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Charter school’s strategy breaks barriers of poverty

By Mark Niesse - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When the glass and white Drew Charter School opened in 2001, it was the pristine hope for an Atlanta neighborhood stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty and violence.

It started as the city’s lowest-ranked elementary school, with most students far behind in reading and math. Their East Lake community was known as “Little Vietnam.” Only 13 percent of residents in the area’s housing project held a job in the mid-1990s.

Since then, Drew has become a model for achievement among students from low-income backgrounds, putting up test scores competitive with those at schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods. Its strategy is being copied across the country.

Drew, which was Atlanta’s first charter school, is now expanding with a second campus that was built through a $73 million fundraising effort. By adding high school grades, the school and its partners plan to nurture students from as early as 12 weeks old through 12th grade.

How does Drew do it?

Students attend classes longer and on more days than their peers in traditional public schools. They start schooling sooner with early childhood education programs. About one-third of them attend after-school programs, where they can receive extra help on their school work.

As the school made its gains, development transformed East Lake into a safer place. East Lake Meadows, the housing project, was demolished and replaced in 2001 with the Villages of East Lake apartments, where half of residents receive financial assistance and half pay market price for rent. Nearby, a Publix grocery store, Wells Fargo branch and coffee shops sprang up.

“You have to have an integrated, holistic and comprehensive approach,” said Danny Shoy, president of the East Lake Foundation, which was founded in 1995 to improve the area. “I don’t think Drew would be as much of a success if it were placed in a neighborhood where housing was in tremendous disrepair or where there weren’t other resources.”

Beating the odds

Charles R. Drew Charter School, named for the surgeon who developed blood storage and transfusion techniques during World War II, was conceived in the heart of East Lake’s revitalization effort in the late 1990s.

The neighborhood needed a quality school to get people to live there, and the school needed stronger families and tranquil streets.

It took a few years, but 98 percent of the 1,300 students now meet or exceed standards in reading, math and language arts on the state standardized tests.

Though 62 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Drew’s students in grades K-5 recorded the sixth-highest achievement scores in the city on the state’s school report card released last month. The five K-5 elementary schools ahead of Drew had between 7 percent and 15 percent of students eligible for free or discounted meals.

Students at Drew, who wear uniform hunter-green shirts, receive about 2 1/2 years more instructional time from grades K-8 than students in traditional public schools, said Principal Don Doran. The school day lasts about an hour and a half longer, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the school year is 185 days instead of 180.

Because Drew is a charter school, it can require more classroom time and spend less on administration, he said.

“The hardest thing is to get students engaged and taking responsibility for their own learning. This school is more successful than other schools I’ve been associated with in that piece,” Doran said.

Kids stay excited about school by participating in programs such as robotics, harp, swimming and golf on a course near the East Lake Golf Club, where the PGA Tour Championship is played, he said.

Doug Peters, a 22-year-old preparing to graduate from Georgia Southern University with a master’s degree in higher education administration, attended Drew from fifth through eighth grade. He said it had a profound impact on his academic and social progress, including teaching him how to swim and play golf.

Before he transferred from a now-defunct elementary school to Drew Charter, “I came home from school one day and told my mom that the kids can’t read,” Peters said.

Now, “I can speak to any high-level executive about golf and interact with them.”

Community building

Where many saw desolation in East Lake 20 years ago, developer Tom Cousins saw opportunity.

“From the very beginning, we knew that safe, decent housing and a great school would be the key drivers of transformation,” Cousins said.

He said Drew Charter School is a big reason the mixed-income approach to public housing succeeded.

“Every family, from the poorest to the most well-to-do, wants to live where the best schools are,” he said.

Partnerships between the school, a YMCA and the Sheltering Arms early childhood education program helped children even before they reached school.

Reaching kids early plays a major role in making sure they are prepared to read and write, said pre-K teacher Charisse Tate-Upshaw. She said the school exposes children to more words because studies have shown that children in poverty hear fewer than one-third of the words heard by children from higher-income families during their first four years of life.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap in the learning curve before third grade,” she said. “We really work on their vocabulary and how to use it in the right way.”

Safira Yasin, parent of a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader at Drew, said tutoring outside of class, longer school days, after-school programs and an involved community all help.

“There’s not too much space for kids to mess up. The home is here, the school is there and the community is there,” said Yasin, who lives in The Villages of East Lake apartments. “It reminds me more of an intensive private school that pays close attention to the children.”

Growth ahead

The changes in East Lake are a well-known example of rebuilding a neighborhood by building a school, said Jeffrey Vincent, deputy director of the Center for Cities & Schools and the University of California Berkeley. The initiative showed that significant investment in buildings, combined with extensive services for families, can increase urban population growth and help remove the barriers poverty creates, he said.

“We need to be cautious about promoting that only charter schools can work in these situations,” Vincent said. “What we haven’t seen enough of are traditional public schools doing an East Lake type of project. A big bureaucracy of a large organization like a public school district is something we need to make more nimble.”

The strategy surrounding Drew was to have the school support the community, and the community support the school, so that the whole would be greater than its parts, said Carol Naughton, senior vice president for Purpose Built Communities, which was founded in 2009 to replicate the East Lake model in other parts of the country. Projects are underway in New Orleans, Indianapolis, Birmingham, Ala., Omaha, Neb., and several other cities.

“There’s never going to be enough government and philanthropic dollars to do this without the business community’s participation,” Naughton said.

When the Drew Junior and Senior Academy opens late this summer, it will house students in grades six through 10, with an additional grade added in each of the following two years.

But even with the expansion, demand for the school far exceeds its capacity.

About 1,500 applications have been received for students to attend Drew next year, but the school only has room for 210 more students.

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