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APS Redistricting: Cook Elementary Supporters Seek Closure Reprieve

'This is not only a school, this is a family.'

 Parents — some with tears in their eyes — pleaded with Atlanta Public Schools officials last week to keep Cook Elementary School open and off the redistricting closure list.

Cook Elementary, which is in the Capitol Gateway neighborhood and is the zoned institution for other neighborhoods including Summerhill and Cabbagetown, is one of the 13 APS Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. is .

The closure of underutilized schools, APS says, would save the district $6.5 million a year, or $500,000 per school.

Cook, which has capacity for 638 pupils, has 312 enrolled students and 67 of those are transfer students from other zones.

District officials told parents the school's small population is hurting it.

"Right now, when we have schools that have fewer numbers, you don't get the full-time staff that you need," Betsy Bockman, APS' executive director of the cluster of schools that includes Cook said at the March 15 meeting.

"So if we can make schools about 400 to 500, at least, elementary, then you can get a full-time counselor, full-time foreign language that you all don't have now. We have got to have higher numbers so the children can get the resources that they need."

It explains why the Cook's kids would be split four ways with some going to D.H. Stanton Elementary in Peoplestown, Hope-Hill Elementary in Old Fourth Ward, in Edgewood and Centennial Place Elementary in Northwest Atlanta.

Combined the schools have total capacity for 2,486 students but only 1,618 pupils, Sharron Pitts, APS' interim general counsel, told parents.

The new schools children would be rezoned to would still have capacity for more students if there' is a spike in population, she said.

But some parents said the decision to close seemed to be made in a vacuum, with APS not taking into consideration that the school was not just a learning center, but also a lifeline for the community.

One parent was moved to tears as she explained how Cook's principal, Sharyn Briscoe, helped her son get the help he needed after she went to doctors to no avail.

Other parents questioned if their children were being sacrificed because Cook, the worst performing academically in East Atlanta Patch, was caught up in the cheating scandal that engulfed the district last year.

In a subsequent state investigation into the cheating two teachers admitted to erasing and changing answers. The report also said then-principal LaPaul Shelton covered up the cheating and allowed some kids to retake the tests. Shelton denied those allegations.

Schools officials reiterated the changes are designed to increase student enrollment at the remaining schools so they can get the resources they need.

But some parents, several from the Summerhill neighborhood questioned the sincerity of that statement because under the plan, children from Summerhill would be rezoned to D.H. Stanton, which like Cook, has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal benchmark designed to identify where a school needs to improve.

What's more, Stanton leaves much to be desired from a physical standpoint: the playground is full of missing or broken equipment, steps leading to the school are crumbling and the several letters in the sign at the main entrance are missing.

"We are the only neighborhood that's being zoned from one school that's not made AYP to another school that's not making AYP," one parent said. "Why has Summerhill been chosen to go from one under performing school to another one?"

Pitts said the parent should write her question and submit it to the district, but said AYP isn't necessarily the main factor on closures.

"I don't know that the AYP status was a driving factor," Pitts said, adding she didn't know Stanton's specific AYP status. "I do know that one of the criteria was to try not to send from a higher-performing school to a lesser-performing school. It wasn't an overriding one."

Even teachers from Cook spoke out saying the district's methods for garnering parental input, such as Internet questionnaires, put their school at a disadvantage because a good portion of Cook families don't have web access.

One teacher even said parents from other schools and neighborhoods had already met with APS officials and advocated for their schools before teachers at Cook even learned it was on the chopping block.

At times, Pitts, who was chief of staff under former APS superintendent Beverly Hall, seemed testy with parents who expressed frustration that she and other APS representatives didn't have answers to their questions.

At one point in the meeting, one Summerhill father asked why APS seemed to be ignoring the community's request that it be zoned for Parkside Elementary in Grant Park. The Summerhill neighborhood, in its official position statement, wants to be zoned for Parkside.

"This isn't a meeting about Parkside," Pitts quipped. "This is a meeting about Cook."

Kirsten Eldridge March 20, 2012 at 11:21 AM
Cook had a second meetnig with the district on Monday March 19. At this meeting facts were presented that showed that the Super Intendants guiding Principles for the redistricting were not being followed in regards to Cook. Cook has better access to public transportation, a newer facility as well as numerous extra curricular activities that have been recently added to support students growth. Finally Ed. S, Cook has shown that when it comes to value added our students make at least a years worth of growth from year to year which can not be said for several of the other schools in the district. The scores may be low but we are making progress for all of our students.
Marisa March 20, 2012 at 03:06 PM
I am not a parent, but I volunteer for Everybody Wins! (a lunch time reading program, www.everybodywinsatlanta.org ) at Cook. My initial impression of Cook from driving by it occasionally and hearing about its involvement in the 'cheating scandal' were very negative. Once I stepped foot inside the school, I was blown away. The school itself is bright and new. The library, classrooms, and front office are all wonderful. Cook is A LOT nicer than the school I went to as a kid! I'm only there for an hour a week, but even during that time I can tell that the staff and teachers are engaged with the students and love their jobs. Like Kirsten Eldridge said, there are lots of extra curricular activities going on at Cook and the school is improving! My student has made great strides over this school year and it's so awesome to hear him talking about all the things he's doing in school that he likes! I will be so sad to see Cook closed. It really is a great school with so much potential. It will be such a waste to close it, not only because the building is new and not in disrepair but APS will also be wasting the positive momentum the school has. I also feel that it is extremely short sighted of APS since there are lots of new apartment complexes going up RIGHT NEXT to the school. Capitol Gateway remains one of the affordable neighborhoods in Atlanta and there are bound to be more and more kids living around Cook. APS, don't close COOK!
Andrea K-s March 20, 2012 at 04:08 PM
I was disappointed by the lack of details presented to back up Davis's choice of DH Stanton. For examples, presenters stated students were weighted more closely to D.H. Stanton, but didn't move beyond that. Capitol Gateway, the only neighborhood walkable to Cook without crossing a major high traffic street, has 59 K-5 students while D.H. Stanton's home neighborhood (Peoplestown) has 278 K-5 students who can easily walk to school. D.H. Stanton is also more walkable from Chosewood (147 K-5 students) & most of Summerhill (159 K-5 students). Cook's location was chosen to serve Capitol Homes, which is long closed. Now it is bounded by interstate on 2 sides, Memorial on a 3rd, & on the 4th is a busy section of Hill St featuring a boarded up fast food restaurant, a rundown gas station, & Azar's. The mixed income development that replaced Capitol Homes & Grady Homes simply hasn't drawn many families the way Centennial has, & many of the other blocks immediately surrounding Cook will never be residential because of the interstate and commercial & government offices.

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