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Fix or flee? Should parents devote energies to struggling neighborhood school or seek a charter alternative?

A local mother provoked a national debate with an essay on why she and her husband are among a handful of white parents in their southwest DeKalb County community sending their child to the local public school.

Celebrating her daughter’s DeKalb elementary school as a nurturing place with committed teachers and staff, Abby Norman wrote that many of her neighbors won’t consider it for their children, pouring their energy instead into winning approval from the school district to open a new charter school.

Her neighbors offer lots of reasons for preferring a charter school, but Norman wrote, “Behind all the test score talk, the opportunity mumbo jumbo that people lead with, I feel like what is actually being said, and what is never being said, is this: That school is too black.’”

I don’t doubt some white parents, even after moving to neighborhoods for the racial mix, flee struggling neighborhood schools where their children would be in the minority. And it’s likely, as Norman contends, that if the motivated and organized parents behind the charter school petition would instead devote their “time and know-how” to the local school, it could be uplifted.

However, there’s a reason other than race that drives parents to look past the local school down the street and seek a charter alternative: Many public school parents in metro Atlanta don’t have faith their local schools can be transformed, in part because of bureaucracies they view as intransigent and hostile to change.

Such skepticism abounds in DeKalb, which has suffered a turnstile of leaders, all of whom introduced reforms that never quite gelled. Despite six superintendent in 13 years and a brand-new school board, DeKalb has seen little improvement in the academic standing of its high-poverty schools.

Parents believe it’s easier to start fresh with a new school than remake an existing school. The governor feels the same way; that’s the premise of Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District proposal, which goes before voters next year. If a school receives a failing grade for three years running, it becomes eligible for state takeover and possible reincarnation as a charter school. (DeKalb has about two dozen eligible schools, including Norman’s.)

Frustrated parents in Norman’s community proposed a dual-language immersion elementary school to the DeKalb school board. But the board rejected the petition for East Atlanta Charter School in September.

In the Facebook discussion of the board rejection, a neighborhood resident asked, “What if everyone here put this much effort into the school we do have? … Schools are as good as their community. Demand better resources for the school that is already here.”

Among the responses from parents in favor of the charter: “Sometimes it’s easier to start over where parents, teachers, community all have a place at the table.”

Over the years, I’ve witnessed an increasing disenchantment with the schools among DeKalb parents from across the county. I’ve listened to a half-dozen superintendents promise to bring more parents to the table and grant schools more flexibility, only to see those plans lost to politics, policy missteps and school board intrigues.

New DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green contends he can overcome the mistakes of his predecessors and improve the quality of the schools, saying, “We need to make sure what is expected is actually being delivered in the classroom.”

Green’s random visits to schools have shown academic delivery is “uneven,” he said. “I am not totally satisfied. I see glimmers. I see pockets of tremendously powerful teaching. I walked out of classrooms almost breathless at the caliber and level of engagement I saw. I also walked out not pleased with what I saw.”

Some parents aren’t pleased, either. But unlike Green, they lack faith DeKalb has the will or the capacity to change.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.