D.H. Stanton: Peoplestown Plants The Seeds Of A Hoped-For Transformation
Once on the brink of closure, its supporters say they're working on a turn-around plan.
PEOPLESTOWN — On a recent tour of D.H. Stanton Elementary, Langston Longley, a first grade teacher, showed his visitors newly planted flowers and landscaping in the school's courtyard.
As Longley and students worked in the garden, teachers who passed the windows that overlooked the courtyard came outside to inquire about what was happening.
"We're planting flowers," Longley answered them, recounting the story to his visitors. The teachers' response was simple but significant:" 'Do you need any help?' "
The creation of the flower garden and the renewed pop of life in the courtyard underscores what the surrounding Peoplestown community says is taking root at 970 Martin St.: Change.
In the old D.H. Stanton, they would not have inquired, Longley said. In the old D.H. Stanton, outside interests took precedence with teachers who felt battered and broken down.
But the old D.H. Stanton, which, in recent weeks was targeted for closure in Atlanta Public Schools' districtwide rezoning, no longer exists.
In its stead, supporters say, is a community institution that now has the key tools it needs to become the school Peoplestown says it can and should be.
Among them: an interim principal who has taken a collaborative rather than combative approach with the neighborhood, a supportive community and reengaged teachers.
What the community is hoping for and has received, for now at least, is time.
As with the flowers in the courtyard, this new D.H. Stanton will need that time to grow and flourish.
And to prove itself.
Danielle S. Battle, APS' regional director of the grouping of schools that includes D.H. Stanton, thinks it will.
"I'm so excited about D.H Stanton and where it's going to go," she said at a recent community meeting of Peoplestown residents about the school's future.
"It's going to blow up."
'School Of Excellence'
D.H. Stanton has a storied legacy, having opened in 1958 after months of pressure that Peoplestown's residents placed on APS to open a walkable school in their community.
Its existence meant Peoplestown's children didn't have to cross multiple sets of railroad tracks south to get an education.
But to outsiders, it may seem as if D.H. Stanton's best days are behind it.
After all, the school was days away from being voted into APS' cemetery of shuttered schools across the city.
A last-minute and surprise addition to the recommended-for-closure list, the neighborhood made a Herculean effort to keep D.H. Stanton's doors open. In the end, D.H. Stanton, along with two others, managed to get themselves removed from the final list of the unlucky seven schools slated for closure when this school year ends.
With that battle over, now Peoplestown's focus is on an academic turn-around — one that's necessary to prove that APS' Board of Education made the right choice in keeping the school open.
The task before them is daunting.
The school has room for 726 students, but only 230 kids attend it, leaving it less than 40 percent full.
Stability also has been a problem as the school is on its third principal in the last couple of years.
One retired following the cheating scandal and the second one went to another post within the district.
Its academic performance is even more alarming: One of the worst-performing schools in the state as ranked by standardized test scores, D.H. Stanton placed 1,098th out of the state's 1,176 grammar schools last year. In 2010, it ranked 992nd.
All of its students qualify for the free and reduced meals program.
But at a recent weekend meeting of parents, residents and teachers, Clara Taylor, D.H. Stanton's interim principal, vowed the school will turn around and that she will accept nothing less on her watch.
The school will not run away or hide from its problems, nor will it be trapped by those problems, she said.
"We are going to be a school of excellence. There's no doubt about it," Taylor said.
"Change does not happen overnight but change has started already and we are all a part of that change."
'Willingness To Collaborate'
At the meeting, she laid out nine principles that are critical to turning D.H. Stanton around. Several of them highlighted what many in Peoplestown said had been lacking at the school in terms of administrative leadership: Collaboration.
A veteran educator who arrived at D.H. Stanton just March 12, Taylor's actions signaled a cultural change at the school, said the Rev. Elizabeth Roles, associate director of programs, service learning and co-vicar at Emmaus House.
A social service organization of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, Emmaus House focuses its efforts on Peoplestown and has run a summer camp at the school for more than three decades.
The first thing Taylor did, Roles said, was to hold two community meetings for input from residents, parents and teachers about what they needed from her and how they could work together.
"That was like a breath of fresh air for us," Roles said.
Indeed, one of her first actions was to order replacement letters for the ones missing from the school name and address residents' other physical plant and safety concerns.
Another part of Taylor's vision: making herself and the school open to the community on a philosophy that her role as principal isn't to lord orders top-down, but to seek ideas from the bottom up.
"We're here to serve the community," Taylor, a former administrator at King Middle School, said. "We exist because of the community."
That sense of service goes into even the tiny gestures that have not gone unnoticed.
At the closure meetings the district had with parents to get feedback, she made it a point to greet everyone in attendance personally and welcome them.
"She’s so vested for being there just a few weeks," Peoplestown Neighborhood Association board member Feroza Syed said of Taylor. "She's been amazing."
It's a sharp contrast to her predecessors who had a decidedly more standoffish stance with the community, which gave the impression that its ideas and help were not really welcome, residents and teachers said.
"I do think there was a break down in communication. It was hard to know what their struggles were," Roles said.
"I think that it's hard to look back and know exactly what caused all the issues that they’ve had, but I think the collaboration and the willingness to collaborate is very present with the new leadership and administration."
That's also fostered a renewed sense of partnership between the teachers and the community.
"We had no idea that you were out there wanting to come in," Longley, the first grade teacher, said at the weekend meeting. "It's like we broke down the Berlin Wall. Now, we're here to work together."
The wall between Peoplestown and D.H. Stanton's teachers may have come down, but inter-neighborhood divisions seem to be rising.
When D.H. Stanton obtained its closure reprieve, that meant APS had to figure out a way to make keeping the school open make economic sense in an era of fallen property tax revenues.
The rezoning of schools was brought on by the district's need to address overcrowding in some schools and less-than-half-full scenarios in others.
D.H. Stanton couldn't remain open if Peoplestown was the only neighborhood zoned to attend it.
So the district moved Summerhill, the neighborhood directly north, to D.H. Stanton's attendance zone.
APS suggested the idea in earlier rezoning proposals but Summerhill protested vehemently, arguing it wanted to go to Parkside Elementary in Grant Park.
Summerhill got its wish, but with D.H. Stanton remaining open, APS officials say it now has to join Peoplestown's school zone.
APS has promised to give the school the rescources and tools it needs to be a success, but Summerhill residents and leaders say they're not willing to risk their childrens' educations now for the promise of a better school in the future.
APS' Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the final attendance maps April 30 at district headquarters. The meeting is at 3 p.m.
Peoplestown, a community Summerhill has worked with to address issues of concern to both neighborhoods, is to be appluaded for its turn-around efforts, said Josh Murtha, president of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill.
But Summerhill threatens to sue the district if it's forced to go D.H. Stanton.
An Action Plan
Long before D.H. Stanton was put on the closure list, the school's supporters had been working on vision for the future.
The plan was to go beyond keeping the school open. The vision is to make the school an APS showpiece, one that reflects Peoplestown's resurgence.
The community's five-pronged action plan addresses security, a Pre-K program with a component for autistic children, a facelift of the school and engagement and buy-in both from within Peoplestown and communities outside it.
On the security side, the community is more engaged with the Atlanta Police Department's Zone 3 leaders and has formed a security patrol staffed by off-duty APD officers, much like other communities including Grant Park and Inman Park.
The results are promising, Syed said.
The March crime incident report fit on one page — a feat that hadn't been done in at least four years.
"Our security patrol is obviously working," Syed said. "It's springtime and for our crime rate to be this low in this month prior is amazing."
The Pre-K piece looks at creating a regional center at the school to service southeast Atlanta.
By PNA's education committee' calculations, the 30315 Zip code alone, which includes Peoplestown, portions of Summerhill, Grant Park, Chosewood Park and Thomasville Heights among others, has some 500 children who would be in the Pre-K age range.
Battle, the APS regional director, said she is working to get at least one Pre-K class established at the school by the start of the 2012-13 school year.
Addressing the concern raised by others in neighboring communities about the physical condition of the school, the group plans to lobby for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax — or SPLOST — money to give the school what they say is a much-needed facelift.
But Kevin Lynch, the PNA's president, said there are things they as a community can do themselves to fill in the gaps that APS can't.
If it means a few weekends of clean up and beautification days, they need to be prepared to do that, he said.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece of the plan borrows from the business world's Stephen R. Covey, the leadership expert and self-help guru behind the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" philosophy.
William Teasley, another community activist, said that philosophy, which develops and builds leadership qualities in adults, works with children, too.
Teasley is the education committee chairman of Neighborhood Planning Unit-V, which represents the interests of Summerhill, Capitol Gateway, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, Pittsburgh and Adair Park.
Covey's company, FranklinCovey, created a school-focused model, called the "Leader In Me," which focuses on building those skills the company says will not only make them better leaders as adults, but build a foundation to become successful academically as students.
It's not cheap — requires buy-in from parents, administrators, teachers and students — and it costs $60,000, which Teasley said the neighborhood could raise through private grants and working with Peoplestown's existing corporate partners.
Teasley noted the program is credited with turning around A.B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C.
A.B. Combs in 1999 was much like D.H. Stanton is now. It had room for more than 800 pupils, but only served 350.
Its test scores were abysmal — the worst in Wake County schools.
It was threatened with closure.
A chance meeting with between A.B. Combs administrators and Covey led to the creation of "Leader In Me."
Now, A.B. Combs has seen its test scores rise and discipline problems fall. In 2006 the school was named the No. 1 magnet school in the United States and now has a waiting list for entry that exceeds total capacity.
D.H. Stanton could enjoy the same success, Teasley said.
"We keep hearing this mantra of 'underperforming, underperforming,' well there are a lot of underperforming schools who have turned around and become great schools," Teasley said.
"And they have done that with the engagement of the community, not with the community standing outside throwing stones at it saying 'get better on your own.' "