Citizens Denounce APS Turnaround Strategy that Favors Developers, Private Interests
(APN) ATLANTA — Teachers, students, parents, and community members packed the Atlanta Public School Board of Education (APS BOE) meeting on Monday, February 01, 2016 to voice opposition to Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s recently announced school turnaround strategy.
The strategy aims to improve schools that Gov. Nathan Deal has deemed “failing,” so that they would not be subject to state takeover if Georgia voters pass a state constitutional amendment allowing for the Governor’s proposed Opportunity School District (OSD) to go into effect. That vote will take place in November 2016.
As Atlanta Progressive News previously reported, the OSD would be run by a Governor-appointed Superintendent, who would have the power to take control of struggling schools and either operate them, hand them over to charter operators, share governance with the local Board, or close them.
It is a model that was pioneered in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in Tennessee, where the majority of schools in the takeover districts were turned into charter schools.
While Carstarphen’s plan is intended to avoid OSD takeover, it involves some of the same outcomes. She has proposed to:
- Merge Grove Park Intermediate with Woodson Primary (Douglass Cluster)
- Close Bethune Elementary (Washington Cluster)
- Open a new K-8 STEM academy at Kennedy Middle (which APS closed in 2014, Washington Cluster)
- Merge Connally Elementary with Venetian Hills Elementary (Washington Cluster)
- Partner with The Rensselaerville Institute’s School Turnaround program, to assist principals to achieve rapid improvement at low-achieving schools
- Partner with Purpose Built Schools––an arm of Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit founded by real estate mogul Tom Cousins––to operate Thomasville Heights and Slater elementary schools, Price Middle School and Carver High School. (Carver Cluster)
- Partner with Kindezi, which operates two APS charter schools, to operate Gideons Elementary (Carver Cluster)
Carstarphen has stated the schools slated to partner with charter operators will not be converted into charter schools.
“APS… is only considering partnerships that would involve Kindezi and/or Purpose Built Schools serving neighborhood schools with traditional attendance boundaries, not charter schools,” Carstarphen wrote on her blog, where she announced the proposal on January 28, 2016.
But attendance boundaries are not the only defining aspect of charterization. What level of autonomy these groups would have in operating the schools is not clear.
Rise Up Georgia held a press conference prior to the board meeting and released a new report that details how private interests, including Cousins, stand to profit from public assets if the OSD and the APS turnaround plan materialize.
Cousins is high on the list of profiteers.
One of his family foundations redeveloped East Lake Meadows, a public housing complex, into The Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income development. The project involved the simultaneous conversion of Drew Elementary into Drew Charter School.
Since then, Drew has contracted with the for-profit education management organization Edison Learning, channeling millions of tax dollars into the company’s coffers.
The Cousins family itself likely has made out well from the situation––their web of foundations and subsidiaries owns properties in the greater East Lake neighborhood, where property values have spiked as a direct result of the demolition of public housing and charterization of the neighborhood school.
Several years ago, Cousins founded the nonprofit Purpose Built Communities to replicate the East Lake/Drew privatization model.
In fall of 2015, a Cousins foundation paid for APS to to hire the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)––also a top education profiteer––to conduct a study which led to Carstarphen’s turnaround proposal.
Around the same time, Deal’s Chief of Staff, Erin Hames––who wrote the OSD legislation––resigned from her job in order to start a consulting firm called ReformED.
As APN reported, APS promptly awarded Hames a no-bid contract for $96,000 to advise the board on avoiding state takeover in conjunction with the BCG study.
Hames, who also retained a contract with Gov. Deal, set up shop in the same office as Purpose Built Communities.
In early January 2016, Cousins’s lawyer incorporated Purpose Built Schools (which also shares the office with Hames), whose mission is to focus solely on the school portion of the Purpose Built Communities model.
The LinkedIn profile of someone named Aliya Bhatia suggests that Purpose Built Schools was in the works as far back as June 2015, when she was apparently tapped by Purpose Built Communities to launch Purpose Built Schools. She is on leave from her job as a consultant with BCG.
Bhatia’s background in education is noteworthy. She entered the field as an instructor with Teach For America in New Orleans. After almost two years in the classroom, she landed a job with BCG and seems to have planned a six month vacation before starting her new gig.
But then an opportunity arose that she couldn’t resist: the chance to shut down a school in the Orleans Parish School District, which, coincidentally, was also called Carver.
Meanwhile, Tom Cousins’s friend, Bob Lupton, whose Christian organization, FCS Urban Ministries, was instrumental in recruiting middle-class families from the suburbs to live in the newly redeveloped Villages of East Lake.
FCS has been active in gentrifying South Atlanta by buying and selling homes to what they call “strategic neighbors”––middle class families whom they view as having the inherent potential to lift other residents out of poverty.
Altogether, these facts did not sit well with the crowd that showed up to the APS board meeting.
“The Atlanta Public Schools belong to the people of Atlanta… the children and schools in Atlanta are not for sale,” JaTawn Robinson, an APS graduate, employee, and parent of a current APS student, said during the public comment period.
State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) also spoke during public comment, criticizing APS’s investment in the Beltline project, along with the turnaround plan.
“The Beltline got bailed out and the schools got sold out,” he said.
“We are witnesses to the frustrations of living in a society where, for 246 years, Black people were owned by White people… the Superintendent has come in and ignored some of this history… this is a complex situation we are dealing with,” Joe Beasley, a Civil Rights Movement veteran, said.
During the one hour comment period, the majority of speakers talked about the turnaround strategy; and all who did were opposed to it.
When the comment period ended, there were twenty people signed up who did not have a chance to speak.
“I have said many times that the turnaround of Atlanta Public Schools will not be easy and it will not be comfortable and it will not be popular. But we must do what’s best for our kids,” Carstarphen said after hearing public comment.
The Board will vote on the turnaround strategy on March 07, 2016.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In full disclosure, the author of this article, Anna Simonton, contributed research to the Rise Up report as a paid contract. Said contract has ended.
It’s outrageous to call Tom Cousins a “profiteer”. His amazing philanthropy has transformed Atlanta.
Parents should hope that their children attending Atlanta Public Schools have the opportunity to learn at a school like Charles R. Drew — which is one of the highest performing schools in the state and city. It is unfortunate that those opposed to any changes in an educational system that is not meeting the needs of the students, focus their attacks and criticism on individuals and organizations that have a proven track record of operating successful schools. Isn’t education suppose to be about the kids?
Many of your statements are factually incorrect, Tom Laurel.
Drew is a high performing school because Charter schools get to be incredibly selective in criteria of attendance. No, they do not meet public standards of inclusion. Public schools do not have that luxury, nor should they. Sorry, there isn’t enough room for everyone in this alleged utopia charters are supposed to bring.
Many schools who have undergone these “turn around” models end up not performing any better than what they were doing before hand. But a lot of public dollars are handed off without public accountability.
They do not have a positive track record. Carstarphen’s program in Austin was dismantled right after she left. The community, both parents and educators, the ones who are ignored during these processes, never wanted it. Plenty of educators and organizations have offered to assist for free.
The public system doesn’t meet the kids needs because the state systemically chokes out funding for them, claims they aren’t tenable, and than sells them off.
Stop being bought.
Why would anyone complain about replicating the success of kendezi and dee charter. when do we have a parade with Meria and Cousins at the front.
Charter Schools: The hammer in a neoliberalist’s segregation toolbox.
The Office of Civil Rights keeps data in order to call out schools and districts that segregate by race. Check out the link – it’s eye-opening.
LESLIE GRANT (current APS school board member) is a founding member of ATLANTA NEIGHBORHOOD CHARTER SCHOOL. This school has created a wall around it. While she safely sequestered her children in this white space, she is treating other people’s children like pawns on a chessboard. LESLIE GRANT is leading the charge to put the care of ATLANTA children in the hands of right-wing politicians and their ‘colonialist’ charter schools.
It’s mind-blowing to me that this is going on in 2016. She needs to be stopped.
The children that are living below poverty level are not the children who attend Drew Charter School…so when outside entities come in and run these school who are the children that will be attending these or will the children be hand selected like it’s done at Drew a Charter!!!
Actually Drew is a Title 1 school so, yes a majority of the children who attend the school receive free or reduced lunch. Also, Drew holds an annual lottery that is open to the public. NONE of the children are hand selected. I suggest you attend the public process if you have doubts. Also The children in The villages of East Lake which is 50% subsidize housing have 1st priority to the school.
To assume that the children are doing well only because they are hand selected is a slap in the face of the children who you apparently believe are not capable of such results.