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APS Redistricting: SEACS Asks For Geographically Defined Cluster

'In a fixed cluster, inequity becomes conspicuous and success common purpose.'

APS Redistricting: SEACS Asks For Geographically Defined Cluster

Editor's note: On Monday, more than a dozen parents from Grant Park, Ormewood Park, Cabbagetown, Kirkwood, Summerhill and East Atlanta met to do discuss what the ideal feeder cluster to Jackson High School would look like and the tools Atlanta Public Schools could give to make the schools  in the city's southeastern quadrant successful. The parents who represented public and charter schools and whose children ranged in age from still-expecting to high school, discussed and debated ideas for more than four hours at the Grant Park Recreation Center. That work resulted in a letter submitted Feb. 23 to Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. from the Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools, which advocates for the children of the southeast Atlanta neighborhoods. SEACS, founded in 2010, shared its letter with East Atlanta Patch.

Superintendent Davis and the School Board of Atlanta Public Schools,

For decades, the path of school advancement in southeast Atlanta has been fractured and difficult to follow. This has led to a current resident population that is disconnected or siloed in their efforts towards school improvement. Bright spots of success have been difficult to replicate and a perceived lack of shared interests or goals have obscured the real barriers to achievement.

The demographic review and redistricting process provides a tremendous opportunity to forge a better future—a new zone of educational excellence and partnership where differences lead to strength instead of division. The key to this is communication. We must construct a workable model in which neighbors may engage one another and APS in educational communion.

To that purpose, Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools (SEACS) asks that APS establish a K-12 educational cluster in southeast Atlanta that is:

  • geographically defined(1),
  • vertically aligned, and
  • in which all constituent schools follow an IB-compatible path into Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School.

In a fixed cluster, inequity becomes conspicuous and success common purpose.

We define that success as the readiness of all students within the cluster to accomplish level-appropriate work and be fully prepared for advancement. This cannot occur without energized and empowered students, faculty, parents, and administrators working in concert.

To facilitate success, SEACS asks that APS go beyond the creation of a Jackson feeder cluster but also move forward to set up a cluster-level oversight and governance organization, like a Super Local School Council, to identify and address the needs particular to the Jackson cluster in a directed and agile fashion. We believe this body comprised of parents, teachers, and community leaders could make great strides in school improvement across our zone(2), including:

  • Work together for the shared and singular goal of ensuring a quality education for all of the community’s students.
  • Facilitate direct community input in any leadership changes affecting cluster schools, including both schools with high and low numbers of parent involvement.
  • Particularly in the first year of the Jackson cluster, coordinate with the schools and community to set up a transition team of community leaders, APS staff and local educators to focus on the 2012/13 school year, working to build partnerships and increasing trust among participating stakeholders.
  • Identify elementary schools that need additional kindergarten preparation support, and assist in bringing needed resources to the community such as Georgia Pre-K classrooms, Head Start, and community preschools.
  • Support individual school efforts to implement APS’s vision of vertically integrated discipline and vertical teaming - grade-to-grade and school-to-school. Bring together parents, teachers, students and coaches to develop vertically integrated extracurriculars in the areas of arts, sports, and technology, an effort that we see as especially critical to keeping our children invested in school during the middle school transition.
  • This investment of community-driven human capital can help steer the cluster towards a brighter future, but it will take a cohort of engaged and creative learners to provide the fuel.

We have already begun to see the fruits of innovative, cross-curricular, project-based strategies in our local elementary schools. But with a few small exceptions, our middle schools continue to underperform. As the middle schools have declined in the last decade, so, too, has the high school. They are inextricably linked—a lineal progression of either failure or success. We must ensure that it becomes the latter.

To accomplish this, SEACS asks for special support from APS for our middle schools, by:

  • Providing strong leadership at our zoned middle schools.
  • Supporting a roll out of an International Baccalaureate program at the middle-school level in the Jackson Cluster. This is essential if students are to have a reasonable opportunity of success in the IB Diploma Programme at Maynard H. Jackson
  • Reimagining and rebuilding the Challenge Program in our middle schools to attract our elementary gifted and talented students, roughly one-half of whom currently opt out of progressing to APS middle schools.
  • Investigating middle school options that might draw in a wider range of students. We believe that our communities would be eager to join into a conversation about a theme for our zoned middle schools, including Fine Arts and Humanities or STEM.

Regardless of the form it takes, academic reform at the middle school level is essential. And we deeply believe that a high quality of classroom teachers is a critical component.

Furthermore, we feel that keeping students challenged, invested and engaged during their middle school years doesn’t end with the dismissal bell. We urge APS to support the Jackson Cluster community in providing robust and exciting extracurricular programming:

  • Especially for, but not limited to, the area middle school students,
  • Including athletics, the arts, STEM, and mentoring programs to help retain the interest and involvement of students at this crucial juncture in their education, and
  • Assisted by the Super Local School Council in coordinating local school resources and professional assets for after school programming.

One recurring point of contention in this process has been that of facility closure. Currently, the population of the desired Jackson cluster does not support full utilization at all schools at all levels. Indeed, if we did manage to accomplish that in the elementary and middle schools, the high school would quickly be over capacity. SEACS believes that the success of our mission will lead to an increase in zone population, particularly of families with school-aged children. We therefore urge extreme caution in considering any closures, in particular those that would be considered permanent.

Particularly for schools that are well located, put out requests for proposals to community foundations and non-profits before closing them. We see options already in our community that might offset the operating costs while augmenting student success. For example, Cheney Field(3) and NFL YET Center(4) could both be fantastic area assets for extracurricular involvement at all grade levels.

All the community support in the world will make little difference, however, if the schools are not up to the task of educating students to high levels of academic achievement. Consequently, teachers at all grade levels must be supported by their administrators and have the professional skills necessary to teach with rigor and fidelity to the curriculum. Administrators, too, must be accountable to the communities they serve.

As our community dreams aloud of the possibilities, we ask APS to join in an equal partnership and common cause with the cluster-wide community in southeast Atlanta to ensure the existence of healthy, neighborhood schools in which student achievement and academic excellence are evident and demonstrable. This should include:

  • Educational screening of all students;
  • Giving special attention to previously under-supported schools and populations(5);
  • Tracking and support of student academic progress;
  • Creating smaller, Special Needs classrooms in a greater number of schools, evenly spread throughout the cluster—stop shuffling these classrooms to different schools to create space;
  • Developing and implementing a peer review program for faculty and staff;
  • Vertical teaming – from school-to-school and grade-to-grade;
  • Implementing consistent and vertically-aligned discipline program cluster-wide;
  • Broadening the spectrum of course offerings, especially in middle and high school;
  • Emphasizing language instruction at all grade levels to aid in the IB study program; and
  • Committing funding for IB training for staff.

All of the pieces are in place: a wealth of facilities and infrastructure; a diverse, deeply committed community, eager for long-term partnership and sustained involvement; a grass roots organizational network already in place; and, most importantly, a growing population of bright young minds ready to be transformed into lifelong learners in a academic partnership ready to challenge their abilities, set their resolve, and expand their aspirations. The possibility for excellent schools that are a source of community pride in southeast Atlanta is clear and within reach. Together with APS, we are ready to make it a reality.

Submitted on behalf of Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools
February 23, 2012

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