If you have heard of charter schools, you have probably heard an explanation along these lines:
Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated schools which are open to all public school students who apply.
The order in which those applications are accepted, however, varies from school to school. Some schools accept English Language Learners first, others set geographic preferences. For example, the Success Academies in New York City first accept 20% English Language Learners, then give preference to students within the local school district.
In general, I do not find the use of geographic preferences problematic when the geographic boundaries are large enough to include a diverse community. However, in the city of Atlanta, one charter school has drawn its geographic preferences narrowly, resulting in de facto segregation.
The opened in August of 2001, moving into the closed Slaton Elementary School building. The school's website states that the parents who founded the school "aspired to send their children to an urban public school with a diverse student population." It also states that "ANCS is racially and economically diverse, serving a student population that is representative of the city of Atlanta."
Based on data collected by the State Department of Education, the second claim does not appear to be true.
The school is not economically diverse and its ethnic diversity has fallen year after year. Last year, only 19% of Atlanta Public School's Kindergarteners were white, but 75% of ANCS's kindergarten class was white. Last year, only 13% of the school's students qualified for free and reduced lunch programs while 75% of APS studnets qualified. At the local traditional public school, , 67% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch programs and only 22% of it's kindergarteners were white.
ANCS's rate of economic disadvantage is lower than all but two of APS's 107 schools. The rate is lower than Brandon Elementary and Smith Elementary in Buckhead. It is lower than Springdale Park which serves Midtown and Virginia Highland. It is lower than which serves Inman Park, Candler Park, and Lake Claire.
This finding is particularly surprising when you consider that Neighborhood Charter School is located in a very diverse area of the city.
Within a one-mile radius, homes are currently listed on GA MLS ranging in value from $16,900 to $425,000. However, ANCS does not provide equal opportunities for entry to resident's in a radius of the school's campus. Instead, it has drawn its own geographic boundaries, providing preference to the communities east of the school which are more affluent.
Ormewood Park residents drive two miles to reach the school. Mechanicsville and Pittsburgh are closer to the school, but their children do not get a shot at the lottery until all of Ormewood Park's students have been accepted.
In general, I am an unabashed supporter of charter schools and school choice. However, when charter schools draw specific geographic preference lines, including affluent neighborhoods, but excluding equidistant poor communities, they result in de facto segregation. That is unacceptable and regressive.
If ANCS wants to serve the neighborhood, I support that goal, but the "neighborhood" should include all the neighbors, not just those to the east who can afford expensive homes.
I urge the leaders of ANCS to amend the school's charter, expanding its geographic preference boundaries. Without such a change the aspirations of school's founders to send their kids to a public school with a "diverse student population" will not be met.
For more local school analysis and commentary, vist my blog Grading Atlanta.