A high-performing charter school creates income diversity in Atlanta

A writer at The Hechinger Report describes how Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood is being transformed by a combination of a high performing charter school and a mixed-income public housing strategy. “Rich Kid, Poor Kid: How Mixed Neighborhoods Could Save America’s Schools”, Sarah Garland, The Atlantic, July 24, 2012.

The Charles R. Drew Charter School — the first charter school in Atlanta — opened in East Lake in 2000.

[A]s measured by state test scores, Drew Charter School has jumped from the worst in the city to the fourth best. The school is 93 percent African-American. Next year, school officials predict that about a third of its students will be drawn from middle-class families, up from less than a quarter in the 2004-2005 school year. Back then, the school was 100 percent African-American.

The neighborhood has changed, too:

The transformation has been, for the most part, a great success. Crime rates, which were sky high during the 1990s, have plummeted. The average income of subsidized tenants is still well below the federal poverty line, but it rose from about $4,500 in the mid-nineties to nearly $16,000 a decade later. The racial composition of the surrounding area has changed, too. In one census tract encompassing East Lake, the percentage of whites rose from 14 percent to nearly a third between 2000 and 2010.

The changes to the school and the neighborhood occurred together with the arrival of new amenities in the neighborhood:

The Charles Drew Charter School has been combined with federally subsidized housing for impoverished tenants with market-rate apartments that attract university students — some from nearby Georgia State in downtown Atlanta — young professionals and, increasingly, middle-class families. A new grocery store, a YMCA, two preschool programs, a bank, a farmer’s market, a community garden and two golf courses — one public and one private — serve the immediate neighborhood.

Having middle class families in the mix seems to contribute to the school’s success. Middle class parents have political and economic clout to fight for more upgrades at the school. Also, lower-income students may learn life skills and higher expectations from their middle-class peers.

The East Lake Foundation coordinated these changes in Atlanta. Its sister organization, Purpose Built Communities, is trying to replicate the “holistic revitalization” strategy in other cities, including New Orleans.

What can San Antonio learn from the East Lake experience? San Antonio’s East Side has overlapping federal grants: a Choice Neighborhood grant to the San Antonio Housing Authority for improvements at Wheatley Courts, and a Promise Neighborhood grant (inspired by the work of Geoffrey Canada and others at the Harlem Children’s Zone) to the United Way of San Antonio creating the Eastside Promise Neighborhood. See “The best economic policy helps US ‘out-educate’ world”, Shaun Donovan and Arne Duncan, The Hill, March 18, 2011; “Eastside Promise and Wheatley Choice Neighborhood programs holding wedding ceremony”, Analisa Nazareno, NOWCAST San Antonio, February 27, 2012.

By leveraging a Choice Neighborhood (better public housing) with a Promise Neighborhood (better schools), San Antonio leaders are following the East Lake playbook. But consider the list of designated Promise Schools: Tynan Early Childhood Center, Wheatley Middle School, Bowden Elementary, Washington Elementary, Pershing Elementary, and Sam Houston High School — all in San Antonio ISD. At East Lake, the presence of Drew Charter, a high-performing charter school, was essential to the neighborhood’s revival. Why not in San Antonio?

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