When it comes to school accountability, Atlanta has a long history of notoriety and problems. From the infamous 2009 cheating scandal to today’s heated debates about a system of board-imposed guardrails intended to support schools struggling to help their students achieve academically, how to hold everyone accountable for student progress remains a thorny issue.
The district’s current guardrails focus on holding school leaders and teachers accountable, yet say little about the Atlanta Board of Education’s role in school improvement. How will the superintendent and the board be held accountable for their work to improve schools?
The now-closed conversation on the guardrails is sending waves of panic across the city, especially in communities long-hit by economic and educational inequities that affect the work of school improvement.
We continue to hear the same-old same-old about removing staff, changing leadership, or closing schools if they are unable to meet externally imposed goals within an externally imposed timeframe. This mirrors the task previously given to school leaders: improve student achievement based on high-stakes testing within an unrealistic time frame.
Are we about to see a replay of this? Is this what our schools need at a time when students are just returning after months of pandemic isolation and unfinished learning? “The heavy-handedness does create a tense atmosphere,” said parent and school board candidate Tamara Jones, on a recent episode of EdLanta One on One. “I really think it does get in the way of connection. When you’re that concerned about what you’re going to be judged for, it creates a need for absolute control.”
Jones also spoke to the negative effect artificially imposed deadlines have on the work of relationship-building that is crucial to improvement. “In order for schools to succeed, you need communities to feel personally invested in school,” she noted. “When you have a guardrail hanging over that says ‘in three years this school might close,’ it’s really hard for people to personally invest in a relationship that might be ripped out from under them.”
This accountability discussion isn’t just for Atlanta. That’s why brightbeam held a Town Hall discussion on mutual accountability on Wednesday October 20.
But here’s my vision for what mutual accountability could look like in my own backyard — Atlanta Public Schools.
Failing public schools are a direct result of ineffective strategic planning, lack of investment in communities and poor accountability measurements. I believe if school boards create strong strategic plans for public schools, design equitable measurements of accountability for all stakeholders and intentionally invest in each school’s wrap-around services, then we can see real improvement in historically underperforming schools.
Parents, students and educators want to know the board’s strategic plans and goals for improving struggling schools. The lack of transparency we’re seeing in the planning and resources for school improvement is nothing new for Atlanta Public Schools. Neither are questions concerning how the school board and superintendent will be held accountable for their role in school improvement.
Consider Frederick Douglass High School. Douglass High School, in Atlanta, has not had a consistent principal of more than one or two years over the last eight years. The school has been in the news every year due to drastic leadership changes and what alumni, parents, and students say is a lack of investment in the school and communities.
EdLanta Student Coalition (ESC) members attending Douglass High School don’t feel as if their school is getting the support needed. “We are like the only school in the city that gets a new principal every year!” said a Douglass student who attended a recent student meet and greet. ESC student leaders are acutely aware of what’s going on and should be connected to conversations on equity data regarding public schools.
Some of our student leaders don’t feel like equity is for them. Many of the young men are the “waterboys” that residents see selling bottled water on busy street corners to help their families survive.
Young girls in locally operated public schools who can’t afford uniforms and fees for student activities were also on street corners selling handmade headbands, scarfs, bracelets, etc. to raise money in order to participate and take advantage of public school program offerings.
“How does equity apply to us?” asks a Frederick Douglass High School student leader.
It’s on the superintendent and the Atlanta Board of Education to answer that question. And without that answer, we’re not getting real accountability or real school improvement.