Montessori schools where students learn more independently. Schools that house students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Language immersion schools where subjects are taught in Spanish or other languages.
Fulton County educators are considering all types of schools as part of an expansive new study aimed at offering more school choice to students under the district’s charter system.
“It’s huge,” said Robert Avossa, superintendent for the Fulton County School System. “What the community told us during the year we studied becoming a charter system was they wanted more local control. There’s nothing more (in line with) local control … than choosing where your kids go to school.”
Intended to provide options to students who attend poor-performing schools or who want something different from the traditional model, such non-traditional schools with distinct themes and emphasis remain relatively uncommon in metro Atlanta, and Fulton’s efforts to possibly establish more represent a significant shift in thinking among local educators.
While more and more school districts across the country are embracing charter, magnet and other non-traditional public school models, education scholars note that for school choice to be equitable, offering reliable transportation is crucial.
In October, Fulton County school board members traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to tour some of that school system’s nearly 45 magnet schools and programs. Fulton’s system is looking to Charlotte as a model for developing its own school choice options.
As part of its system, Charlotte offers various magnet themes at schools, such as visual and performing arts, world languages, Montessori and International Baccalaureate, among many others.
Following the Charlotte tour, school board members directed Avossa to assess what kinds of school choice would work in Fulton. Currently, Fulton’s system offers magnet options at four high schools and has six startup charter schools, according to school officials. Systemwide, close to 95,000 students are enrolled in about 100 schools.
“We have limited choice now,” said Fulton school board member Gail Dean, who represents areas in Sandy Springs, East Point and all of Hapeville. “I think if you talk to parents and taxpayers in the community, they are very accepting of the possibility of choice. And if Fulton were able to provide that, I think it would provide an outlet for students and parents we don’t have now.”
Diane Jacobi, a parent who has two children attending Haynes Bridge Middle and Centennial High, says she thinks offering more school choice would benefit students in Fulton.
“Overall, I think it’s a really good idea to try to meet kids with where they are and what they want to do,” she said. “I love the idea of the magnets because one school cannot be all things for all kids.”
Riverwood International Charter School in Sandy Springs is one of Fulton’s four magnet sites. The high school has a focus on international studies and offers the International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous curriculum that culminates in earning an IB diploma. Many colleges will grant sophomore status to incoming students who hold the IB diploma.
Riverwood’s IB model is one that Fulton county board members are looking to possibly reproduce as it beefs up school choice options.
Sadaf Mirzai, 17, a junior at Riverwood, said that with the school’s liberal-arts-like approach to learning, she has become better at analyzing information and developing her own ideas.
“It helps you become your own thinker,” she said, adding that students at the school are learning to teach themselves. “My confidence has grown.”
Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, notes that charters, magnets and other non-traditional public school models are still a relatively small but growing group in Georgia.
“They’re (Fulton) certainly one of the largest districts looking at it probably as a comprehensive choice. The way we view it is, that’s a great thing,” Cardoza said. “Especially if there are specific innovative programs they can offer in one place they aren’t offering in another place.”
Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who has written extensively about the issue of school choice, said one of the challenges is “making sure this doesn’t just become a vehicle for more-advantaged families that have more information and more ability to, say, get their kids to schools.”
“The one thing is paying attention to the risks of greater class and race segregation,” Henig added. “If they don’t provide transportation, then the risks are great that choice will be much more limited for lower-income households. If they do provide transportation, then the costs are going to go up because there’s more expense to provide transportation in a choice-based system.”
With Fulton’s school choice assessment in its early stages, Avossa said the system is interested in reaching out to parents, educators and others in the coming months to find out what choice options they’d be interested in. He’s not sure yet exactly where new school-choice options would be located, or how many would be established. The logistical challenges — including transportation in the nearly 90-mile-long district — also need to be addressed, he said.
“Right now, the fact is if you own a home here, that’s where you go to school,” he said. “Some parents say, ‘That’s great, but my kid, really, I want them to go to a Montessori or a school focused on science or technology. Or I want them to go to an accelerated program.’ Parents want that level of choice.”