Editor's note: Burgess-Peterson Academy, the elementary school serving East Atlanta Village had a meeting Tuesday night of parents, teachers staff and Atlanta Public Schools District 3 Board member Cecily Harsche-Kinnane and Natalyn Archibong, the Atlanta City Councilwoman who represents District 5. The Burgess-Peterson Academy community shared with East Atlanta Patch the letter it sent to APS superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. Wednesday morning.
To Superintendent Davis and the Atlanta School Board;
We would like to thank you for the effort that has been put in regarding the demographics and redistricting study. We recognize that it can be a difficult process and that the element of public involvement can make an already complex task even more so. We acknowledge the challenges of satisfying a diverse and vocal constituency, and we respect the attempts that have been made by the consultants to create a plan that is both pragmatic from a fiscal and capital standpoint, and sensitive and responsive from a community standpoint. Though the work has clearly evolved since last summer, we would like to offer comments on the most recent iterations. We can distinguish our concerns into two categories: Planning and Personnel.
With regard to Planning, we have a few thoughts about both options:
School consolidation. We are happy to welcome either East Lake or Whitefoord into our school. However, we know that in both cases the communities have expressed a desire – should they be consolidated – to stay north of I-20. As residents familiar with the area, we are well aware of the boundary (physical and experiential) that the interstate represents, and the potential effect it might have on at least two metrics of educational quality: Student attendance/tardiness, and parental involvement. BPA is not the most accessible consolidation option for East Lake; a look at the resulting “bowtie” school zone makes that relatively clear. On the other hand, consolidation with Whitefoord presents its own issues. We worry about the effect a closing would have on the numerous Edgewood community initiatives, and we are more than a little hesitant about simultaneously adding a portion of Cook’s zone on top of that move. It is our sense that introducing three distinct communities at once may result in a school that ends up identifying with none.
In our estimation, the ideal is that all three of the more central elementary schools – Toomer, Whitefoord and BPA – would remain open, with each taking a portion of nearby closures. East Lake potentially shared between Toomer and BPA (Memorial Drive might make a logical line of separation), and Whitefoord taking a portion of the Cook population. SEACS has developed a series of maps with a similar concept in mind, and we are amenable to that plan.
Capacity. We continue to have reservations with regard to how planning capacity was calculated. Even taking into account their use of the state classroom maximums (which, as we well know, are higher than current elementary school standards in APS), they also appear to fail to account for special needs classrooms. While this might be applicable to charters or private institutions, the challenge for (and indeed the great virtue of) APS is that it must serve ALL its students. This results in a wide array of specialized programs, from PEC to gifted, all of which must be accommodated, and which cannot be removed from core classroom calculations. It also, by the demographers’ own admissions, fails to account for Pre-K. Though that is not a mandated part of the APS elementary program, to deliberately exclude it would be unrealistic at best. For many schools in areas with growing populations, the Pre-K program serves not only an instructional purpose, but social as well. It often functions as a “gateway” program to attract parents to their local community school. In an era where the public schools are under increased pressure to “recruit” parents based on competition from charters, private schools and the home-school movement, the value of a Pre-K program far exceeds the program itself.
This can be seen in BPA in particular, by the fact that almost half of our current enrollment is in our first two years (Kindergarten and First Grade). This is in part a product of the escalating demographics noted by the consultant, but it is also the result of a good bit of “cheerleading” (for lack of a better term) by BPA parents and volunteers. We expect this upward trend to continue and indeed to outstrip even the most optimist projections shown in the report.
The larger issue surrounding this is that in calculating capacity and enrollment as the demographers have done, they have overstated the extent to which some schools – including many on the east side – are under-utilized. Though our schools may be “under-enrolled” by a subjective measure of theoretical capacity, they are hardly “under-utilized.” This leads the Board and administration to believe that more schools should be closed than is actually the case.
Coan. Though many of the elementary schools are more active than their numbers might suggest, we know that this is not the case with Coan MS. It is both severely under-enrolled AND under-utilized, though the reasons for this are somewhat varied. Largest among them is the public perception. For over a decade, Coan MS suffered from adjacency to an extraordinarily blighted section of the neighborhood; the intersection of Mayson and Hardee was touted by APD as “the worst drug intersection in zone 6”. Dilapidated and crime-ridden low-income housing abutted the site and crime was rampant. Thanks to the work of the community, that condition has changed to the point that Coan alumni have a difficult time recognizing the area. Old housing has been redeveloped into new, blighted structures have been replaced by a community garden, and a revitalized Coan Park offers an unprecedented recreational amenity immediately across the street. Investment in the school itself has skyrocketed as well, but the poor perception persists.
We ask that APS do three things to help make Coan a viable MS option for east side parents: Support parents in the complete reconstitution of the school; engage in a broad public relations campaign extolling the virtues of the “new” facility; and help create a critical mass of activist parents by giving Coan a school zone commensurate with its size, and empowering parents in the decision-making processes associated with governing the school. Only an influx of engaged parents will produce a school that excels in perception and reality. BPA has in the past requested consideration for a K-8 format. Should APS become a full and active partner in the remaking of Coan, the parents of BPA may feel more comfortable in the school as an option.
If APS does not feel it can accommodate these suggestions, BPA will not only continue to request a K-8 format for our facility, but would likely suggest that both Whitefoord and Toomer be allowed a similar approach. We recognize that some within the administration harbor some reservations about the K-8 format. We respectfully note that the east side schools are in a situation unique to the system: We are surrounded by charter schools, all of which offer K-8 enrollment. Under the guise of “school choice”, we are charged with being competitive, but have heretofore been denied the opportunity to level the playing field that has been created, a condition which has been regrettably somewhat self-inflicted by APS. It has been made abundantly clear to those of us who are active at BPA that the consistency offered by a K-8 program is a driving decision factor for a majority of parents who have chosen other schools over the past half-decade. Without the ability to make similar adjustments, the traditional public options will continue to be second-choice schools for local parents, and will continue to struggle for enrollment.
Charters. Related to the points above, we understand that it is APS policy to grant a charter to any petition that meets the standards. We ask that APS change this policy. Otherwise, all planning and redistricting is moot. While perception plays a large role in the underperformance of Coan, the existence of no fewer than three charters on the east side – Imagine, ANCS and Drew, all of which are K-8 – has drawn off large numbers of middle school students. The popular belief that charter competition would raise the performance of local public schools has not been borne out nationally and most certainly has not been borne out in Atlanta. This effect is likely to be exacerbated in communities in which the existing public school is closed. Indeed, it is the very real fear that once several local schools are closed as part of this redistricting, the
east side charter movement may seek to open a charter high school, undercutting the efforts to help Maynard Jackson HS realize its considerable potential. We respectfully ask that you limit charters to areas which are noticeably underserved by APS, rather than allow them to cannibalize local schools that would otherwise thrive.
Though we know this might be getting ahead of the process, we also have some concerns with regard to Personnel matters:
Leadership. In order maintain the quality of education for the current population of children at BPA, it is important that the current leadership team at BPA (namely Principal Robin Robbins and Instructional Coach Caroline Brown) stay in place. As we have said before, Principal Robins is an award winning Principal who has worked tirelessly with the East Atlanta community and has led the school with distinction. In addition, an influx of 200 or more children would allow for an increase in our administrative team. Supt. Davis has stressed the importance of Leaders choosing their leadership team. Should consolidation occur, Principal Robbins (in consultation with BPA LSC) must be able to choose her new AP from the pool of qualified candidates. The new leadership team should be put in place as early as possible to allow the school to prepare for the influx of new students, teachers, and the merger of two school cultures.
In a somewhat related consideration, we recognize that a reconstituted school might better coalesce behind something as simple as a name change. We are amenable to such a consideration, so long as the existing BPA LSC is allowed to guide the process.
Standing. BPA is a title one school of distinction. We have met AYP every year. We were not involved at any level in the APS cheating scandal. The two models currently proposed merge BPA with schools that have not met AYP and are currently Needs Improvement (NI) schools. While we plan on doing everything in our power to serve the needs of these students, we do not want to lose our status as meeting AYP. We wish to ensure that BPA maintain our current AYP status, even if we have an influx of children from an underperforming school. We also acknowledge that the recent granting of an NCLB waiver may alter the technical aspects of school performance assessments; we ask that our status be adjusted accordingly, with the aforementioned principles in mind.
In summary, we have the following list of principles for redistricting in and around the East Atlanta Community:
- We support East Lake’s preference to merge with Toomer, but believe that a strong case can be made to keep both BPA and Whitefoord open;
- In order to create a critical mass of involvement, at a MINIMUM all neighborhoods south of Dekalb Avenue, north of Price Middle School’s zone, and east of I-75 should be zoned for Coan Middle School. SEACS’ has developed a map of the proposed area, and we support this vision, if it is accompanied by a wholesale reconstitution of Coan. If not, we respectfully reiterate our request for a K-8 format which we feel is not only practical but – from a standpoint of competitiveness – necessary to the continued growth and excellence of BPA;
- We ask that no additional charter applications be granted on the east side of town, for at least ten years;
- We are a proud partner with SEACS and excited to be a part of the Jackson cluster. We ask that this cluster be kept unified and whole, and we STRONGLY request that our school be allowed to pursue an IB track consistent with the direction of Jackson HS. Similarly, we would suggest that the somewhat out-of-date SRT structure be replaced with cluster-based governance, supported heavily by the Local School Councils of all facilities contained therein;
- We ask that our current leadership structure be maintained, and that the principal and the parent leadership be allowed to direct the growth of the staff;
- We ask to maintain our AYP standing, or a similar designation based on any new requirements outlined in the NCLB waiver.
We thank you again for your work and your willingness to include us in this process. We trust you will take our comments in the collaborative spirit they were intended.
Dr. Elisabeth Burgess – Chair, Burgess-Peterson Academy Local School Council
Reid Tankersley – President, Burgess-Peterson Academy Parent-Teacher Association
Lewis Cartee – President, East Atlanta Community Association (EACA)
Dennis Madsen – Chair, EACA Education Committee; Treasurer, BPA PTA