Parents and community members are pushing back after the Atlanta Board of Education voted Monday to close and Adamsville and Whitefoord elementaries and merge the students into other schools.
They hope to come up with a plan to reinvigorate Adamsville and Whitefoord, and to get involved in replacing school board members who are up for election in the fall.
Nathaniel Dyer helped organize community efforts to save Adamsville. He marched down Martin L. King Jr. Drive, rallied for hours outside the Atlanta Public Schools building and brought speakers to Monday’s board meeting. Despite the board’s decision, he says the fight is not over.
“The fight is on,” he said. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”
The board pulled back on a second proposed merger of Benteen and D.H. Stanton elementary schools after hearing from those communities in recent weeks.
The closures, to be implemented in the fall of 2017, are part of a broader effort, led by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, to address Atlanta’s declining public school population.
“In order for us to be successful, we must look for ways to streamline resources to reinvest in quality programming for kids,” Carstarphen said during the meeting. “The district is confident that these changes will allow us to do just that.”
Community members in the Jackson and Mays clusters of schools strongly opposed Carstarphen’s proposal. More than 30 people urged the board to reject the closures during the meeting, voicing concerns about empty buildings in their neighborhoods, larger class sizes, lost staff and higher transportation costs.
Dyer questioned the logic of improving early education by destabilizing the lives of young students and doubted that schools miles away from the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium had funding problems. He also believes that south Atlanta and majority black schools were disproportionately targeted for closure.
Sylk Smart worked with Dyer to raise awareness about the closures and criticized the board’s decision. As an Adamsville parent, she was upset to see a school that was still in a planning phase be closed.
“You tell us we’re a work in progress, then you close us,” she said. “It’s an eye-opening experience that we don’t take lightly.”
The Adamsville community will hold a meeting Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Collier Heights Park and Recreation Center to discuss next steps. Smart and Dyer hope actions will include driving up enrollment, increasing business investment in the schools and replacing the seven board members who approved the closures and are up for re-election in November.
APS was built to serve more than 100,000 students but today has only 52,000 students. Board Chair Courtney English said the district has to make hard choices to become more efficient or else be forced to make deeper cuts in the future. He noted Fulton County schools serve twice as many students with just 20 more schools.
“Not everyone will be happy, but I believe our kids will benefit, receive a better education, and be better prepared for college and career,” he said.
English credited Carstarphen with conducting “the most extensive community engagement campaign this district has ever seen.” On Wednesday, March 1, Carstarphen was still advising the board to merge Benteen and D.H. Stanton elementary schools, but she withdrew that recommendation from her Monday proposal because of community feedback.
“Parents and community members stood behind their schools and fought for their schools to remain open,” said APS spokesperson Kimberly Green. “The scenario changed because of public engagement.”
Carstarphen said her staff worked hard to be responsive to all community stakeholders.
“We did change (our recommendations) in real time, and that is part of the authentic community engagement experience,” she said.
Carstarphen also tried to dispel the notion that APS is flush with cash because of the wealthy companies taxed by Atlanta.
“Our city brings it in. Thank you, taxpayers, but we don’t get it all,” she said, noting that the state has withheld $1.6 billion in funding because of austerity cuts since 2003 that the district should have received according to a funding formula. “We’re not rolling in the dough.”
Despite the setback, Smart is hopeful that she and her fellow community activists can keep local schools open.
“There’s not a problem in the world that can’t be fixed.”