Republished by Charter Confidential
Frank Sinatra made the New York myth and legend seem so attractive – “I want to be part of it, New York, New York” – but after living her entire life there Adrienne Brooks wanted out. “You rush through everything in New York. You eat fast, you walk fast, you go, go, go,” she said. “I’m like, I need more grass area, not so much cement everywhere.”
Brooks especially wanted something different for her son, Christian. Three years ago this single mother said good riddance Big Apple, hello Atlanta. “I needed more space for him. I needed him to be outside running, playing and just enjoying that. You get that here in Georgia.”
They moved into an apartment northwest of downtown Atlanta and then Brooks went shopping. Not in Buckhead, not for shoes and swag, but shopping for her young son’s education. Brooks enrolled Christian in first grade at Westside Atlanta Charter School when it opened in fall 2013. She enlisted as a parent volunteer and later was hired as the school’s parent liaison.
“My budget is tight. It’s just me and my son,” Brooks said. “Every little penny I’m looking at to see where can this go, how much can I afford to spend, am I able to send (Christian) to a great school where you get the private school experience but I’m not paying the private school price.”
A field trip to Westside Atlanta Charter School was part of the “Amplify School Choice” conference hosted April 24-25 in Atlanta by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Two days of wonky talk led by experts from prominent policy organizations was wrapped around an opportunity to tour Westside Atlanta’s 163-student campus northwest of downtown. (See website links below.)
“Most parents have had the experience where their kids were just lost in the sauce, meaning they were in these big classrooms,” Brooks said. “If your child is not that child that just stands out the teacher has so many kids that they don’t get that one-on-one-attention. Here it’s very small. The teachers have personal relationships with the children and the families.”
Westside Atlanta is located on Drew Drive in what can appropriately be described as a revitalization community. “Homes are starting to come out of the ground again,” said executive director Pete Settelmayer. He describes the location as “between Bankhead and Buckhead.” Forty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Twenty-seven percent live in west Highlands which is a combination of middle class and subsidized public housing.
“This was set up to be the East Lake of the west side about 2004, 2005. Then we all know what happened in 2007,” Settelmayer said. The economic recession that started in 2008 significantly slowed down the aggressive project. And therein, an opportunity developed. Columbia Residential founder Noel Khalil gave Westside Atlanta Charter a $1-per-year lease to occupy unused commercial space for up to 11 years. The campus also includes a large modular facility for the Upper School.
Like every public charter school, Westside Atlanta is required to meet all Georgia state educational standards, but that is merely a starting point. “Our focus is to teach the children, not teach the test,” Settelmayer said. “We’re going to teach them to think critically. We’re going to teach them to solve problems. We’re going to teach them to have a go at things on their own with our support because at this level they need support.”
The Franklin Center conference brought together experts on virtually every subject central to parental school choice, especially funding formulas. The concept that public tax dollars should follow the student would do much to put parents in charge of education rather than the current model that favors funding school districts rather than funding individual student education.
“Americans want more freedom in almost every walk of their life,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice senior fellow Ben Scafidi told the conference. Scafidi is former chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. “The reason we’re not getting it in schools is because there is a very well-funded, entrenched opposition but it’s going to come. Intelligent people that aren’t paid by the public school system are not on their side anymore. The politics have changed.”
Politics were not part of what Adrienne Brooks was thinking about when she decided to start over in Atlanta. For young Christian she wanted to replicate the quality of the Catholic School education she had as a child in New York, but at a price that she could afford. Brooks looked at several options before she decided on Westside Atlanta Charter School.
“It works because you have huge parental involvement,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to have your teachers involved; that’s their job. They teach because they love it; that’s their passion. It’s another when you actually have the parental support. If the parent support is not there it’s hard for the school to survive. We make it feasible for them to be involved.”
Faith and Freedom Coalition
Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Westside Atlanta Charter School
(Mike Klein specializes in criminal justice, public education and economic development journalism and event production. He has held leadership positions with several media organizations including CNN as Vice President of News Production. Mike on LinkedIn.)
Three kids go to school. One way under achieves, one achieves okay but nothing spectacular and the third kid achieves off the chart, leaving the other two way behind. So which kid do you suppose will get the most resources if the school system has to pick and choose its priorities?
Georgia state representative Ed Seltzer found himself in the same ballroom with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan one morning last week at the Foundation for Excellence in Education annual conference. Here is what Setzler asked when the microphone was passed his way:
“I’ve heard folks say in different settings that high performing kids will take care of themselves (and) we don’t need to focus so much on them. I would submit if we’re going to be great as a nation in the next century in innovation we need a strategy to make sure the top performing kids are really being challenged to be all they can be as well,” Setzler said. “Is there a focus within your department on these top-performing kids to take them to the next level as well?”
Here is the short version of Duncan’s response, significantly edited for length:
“Part of what disturbed me under No Child Left Behind is there was a focus on that proficiency cut score right in the middle, so lots of incentives to work with those 5 percent of kids around the middle to put them over the bar and make it look like you were doing something, and no incentives to do something for kids at the top or the bottom.
“For me it’s not about the top or the bottom and the middle. It’s about all kids,” Duncan said. “I want to look at growth and gain, how much kids are improving. Whether it’s that gifted child or whether it’s that child in the middle or that child with special needs, I want to know how much that child is improving.”
Later Setzler sent an email from the ballroom that said, “I wanted to seed his inner conscience with the imperative to not leave behind our top performers.”
The two-day education reform conference was presented by the Foundation for Excellence in Education and its chairman, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. With an emphasis on breaking molds, celebrating innovation wherever it occurs and challenging status quo, the conference heard from the best reform minds in the business, including outgoing Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels whose next posting is as the incoming President of Purdue University.
Daniels is a current celebrated hero to education reformers. In partnership with Tony Bennett, his elected state superintendent of education, Daniels championed and achieved nearly all of the goals that he established eight years ago. His overall reforms package was so successful that Daniels acknowledged, “We ran the table on education reform,” during his speech.
Teacher seniority no longer rules in Indiana schools; teacher quality will be measured in part on student performance. Collective bargaining has been reduced to wages and benefits. “The shackles and the handcuffs are going to be gone from our contracts,” Daniels said.
By his description, “We took the lid off charter schools.” Indiana parents can now choose which public school they want their children to attend. “It’s a wonderment to drive down an Indiana road and see billboards advertising for students by the public school systems,” Daniels said. “We feel a new era has dawned. We’re very excited about it.” That new era also includes full universal private school choice.
Not everyone is equally excited. Daniels is leaving soon for Purdue University after eight years. Bennett, the state schools boss, ran for re-election to a second four-year term last month and he lost. Daniels said his view is that Bennett’s defeat was less about rejection of education reform and more about effective use of social media by Bennett’s pro-union opposition. “The last twitch of the dinosaur’s tail can kill you,” Daniels said.
“The process of reform will never be over. We will always be learning or modifying,” Daniels told the audience of several hundred educators, legislators and policy makers. “Sure there’s a school improvement rationale for universal choice. The more competition among public schools with charter schools and nongovernment schools the more likely that everybody gets better.
“But there’s a social justice issue, too. We’ve got to be a country whether it’s education or health care or other important realms in which we trust and enable average citizens at whatever station of life to make decisions for themselves,” Daniels said. “Free society is not going to work very well if people, whatever their motives and whatever their smarts, are making decisions for the rest of us.”
Click here to learn more about the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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