Matt Underwood is the executive director of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School. Today, he writes about how neighborhood gentrification in Atlanta’s Grant Park area changed the composition of his school, making it whiter and more affluent.
The school wanted to go back to its original diversity and helped change state law to do so.
By Matt Underwood
As our country continues a never-ending battle with issues of racial inequality, gentrification, and segregation, it’s often our public schools and our students that first and foremost feel the effects. Our neighborhood, race, and family income shouldn’t determine the quality of education our students receive, but unfortunately, it does. We’ve heard the arguments that charter schools contribute to race and income segregation, but some charters have not shied away from addressing systemic issues of race and integration that affect our students. In fact, some charter schools can offer lessons in how to do diversity right.
The school at which I am proud to serve as executive director, Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, has championed a commitment to addressing changing demographics so that we may have an economically and racially diverse school with equitable outcomes for all students.
When ANCS opened 16 years ago in Grant Park, students and families were grateful to have a new educational option in their neighborhood. Located in a corner of Atlanta that was racially and economically diverse, our student body mirrored the community we served. Diversity has always been a core feature of our learning model, allowing us to expose students to different communities, beliefs, and experiences from their own.
We noticed, as many studies have shown, that diversity in classrooms led to stronger academic and social-emotional outcomes for all students. By connecting with peers unlike themselves, students could gain an understanding of community, as well as empathy, across lines of difference. Students would go on to seek out multi-cultural environments as adults and would be better equipped to succeed in college and the workplace.
But gentrification is deaf to these kinds of benefits. Over the years, the neighborhood has experienced a wave of white middle-class families moving in, drastically changing the demographics of our school. To put things into perspective, the first two years ANCS was open our student body was comprised of 60 percent students of color. Now, about 60 percent of our students are white.
As property values have increased, it is more difficult for some families to afford to live in ANCS’s attendance zone.
We knew that we had to do something to continue to serve families from all walks of life and maintain the core values that had become a fundamental part of our identity.
We, along with a few other charter schools, worked with the Georgia Charter Schools Association and then-state Rep. Margaret Kaiser, a founding parent at ANCS, to change the law in Georgia to give schools the option of using a weighted lottery, allowing us to prioritize “economically disadvantaged” students. This system has been crucial to ensuring that families from all backgrounds have a good chance of attending ANCS. For us, the weighted lottery system helps to level the playing field so that we can serve the range of students we set out to at the beginning, regardless of their neighborhood or income.
We also expanded our attendance zone outside of our immediate local neighborhood to bring in a potential applicant pool that is more racially and economically diverse. This has allowed us to work towards increasing the socioeconomic diversity of our student body, while also preserving our intention of being a “neighborhood” charter school that serves the communities surrounding our campuses.
As a result of these policies, in 2017 we were able to double the percentage of incoming kindergarten students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. And while that’s a significant first step, we’re not stopping there. Our goal is to have 30 percent to 50 percent of our student population qualifying for free and reduced lunch.
Once enrolled at ANCS, it’s our goal to make sure all students and families can access the extracurriculars that typically cost money, but make up the whole school experience. For example, we make sure students can participate in after-school programs, our 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C., and our annual community 5K. We have also engaged in community building activities, like hosting dinners and game nights for prospective families to get to know the parents and families that we hope will become part of our ANCS family.
Throughout our work, we’ve seen firsthand that it’s not enough to have good intentions and a mission statement. Speaking from experience, creating a school that is racially and economically diverse is really hard. But we owe it to Atlanta students to work together and make sure it’s not the exception, but the norm, to be in a thriving, diverse classroom.