Atlanta Public Schools Stakeholders Are Concerned “Guardrails” May Be “Barriers” for Equity in Struggling Schools

The word “guardrail” in Atlanta right now doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone. The Atlanta Board of Education is using the word “guardrail” to highlight measures of accountability for struggling public schools.

But for parents in the Atlanta Public Schools system, the word guardrail appears to be used to ultimately do the opposite of protecting or improving their community public schools. In the early 2000s “failing” schools in Atlanta were identified by high stakes test data. Now in 2021 “struggling” schools are being identified in the same manner.

Concerns of accountability have risen especially with the recent focus on equity and innovation centered on data driven by high stakes testing and state criteria which had major influence and damage on the public school system leading to the cheating scandal.

On October 4, 2021 the Atlanta Board of Education voted to approve the guardrails.

Will the “guardrails” become barriers for equity in struggling schools in Atlanta?

A former APS educator spoke on NPU to the causes of the cheating scandal, highlighting accountability as an unresolved issue then and now for the Atlanta Board of Education.

Looming concerns of missteps in accountability and leadership over the years causing the cheating scandal are top reasons why many stakeholders, including alumni, staff, and even students, are concerned with the guardrails. The district’s guardrails focus on the accountability of identified struggling school leaders and teachers yet doesn’t speak to the actual responsibility of the Atlanta Board of Education for school improvement and their accountability action steps of the Superintendent’s work to improve schools.

For example, the emphasis in the proposal of staff being removed or potentially closing public schools if immediate changes don’t take place is almost a mirror to the tasks given to school leaders to improve student achievement based on high stakes testing. The now closed conversation on the guardrails is sending panic waves across the city, especially in communities that have been long hit by economic and educational inequities impacting the school improvement work in public schools.

Public school students in Atlanta speak out through the EdLanta Student Coalition!

The EdLanta Student Coalition members attending Atlanta Public Schools are concerned about additional pressure that will come from the implementation of guardrails for failing schools.

The ESC student leaders are acutely aware of what’s going on and should be connected to conversations on equity data regarding public schools. This is why I created the ESC to empower student voices in equity conversations.

Giving students the access and autonomy needed to be engaged in their educational journey is a critical component of social emotional learning that we want for our children.

See more of the EdLanta Student Coalition work

Failing public schools are a direct result of ineffective strategic planning, lack of investment in community, and poor accountability measurements. I believe if school boards have strong strategic plans for public schools, equitable measurements of accountability for all stakeholders and intentional investment for each school’s wrap-around services then failing schools could be successful school turnaround work. 

Will current policies and policy implementation within Atlanta Public Schools really allow for identified “struggling” or failing public schools to achieve equity through the proposed guardrails? 

Stakeholders want to know the strategic plans and goals of the board for improving struggling schools. The lack of transparency on the planning and resources for school improvement is nothing new for Atlanta Public Schools. Neither are issues with accountability of the school board and the superintendent.

Policy development and implementation were cited by several APS educators as issues that led up to the cheating scandal. The main focus of what APS has coined as “improving” schools is to close them and allow outside agencies to remediate, educate, and elevate Atlanta students. Of course, there are still grave concerns from families and communities regarding equity in our schools if the school board continues to make the same mistakes, which is to fail at school improvement.

APS parent, Tamare Jones spoke on EdLanta recently about equity and how the guardrails could cause many public schools in need of improvement to be bypassed. Ultimately causing more children in Atlanta to be negatively impacted. 

See Tamara’s One on One conversation on EdLanta 

Does equity apply to the public school students in APS locally operated schools?

The EdLanta Student Coalition members have been discussing equity and what it looks like in their schools within APS.

Some of our student leaders in the Douglass Cluster don’t feel like equity is for them. Many of the young men are the “waterboys” 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”, says a Frederick Douglass High School student leader.

Several Frederick Douglass High School seniors are reaching out to organizations in the community for support for themselves and other peers due to what they call a lack of equity and resources at their school. 

Douglass High School, in Atlanta, has not had a consistent principal of more than 1-2 years over the last 8 years.  This makes equity  seem far reaching. Additionally, the school has been in the news every year due to drastic leadership changes and what alumni, parents, and students say is lack of investment in the school and communities.

EdLanta Student Coalition members of 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.

Will Atlanta Public Schools guardrails derail the system’s plan for equity?

Parents and students feel the guardrails lack fairness to public schools battling grave equity issues. According to the focus on innovation, equity, and accountability, if school leaders and teachers can’t turn it around in three (3) years, then the closure of schools is a real option or becoming a partner school ( which APS board does not govern). Another option is a school merger . Stakeholders should be referencing the charter that the Atlanta Board of Education agreed to with the State of Georgia in order to understand who is responsible according to the charter to improve public schools.

The guardrails plan focuses on struggling public schools who have the most severe issues of equity in the city. Yes, the implementation of the current design of the guardrails will derail the system’s plan for equity because it will short change the schools struggling the most from the lack of equity.

Parents have concerns about equity conversations that negatively reflect their schools and children but don’t pinpoint resources or support for public schools per the guardrails design. Wykeisha Howe, APS parent, recently spoke to EdLanta about her concerns. During the conversation we talked about the urgent need for wrap around services. Mental health support is being talked about, but the resources aren’t reaching all of the schools. Some schools don’t just have students being exposed but also parents and staff members who have fallen ill and who have passed away according to the Atlanta parent. 

“We need to see more accountability of the school board and not more unnecessary pressure on our school leaders, teachers and staff,” says Howe. 

Atlanta rank is top for cities that have severe economic equity gaps for Black and brown citizens. This is an impact and reflection of the educational equity gaps of the public school system. The Atlanta Independent School System (Atlanta Public Schools) charter directly says that the board is to be accountable to improve schools. The APS guardrails approved by the board of education speak to what the superintendent “won’t allow” regarding equity, engagement, culture, climate, innovation, and accountability. This deficit mindset will not serve our students well.

See Wykeisha Howe’s One on One conversation on EdLanta. 

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