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Why the Atlanta superintendent wants to close successful schools

Atlanta school Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s plan to turn around the struggling school system calls for closing schools that, by Atlanta standards, are succeeding and merge those students with now-failing schools.

The closures will allow her to replace hundreds of teachers, bring in new leaders and save money by closing half-empty schools. District officials says the goal is to improve education for thousands of Atlanta children.

In addition to closing three schools, Carstarphen has also proposed hiring charter school groups to run five low-performing schools.

But her plan doesn’t make sense to some parents.

“Why would you close a school that’s improving?” asked Antonia Mickens, whose daughter attends one of the schools up for closure.

The school board is scheduled to vote on her plan on March 7.

Carstarphen’s plan doesn’t go as far as the school closures proposed by former Superintendent Erroll Davis four years ago. Under his leadership, the school board ultimately voted to close seven schools and move boundaries at dozens of others.

But some parents and residents have similar complaints now as then — that the closures unfairly target lower income, mostly black communities.

“That’s not going to happen on our side of town,” North Atlanta High School teacher and Atlanta Association of Educators president Ramon Reeves said of Carstarphen’s plans. “It would have been shut down in October.”

Both Davis and Carstarphen have said their decisions were based on what’s best for children.

At the schools Carstarphen has targeted for closure and mergers, about 80 percent of students’ families are on public assistance. All are significantly under capacity. Schools in wealthier areas, particularly those feeding into Grady High School, are over-crowded. But Grady parents have repeatedly rejected addressing crowding by changing school attendance boundaries. Carstarphen has said their feedback prompted her to rule that out.

Instead, she has proposed spending about $100 million to add space to the crowded schools and more than $50 million to renovate the facilities the students from the closed schools would move into.

If the school board approves her plan to close schools and turn others over to charter school groups, about 300 teachers and other staff members would lose their positions at the end of this school year. They could reapply for other Atlanta Public Schools jobs, Carstarphen said. Those with strong track records “will be strongly considered” for positions at the new and merged schools, district spokeswoman Jill Strickland said.

Causing teachers to lose their jobs “is not ideal at all,” Carstarphen said at a community meeting earlier this month. But “we are out of time.”

It’s all part of Carstarphen’s plans to improve Atlanta schools and avoid potential state takeover if voters approve Gov. Deal’s Opportunity School District plan this fall. The Opportunity School District would allow the state to take over Georgia’s lowest performing schools and close them, turn them into charter schools or run them itself. Erin Hames, the Deal advisor who helped create the Opportunity School District plan, now consults for Atlanta Public Schools.

Carstarphen would close Venetian Hills Elementary and send students to the Connally Elementary campus. Venetian Hills was graded a C under Georgia’s school rating system, which is based on state test performance and other factors. Venetian Hills students would attend Connally, which was rated F for the past three years. Connally principal Lincoln Woods would lead the combined schools.

She would close Woodson Primary and send students to the Grove Park Intermediate campus. Woodson received a B from the state and Grove Park an F. Woodson principal Susan Crim McClendon would serve as principal of the merged schools.

And Carstarphen would close Bethune Elementary, which received an F from the state, and send students to a new K-8 school on the Kennedy Middle campus. Venetian Hills principal Diamond Jack would lead the new K-8 school.

At the new and merged schools, principals will get a chance to build their own teams from scratch, Strickland said. Staff will get extra training. Students will get tutoring and other help.

“We’re trying to intensify the work under one roof,” she said. “Our rationale is, ‘Let’s pull them all together, let’s get the kids in one building, identify the high-performing teachers, high-performing leaders (and) put in place all our turnaround strategies.’”

The vacant Woodson and Venetian Hills buildings could become early childhood centers in the future, Carstarphen said. There are no immediate plans for the vacant Bethune building.

Some board members have said they support Carstarphen’s plan.

“I fully expect the board to embrace these bold steps to accelerate our ability to provide a high-quality education for all of Atlanta’s children,” board chairman Courtney English said earlier this month.

But the members who represent the schools targeted for closure told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they have not made up their minds.

Board member Eshé Colllins, who represents Venetian Hills, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week she was “listening to community feedback.” Earlier this month, board members Steven Lee, who represents Connally, Grove Park and Woodson, and Byron Amos, who represents Bethune, echoed her comments.

“I’m open and listening,” Amos said.

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