Atlanta district seeking charter schools to manage, improve schools

Atlanta school district leaders are looking for charter school operators and other groups to manage and improve some of the city’s worst schools to prevent the state from taking them over.

It’s a bold move in an effort to keep Atlanta schools out of state control if voters approve Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District plan this fall.

And it comes even though some members of a parent advisory committee on how to turn around Atlanta schools said they didn’t support bringing in charter school operators.

“We’ve been careful not to throw ideas out just because there might be people who don’t support them,” Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan said.

Atlanta schools need to improve quickly, he said. “If that means doing some controversial things, then that means we have to do it.”

A constitutional amendment to authorize Deal’s Opportunity School District plan goes before voters in November. If it’s approved, the state would be able take over a limited number of Georgia’s lowest performing schools and close them, run them or convert them to charter schools. The new state-run school district would be under an appointed superintendent so decisions about how students are taught and how local tax dollars are spent would no longer be solely up to locally elected officials.

Atlanta and DeKalb County currently have the most schools that could be subject to takeover, about two dozen apiece. More than 20 Augusta schools could be at risk too, along with about half a dozen in Fulton County and several in Clayton County.

Just before the December vacation, Atlanta Public Schools formally announced it was seeking organizations like charter school operators, local nonprofits and companies that run charter schools to improve the performance of the schools that could fall under the Opportunity School District. It’s too early to say exactly what that could look like. But the district’s request calls for groups to dramatically improve student achievement in the short and long term; make schools more efficient; and manage all or some of school operations.

Outside groups may be able to hire different educators, move more quickly or provide ways of teaching that the district can’t today, Jernigan said.

“We are open to the possibility that someone could come in and help us improve,” he said.

State Sen. Vincent Fort said he was “deeply skeptical” of the proposal.

“One would hope that the superintendent would have a clear view and vision of how to solve the problem instead of farming it out to an outside company or entity,” he said.

The school board is scheduled to consider hiring groups in March. Anyone hired could begin work as early as this fall.

The request for proposals grew out of the school improvement plan international consulting firm Boston Consulting Group developed earlier this school year for APS. That work’s $500,000 cost was privately funded by half a dozen local and national foundations, including some that have given millions to support the growth of charter schools.

The district has not set limits on the number of schools that could be part of the effort or on the total potential cost, Jernigan said.

Although Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has said previously that the district would only consider working with nonprofit groups, the formal request for proposals has no such limitation. However, nonprofits will get preference during the selection process, Jernigan said.

“This is probably a first for the state of Georgia,” Georgia Charter Schools Association President Tony Roberts said of Atlanta’s move, though charter school operators have partnered with school districts in other states.

“It’s good that they’re looking at the options,” he said.

Responses to the district’s posting are due later this month.

Early results from Tennessee’s efforts to improve low-performing schools suggest that students fared better under district-run school turnaround efforts than in schools put under charter school organization or direct state control, according to a Vanderbilt University analysis released last month.

KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools, which operates eight charter schools in the region, is “currently evaluating and discussing possible next steps” in connection with the posting, KIPP spokeswoman Katie Mock wrote in an email earlier this week. “We should come to a decision within the next two to three days, but aren’t able to provide any other information at this time.”

Whether or not APS brings in charter operators or others to work in local low-performing schools, students and staff can expect major changes in the district’s efforts to improve. The district has begun the process of hiring principals who could replace the leaders of some potentially Opportunity School District-eligible schools.

“These are high-stakes situations and we are certainly looking to make sure that we have principals with the right skill sets matched with the right schools,” Jernigan said.

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