APS Developing Aggressive, Targeted Response to OSD

Amid the public dialogue surrounding the state’s proposed Opportunity School District (OSD), I’ve received some questions and concerns about the strategies and tactics the Atlanta Public Schools district is taking to turnaround under-achieving schools and keep them under local control.

I want everyone to understand that we are developing an aggressive and targeted course of action for school improvement. If we can achieve that, state intervention will be unnecessary. The Board and I share in the belief that that ensuring all students have access to quality education and maintaining local control of education is critical to the health and well-being of Atlanta. Further, we have an obligation to the students, parents and taxpayers of Atlanta to do everything in our power to ensure that our schools improve at a pace that allows them to avoid state takeover.

But the reality is that the runway is short, and we have many challenges ahead of us.

For those who haven’t been following this closely, let me first explain how the OSD would work:

If voters approve the OSD, the state would likely start taking over schools beginning with the 2017-18 school year basing its selection on College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) data from the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.

At this time, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement defines “failing” as a CCRPI below 60. An eligible school is one with a failing score for three consecutive years. In addition to the qualifying score, takeover decisions will also take into account growth in achievement, recent changes in district and/or school administration that suggest improvement, and current turnaround and intervention efforts underway in a qualifying school.

When I saw the number of APS schools on the potential OSD list, it was clear to me that we didn’t have a day to waste. There are currently 26 APS schools that meet the above criteria, and there a number of other APS schools which are at-risk of eligibility either because they have one or two years of CCRPI performance below 60 and/or they have historical CCRPI performance close to 60.

Given this context, the Board and I agreed that we must undertake an aggressive, targeted strategy to improve schools that have been identified eligible or at-risk for state takeover by the proposed OSD.

Our effort to adopt a Charter System operating model (learn more here), some strategic hires and the implementation of our five-year strategic plan all go far toward creating a caring culture of trust and collaboration to turnaround our schools.

We also launched yesterday the eight-week New School Turnaround Strategy Project guided by the Boston Consulting Group, a national group with a strong presence here in Atlanta. Thanks to the generosity of some funders, we have been able to take advantage of their unique expertise in education. This project will include a robust community engagement component that will consist of surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings, and a community advisory panel to help inform our approach.  I will also be collecting feedback from our teachers and principals, especially those who are “in the trenches” every day in some of our most challenging schools.  It is important to me that whatever strategy we develop does not happen “to” our communities or “to” the dedicated staff members who have been committed to some of our most at-risk schools for decades.  I want our key stakeholders at the table and engaged in this important decision-making process. Learn more about how you can help here.

Another part of our strategy involves having someone on board who intimately understands the Opportunity School District concept. When we recently found out that several key members from the Governor’s Office were planning to leave, we looked hard at the ones who might be able to accelerate our work.

That’s where Erin Hames, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for policy and legislative affairs, comes in. I have worked with Ms. Hames extensively over the past year, and she stands as a person who genuinely cares about students and seeks to remove barriers to their success.

When I learned that she planned to leave the Governor’s Office at the end of the month, I could not delay. I knew she could be a key component in challenging us to do the tough and smart work as well as help us navigate the system to avoid the OSD. It won’t give APS an automatic pass, but I think it gives us the leverage of advice from an expert who understands the decisions surrounding the creation, mission and structure of the OSD.

With Ms. Hames, we have the added advantage of someone who can help coordinate assistance from both the state and federal departments of education, secure support from the philanthropic and business communities to support key school improvement and student support initiatives and help with other matters of policy, legislation and political strategy.

Through all of these efforts and community engagement, we can find a path that ensures that all of our schools remain APS schools. But that path can only be defined by child-centric agendas and not adult-focused ones. I maintain my pledge to do what we can to keep our schools high quality so our kids can learn, graduate on time and be prepared for college and career.

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