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.