When Atlanta Public Schools decided to hand over control of one of its struggling elementary schools, the leaders of a small charter network raised their hands.
In its application to run the school, Kindezi leaders said it had posted strong results at its two charter schools and was ready to spread its model. But the job proved much more difficult than they expected.
The students at the turnaround school were far behind academically, and many were entering and exiting the school, making it tough to establish a new school culture.
“One of the things that we weren’t really prepared for was the level of trauma for a lot of our student population,” said Danielle Washington, the Kindezi turnaround principal. “Knowing superficially — looking at the demographics — what the environment was like [and] actually being in it is very different.”
“Frankly, organizationally, we weren’t ready to do it,” said Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s founder.
A new study on Atlanta’s turnaround efforts shows that Kindezi’s results were uneven, as were results at a few other Atlanta schools taken over by an outside operator.
The Kindezi school had some clear successes: large gains on math tests, as well as moderate improvements in reading. But students’ already-low science and social studies scores dropped sharply, and suspension rates spiked, too.
At three other schools run by another external operator, math scores also jumped — but so did suspensions, and scores in other subjects were flat.
The results come from just one or two years of data, and most agree that a successful turnaround takes more time. The same study also showed tepid results for an improvement strategy that kept the schools under district control.
Still, the mix of findings and reported struggles in Atlanta underscore the challenges of exporting charter models to new environments, especially existing schools. This charter takeover approach has taken root in a growing number of cities, including Camden, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio.
“If you’re going to use charters, you have to realize that even those that are experienced and seasoned are not going to enter into this [turnaround] work totally prepared,” said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee. “There is going to be a significant learning curve.”
The challenge: Two external groups, five struggling schools
Two local groups — Kindezi and Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit connected to the Drew charter school — won Atlanta’s competitive application process to take over five schools the district considered low performing.
They won backing from national philanthropy. Two of the schools got $325,000 start-up grants from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The two turnaround groups also got money from RedefinED, a local nonprofit that recently received funding from the City Fund. Walton also paid $900,000 for the research firm Mathematica to study Atlanta’s turnaround strategies.
The four schools the researchers examined saw big changes after the external groups took over. Their teachers were no longer employed by the district, for one, and those who wanted to remain had to reapply for their jobs.
The schools, though, continued to enroll students from the neighborhood, keeping attendance boundaries intact — unlike the enrollment setup for most charter schools.
The results were all over the place.
After one year, Kindezi-school students in grades three through five jumped from the 29th percentile in the district in math to roughly the 43rd percentile — a big improvement. There was also an uptick in English scores.
But results on science and social studies exams (only administered to fifth-graders) fell precipitously compared to similar schools — dropping from the 24th to the 13th percentile in social studies, for instance.
Washington, the Kindezi principal, said that may be a result of her school’s choice to emphasize basic math and reading skills after realizing how far behind students were.
“We had to make some tough decisions on what to prioritize,” she said. “We definitely paid for it on the science and social studies end, but we were able to make some dents [in] reading.”
The Kindezi school also saw a sharp increase in suspension rates, though some staff members suggested that that might be because suspensions had previously been under-reported.
The three other schools — which followed the Drew charter model, with extra learning time and nonacademic support — also had mixed results. In year one, math scores increased and chronic absenteeism declined, compared to similar schools. There were no clear effects in three other subjects, though, and suspension rates jumped 8 percentage points.
In the first school taken over, math scores continued to improve in year two, but there were still no gains in other subjects. And, alarmingly, chronic absenteeism increased by 8 percentage points.
Turnaround leaders say challenges are greater than in charter schools
Barbara Preuss, who oversees principals at Purpose Built Schools, said her network had found that the students at turnaround schools were much different than the students they had previously served.
“Our children live in an environment where they experience a lot more trauma than children that are attending Drew charter,” she said. “We also are dealing with a high transiency rate, which the charter school does not have.”
In response, Preuss said the schools have brought therapists and social workers to schools; connected families to pro bono housing lawyers; and begun offering after school programs, providing dinners, and stocking food pantries. The schools have even directly employed two dozen parents to help with things like attendance and family events.
Preuss said the schools had seen attendance rates grow and student turnover and suspensions decline this year.
Washington said the Kindezi school had adapted as well, adding time for science and social studies in the second half of this year.
Leeper said the experience offers a lesson to other charter leaders.
“I do think some of the charter world … we underestimate the challenges that are faced in the traditional public schools,” he said. “It definitely is humbling.”
That sentiment, Glazer said, mirrored what he heard from charter leaders who had attempted takeovers in Tennessee. “That could be right off the pages of our transcripts from Memphis,” he said.
Atlanta’s district-focused turnaround strategy also didn’t produce major improvements
Having charter school operators take over struggling district schools has succeeded at raising test scores in New Orleans and in Boston. In Memphis, though, the strategy had no effect, even after five years.
Meanwhile, school turnarounds have proven difficult with or without charter schools.
Atlanta’s other turnaround strategy, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, flooded 13 district schools with additional support, including math and reading specialists, an extended school day or year, and coordinators to connect students with out-of-school support.
Results were uneven at those schools, too, the Mathematica study found, with bumps in math scores in year two but no other clear improvements.
“You can find examples of places that have successfully turned schools around other district management and you can find examples of places that have successfully turned around using charters,” said Brian Gill, one of the Mathematica researchers. “It’s not as if there is any clear indication that one of these approaches is superior to the other.”