional funds in direct support of Graduation Generation programs and activities. Additional investments in support of Graduation Generation and the Edgewood Community have also come from local philanthropic organizations such as the Zeist Foundation and the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. The Zeist Foundation alone has invested more than $20 million in Edgewood. Of particular note is the Zeist Foundation’s development of 140 units of affordable housing (designed especially for families) that are now coming on line and are within two to three blocks of Whitefoord Elementary and Coan Middle schools.
Investments through Graduation Generation have primarily supported three interconnected sets of activities that strengthen and enhance student engagement, parent engagement, and teacher engagement, three of the most important determinants for preventing school drop-out based on extensive national research. These funds have been used to hire teachers, provide training and curricular enhancement, particularly as it relates to problem-based learning that is directly tied to the school’s community garden, a wide variety of student enrichment activities that included supporting more than 103 Coan students in attending summer programs last year (artistic, academic, athletic) at Emory and other area colleges and universities, and an extensive orientation program for all rising sixth graders and their families that was held prior to the start of the current school year, to name but a few.
Though our collective efforts are but a year old, there are many positive signs that this strategic approach is succeeding. Coan teachers, students, and parents have a newfound sense of hope and optimism, and there are many signs that the culture at Coan has begun to shift. At the most recent Graduation Generation Leadership Council meeting, APS officials shared information based on their tracking of middle school performance this academic year that indicated that the rates for chronic absenteeism and disciplinary' actions at Coan Middle School are below the APS benchmarks for middle schools. They also noted that Coan is distinctive among middle schools in that its trajectories for these indicators have consistently improved each month of the school year, whereas the patterns for these indicators are more erratic at most other APS middle schools.
The investments made at Coan through Graduation Generation would be very difficult for Emory to transfer to King Middle School. Emory chose Coan as the demonstration site for Graduation Generation for a number of reasons, including the substantial investments that have already been made in the Edgewood neighborhood, the extensive network of relationships and community assets that have been cultivated over the past 15 years, and its proximity to Emory which makes it easier for faculty and students to travel to and from Coan during the school day. It is this set of assets that our donor was most interested in leveraging in support of improving educational outcomes to enhance graduation rates. Nationally, there is a growing movement toward the greater integration of public education and comprehensive community development that draws on community assets and investments in affordable housing, health, environment and sustainability, economic development, public safety, and the like. This is manifest in such initiatives as the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Obama Administration’s Promise Neighborhoods, the Coalition for Community Schools, and Ready by 21, to name but a few.
All of the emerging empirical research on efforts such as these point to the critical role that a community’s social capital, networks, and assets play in promoting positive educational outcomes. There are only a small number of neighborhoods across America that have the conditions, context, and assets to support the further development and dissemination of this holistic approach to improving outcomes for children, families, schools, and neighborhoods, and the Coan/Edgewood community is among that elite group. In our view, closing Coan Middle School would not only be devastating to the children, families, and organizations in the greater Edgewood area, it would represent Atlanta’s turning away from a new direction for improving youth outcomes that the rest of the country is eager to embrace.
In closing, it is our hope that you will reconsider your decision to close Coan Middle School. We don’t know how — if at all — we will be able to reconfigure the Graduation Generation initiative should Coan be closed, though regardless of the outcome, Emory will remain engaged with Atlanta Public Schools and contribute in any way that we can to improve outcomes for children, families, and communities.
As I am currently out of the country, I encourage you to contact Ozzie Harris, Senior Vice Provost for Community and Diversity, to arrange a meeting so that we may discuss our concerns further. Ozzie can be reached by telephone at 404-727-2611 or by electronic mail at email@example.com.
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs