The Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education voted Monday to approve ’s request to expand operations to include a high school and increase enrollment in its elementary and middle school grades by 400 students.
The decision to approve the Drew Senior Academy and expansion of the grammar school follows months of lobbying, letter-writing and e-mail campaigns from parents, administrators and other supporters of the East Lake school.
"It's wonderful; it’s a great thing," said Drew parent Adrienne Howard, following the board's vote. "It's been in the making for a long time and it's great to have a choice."
But the board's approval comes with several strings attached for Drew's K-8 operations:
- The charter agreement will be extended for an additional five-year period, instead of 10 years as Drew requested.
- They enter a districtwide performance contract as are all other charters operating in APS.
- Drew has to look at its core mission of serving the children who live in the Villages of East Lake and look to increase the percentage of student enrollment from that community.
- Drew must collect annual statistics on the percentage of its students who are on the free and reduced lunch program.
The plan for the Drew Senior Academy calls for:
- The construction of a $55 million school campus on the back corner of the Charlie Yates Golf Course, at the southwestern corner of Memorial Drive and 2nd Avenue.
- The relocation of the middle school students to the new campus to create a Drew Junior Academy.
- Drew's main campus on East Lake Boulevard will become home to its Pre-K through 5th grade classes.
- Construction of the Drew Senior Academy to be paid for via private and grant funds, leaving Atlanta taxpayers’ cost at zero.
- The high school is to open on a tiered basis, with 100 students entering the 9th grade in the 2013-14 academic year. As those students graduate into the higher grades, new students would enter until the high school reaches full capacity at about 600 pupils by 2023.
APS Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr., who initially opposed the high school expansion, told board members he changed his mind since last month, when the board tabled its vote on the measure.
"Over the month, I and my team have done some substantial work in order to understand what they were requesting further," Davis said.
Last month, he said he opposed the measure arguing a Drew Charter Senior Academy would compete with , a few neighborhoods away in Grant Park, for students.
Davis, who announced last year that APS will spend about $40 million to refurbish Jackson and create new academic programs, said Drew's expansion was not "aligned with pre-existing district plans to expand and improve Jackson High School."
Drew officials countered that argument, saying only 41 students of the roughly 890 students enrolled at Jackson are Drew graduates.
Even so, Jackson has good reason to be worried: It's one of the lowest-performing high schools in APS and has a less-than-impressive graduation rate.
Howard, the Drew parent, has a son who is a rising junior at , a charter school in Reynoldstown. But the school said last week in the fall.
That leaves its 200 students going back to their home high schools unless they can attend another charter high school, private school or go out of district.
For Howard who lives in the Jackson cluster, her home high school is Jackson.
And though the Drew Senior Academy tiered classes means it won't be open in time for her son, Jackson — or any other APS school — is not an option, she said.
Shopping at a consignment sale recently, she said she overheard two Grady High school teachers discuss Jackson.
"They were talking about how horrible of a school it was. That wasn't encouraging whatsoever," Howard said, adding that barring any other options, she will home school her son.
Davis' initial opposition to the Drew proposal came just as the district completed a citywide redistricting to reduce the number of empty seats and overcapacity.
The redistricting, however, still left 6,200 vacant desks at the high school level. (That number is now reduced by about 200 seats because of 's closure.)
But in addressing board members on Monday, the superintendent said he wasn't concerned about the high school component and that his main focus was on the planned expansion of Drew's K-8 grades.
"Most problematic was the expansion of K-8," the superintendent said because he wanted to ensure that Drew remains committed to its primary mission of serving the economically disadvantaged students who reside in the Villages of East Lake community.
Opened in 2000 as the city's first charter school, Drew's main attendance focus then, as it is now, is the students of the Villages community. Its secondary attendance zone are the East Lake and Kirkwood neighborhoods and third is the rest of the city of Atlanta.
Davis said he wants to ensure Drew remains focused on the Villages students.
He wanted the board to approve an expansion of K-8 enrollment only by 200 students instead of the 400 Drew requested.
"All I'm looking for is some assurance, and I believe its in the public interest that you have these assurances before approving the second tranche," Davis told board members.
But the board voted for expansion by the full 400.
About 20 percent of Drew's 801 students come from the Villages community and that group forms its largest attendance body of pupils. Drew officials say that figure will grow to about 25 percent in the fall because 96 additional students from the Villages will be attending the school.
Drew, which became the city’s first charter school when the board approved its charter in 1999, is the top performing primary school in East Atlanta Patch. It ranks No. 4 citywide out of Atlanta’s more than four-dozen elementary schools.
Statewide, Drew ranks 77th out of 1,176 primary schools.
On the math portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test for example, 97 percent of Drew’s third graders who took the test, met or exceeded the standards. That’s four percentage points better than third graders at in Candler Park and three points better than Morningside Elementary in neighboring Virginia-Highland—Druid Hills Patch.
Underscoring Drew’s success is that it’s able post those results despite having 74 percent of its students on free or reduced lunches compared with 11 percent and 9 percent at Mary Lin and Morningside elementary schools, respectively.
While some board members said some of Davis' stipulations made sense, they questioned why the superintendent would place them on the district's fourth-best academically performing grammar school when so many APS schools languish in failure.
"Statistically, they've been blowing us out of the water," at-large board member Courtney D. English said.
"We've got schools that have been failing in APS for years," he added as parents in attendance applauded. "Where is the checkup on them? Are we going to allow those schools to continually fail kids year after year?"
"Drew is financially sound, it has a record of success," said District 1 board representative Brenda J. Muhammad, whose granchild is a Drew student.
"Why do we need to test drive this one?"