by Andrea Knight
In the 1960s, white Atlantans left all but a few pockets of Southeast Atlanta, relocating wholesale to the suburbs or north over DeKalb Avenue. When they left, they closed neighborhood businesses, churches, and civic associations and they pulled their children from the schools. When black Atlantans finally had the right to purchase homes outside of small over-priced enclaves, rather than integrating thriving neighborhoods, the new owners found themselves in neighborhoods with boarded up stores and schools in chaos.
But some white residents remained. And new white residents came over the decades that followed, drawn for a variety of reasons: historic neighborhoods, lower prices, proximity to downtown, and for many a desire to leave behind the blandness of homogenous, newly constructed suburbs. Now, unlike much of Atlanta, Southeast Atlanta is racially integrated, block by block. Or more accurately (as my Asian husband once noted when I called a gathering "diverse"), in Southeast Atlanta, we have both kinds of people: white and black. Grant Park has more white residents while our western neighbor, Peoplestown, is mostly African-American. But both have a mix, as do the neighborhoods ranging to the north, east and south. We also have a growing Latino population and more than a sprinkling of Asian Americans, Caribbeans, and other groups.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but I like to think most of us chose Southeast Atlanta because we all want to be together. I see our growing number of multiracial families as proof of the desire for proximity. But there is one fact that stands in the way of my daydreams. If our little wedge of Atlanta integrated by choice, why are our zoned public schools lacking in diversity? Of Southeast Atlanta's zoned schools, Toomer and Parkside are the only two zoned schools that have crossed the five percent threshold of white children.
With those enrollment figures, I sometimes grow impatient with those who call white parents racist for not sending children to their zoned schools. There’s a difference between being a minority and being an anomaly. Some kids would thrive; others would feel out of place. I believe it’s hard for parents to evaluate. In addition, this hesitance over the lack of diversity isn’t limited to only white Southeast Atlantans. Many in Southeast Atlanta, white, black, Latino and Asian, don't feel like we are in our community when we walk into a zoned school where there is no diversity. I suspect this is even truer for those of us who identify our families as biracial. We purposefully chose a diverse corner of Atlanta. We want our children to have the flexibility of developing a sense of identity within a diverse community. I also believe that Atlanta Public Schools’ recently troubled past complicated Southeast Atlanta’s relationship with our zoned schools. Many toured our zoned schools only to find something didn’t feel right. No wonder. In some of our elementary schools, more than 40 percent of classrooms would later be flagged. Former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall was holding administrators over the hot fire of unrealistic test scores. The pressure showed.
The arrival of Erroll B. Davis Jr., APS' current superintendent, signaled a new era for the district. And we can also now look forward to the impending arrival of more logical school zones. If you don't understand why we need more logical zoning, take a look at my house. I live blocks from Parkside, but my house is zoned to D.H. Stanton Elementary in Peoplestown and to Parks Middle School in Pittsburgh. The zoning is so nonsensical that every child near me, of every color, attends a charter or transferred. King Middle’s current zoning excludes many Grant Park homes and large sections of Peoplestown while including much further away Thomasville Heights and Bedford Pines. Then, as all of these kids move from middle to high, they get scrambled again, with King Middle splitting to four separate high schools while four separate middle schools feed to Jackson High School.
Thankfully, the proposed APS zoning for Southeast Atlanta makes more sense. Most of Grant Park will now be zoned to its neighborhood school, with tantalizing hints that Parkside’s zone will grow to hold the entire neighborhood. I have some negative feelings about the current plan to pull kids who live east of Moreland over to the west for both middle and high school. But I was relieved to see Davis’s proposal kept open the three east-of-Moreland under enrolled neighborhood elementary schools. Throughout Southeast, most children will be zoned to their closest elementary school except when areas requested to stay with their official City of Atlanta neighborhood. The current proposal also creates a coherent feeder cluster, so that all children at any elementary school move forward together to attend the same middle school and the same high school.
In addition to our new leadership downtown and our new zoning, we now need to see strong local leadership. With odd zoning and four nearby charter schools, how did Parkside Elementary become one of the most diverse schools in Southeast Atlanta? It's primarily because of Parkside's two most recent principals, Danielle Battle and Philip Luck. They both have inspired great confidence. I am one of many who hope to see Dr. Luck remain in our community for many years to come. I also hope that we will see Dr. Battle return to our area as the regional executive director over the Jackson Cluster. Dr. Battle knows our communities, our students, our teachers, and the great potential of these schools. She can make a critical difference in the development of the Jackson cluster. Southeast Atlanta also needs a commitment from APS to maintaining high quality leadership at the four proposed Jackson cluster schools that are currently struggling: Dunbar Elementary, D.H. Stanton Elementary, King Middle and Jackson High.
To Supt. Davis: I want to make it clear that my requests aren't made for the benefit of those of us who are opting out of the zoned schools. We can continue to opt out. But just as 1960s White Flight created a destructive vacuum in Southeast Atlanta, I believe that the low enrollment of middle class and professional families of all colors leaves a hole in our Southeast Atlanta zoned schools. I see a brighter future for all of our students if more middle-income families invest in zoned schools. And I can see that being fulfilled if APS continues on the path you have set. Create a coherent Jackson cluster. Complete redistricting with more logical boundaries. Bring in great leadership for our cluster. Join our quest for wonderful principals everywhere, but especially at our still struggling schools. And most importantly: continue your quest to put an effective teacher in each and every APS classroom.
To our Southeast Atlanta middle income households of all colors: This is a time of hope and renewal in our neighborhoods. If you look around, you will see we are already home to some of APS’ best elementary schools. Please go tour your zoned school as well as our local charter schools. See what is already happening at Parkside, at Burgess-Peterson, at Whitefoord, at Toomer, as well as at our charter schools. See what can happen at D.H. Stanton, Dunbar, King Middle and Jackson High. You may find yourself very surprised by the quality of the experience provided, by new leadership recently put in place to bring quality to all of our children, and by the many dynamic changes already in process with APS leadership and community support.
Ms. Knight is a Grant Park resident.