I sat down Tuesday with Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen for an hourlong video interview that will appear on AJC.com shortly. One of the questions I asked Dr. Carstarphen was based on a note I received from longtime east Atlanta resident Ralph Green.
Green was responding to a column I wrote noting that Burgess-Peterson Academy, an elementary school in east Atlanta, had test scores rivaling those of Drew Charter School; the schools are 1.5 miles apart.
Yet, APS was not seeing an enrollment surge at Burgess-Peterson despite the increase in young families moving into the neighborhoods. In fact, APS is proposing to consolidate some elementary schools in southeast Atlanta despite what appears to be a baby boom.
Why? Because those new families are choosing private or charter schools for their kids, says Carstarphen.
After reading Green's noted, I asked him if I could share his explanation for why young professionals were bypassing even a strong school like Burgess-Peterson. His view: The lack of a strong middle school was causing parents to opt for charter schools that went through middle or high school.
Carstarphen has identified elementary schools as a weak link in Atlanta, and hopes to shore up the early learning and pre-school opportunities for low-income children, many of whom are now arriving at kindergarten and first grade without the fundamentals necessary to thrive in school.
Evidence shows strengthening elementary schools eventually improves the entire pipeline, but can that improvement happen quick enough to convince wary parents to commit to their neighborhood schools?
By Ralph Green
I have lived in east Atlanta for 35 years My four now grown daughters all attended Atlanta Public Schools. They attended APS before the creation of charter schools.
There is no question the charter schools in southeast Atlanta (Drew, Atlanta Neighborhood Charter, and Wesley International Academy) are a drain on the traditional neighborhood public schools. But the quality of education these schools are offering is not the only reason and often not the main reason that parents send their children to them.
I live in the Burgess-Peterson school zone. Many parents I meet in the neighborhood are sending their children or planning on sending their children to Drew. They are doing so not because they think Drew is a better elementary school than Burgess-Peterson Academy. (The fact is Burgess is doing a great job and is an exciting school.) Parents are sending their children to Drew because of their concerns about middle school and high school.
Once their children are at Drew, which now goes through high school, they don't have to worry about making a school choice or ever getting their child into a successful secondary school. This is one of the main reasons Drew created its own high school. The fact Drew now has a middle school and high school helps create the demand for its elementary school.
I have heard conversations in which parents of toddlers are talking about the good things they've heard about Burgess-Peterson. Then, one of them will bring up the question of middle school. Their child may be 10 years away from middle school, but the parents are worried if they don't go to Drew from the start, they will not be able to get their child into Drew later.
There are children who start at Burgess-Peterson because they could not get into Drew. Their parents put them on the Drew waiting list. No matter how happy the parents are with the school experience at Burgess-Peterson, when the call comes from Drew, the child transfers. The parents are worried this is their only chance for Drew Middle School. These patterns affect other elementary schools in southeast Atlanta and stunt public education initiatives at all levels.
If the APS superintendent wants the traditional neighborhood public elementary schools to survive and excel, she will have to deal with the lack of functioning middle schools. She will have to create and sell to the parents in southeast Atlanta a successful middle school opportunity.