According to Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis, a recent shakeup at North Atlanta High School was motivated by poor performance. After analyzing the school’s performance in closer detail, Mr. Davis’s claims of poor performance don’t appear to hold water.
Who Attends North Atlanta High School?
Several of Mr. Davis’s comments imply that he perceives North Atlanta to be a school serving affluent students. During a recent meeting with parents, he spoke of the “resources” in the community, and stated that he has different expectations for different schools, implying that North Atlanta is held to a higher standard due to the type of students who attend.
While those living in the neighborhoods surrounding North Atlanta are indeed privileged, the students actually attending North Atlanta High School are anything but. More than half of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. See the attached racial/ethnic profile of the freshman cohort of 2008. This cohort was scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2012, and these students should be the cohort referenced in the most recent graduation data available to APS.
Using CensusViewer, I cross referenced this data with information on race & ethnicity by census block. The maps are attached, and I comment on my observations below.
White students aged 15-17 are spread throughout Buckhead. The majority live in the residential neighborhoods west of Peachtree Street and east of the Chatahoochee. Typical homes in these neighborhoods are priced from $700,000 to $10,000,000. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that most white students living in Buckhead come from wealthy families. Though these students make up the majority of the area’s population, the vast majority do not attend North Atlanta high school. If all (or even most) of these students chose to attend North Atlanta High school, the school would be overwhelmingly white. Instead, the 2008 cohort was only 13% white (see the attached map).
For Hispanics aged 15-17, I observed that virtually none lived in residential Buckhead. Instead, these students are concentrated in a few apartment complexes. We can safely disregard the notion that Hispanics attending North Atlanta are a group of wealthy, privileged immigrants. Instead, they are more likely first generation immigrants who arrive at APS with high needs. It is also worth recognizing that as apartment dwellers, this community may experience higher levels of turnover than other communities residing in single-family homes (see the attached map).
No other high school within APS serves a significant number of Hispanic students. In fact, the Hispanics served by North Atlanta represent more than half of the high-school aged Hispanics in the whole of APS.
A small minority of Blacks aged 15-17 live in residential Buckhead. It is probably safe to assume that these students come from very wealthy families. The majority of Blacks, however, live either in apartments or in Bolton, an area where real estate is significantly less expensive (see the attached map).
In addition to students zoned for North Atlanta, approximately 20% of North Atlanta’s students arrive through an admin-transfer process. Most of these students are zoned to schools which are majority black and majority low income. It is worth noting that admin-transfers at Sutton Middle school are much lower. As such, most of the students arriving at North Atlanta through the admin transfer process are unlikely to have attended Sutton. Should disparities exist between the preparation received by students attending Sutton and those arriving through admin transfers, North Atlanta would be tasked with bridging that gap.
In fact, incredibly large disparities do exist between the preparation of students attending Sutton and those attending other APS middle schools. The attached table is startling. When compared to all schools in the state, Inman’s students average in the 97th percentile, and Sutton’s average in the 82nd percentile on 2012 CRCT tests. After that, a huge drop occurs before we get to Young Middle, where students are in the 22nd percentile state wide. Things only get worse from there.
Based upon this information, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that North Atlanta serves a high needs population.
- Despite the school’s proximity to wealthy neighborhoods, most of the students attending North Atlanta do not live in the wealthy parts of Buckhead.
- Students attending North Atlanta through the admin transfer process arrive at the school having attended middle schools ranked in the bottom quartile state wide. They are then expected to integrate themselves with students from Sutton, a school ranked in the top quartile.
Now that we have a better picture of what the school faces when a cohort enters 9th grade, we can approach performance data with an appropriate level of context.
Are fewer students graduating from North Atlanta than expected?
Sixty-two percent of North Atlanta’s freshman cohort graduated within four years. While it is disappointing that any students would fail a grade or choose to drop out of high school, it is not a fact uncommon to APS schools or schools throughout the country. The median graduation rate at APS high schools is 63%, roughly equal to North Atlanta’s. There are two important factors which likely reduce North Atlanta’s graduation rate. First, North Atlanta has a high Hispanic population. Second, the admin transfer process may result in “mismatch.”
According to the U.S. government, as of October 2009, approximately 18% of Hispanics aged 16 through 24 dropped out of high school. Approximately 9% of Blacks dropped out, and 5% of whites dropped out. Nationally, Hispanics drop out of high school at a rate twice that of Blacks and almost quadruple that of whites. If Mr. Davis wants to hold different schools to different standards, the fact that North Atlanta is the only APS school serving a significant number of Hispanics cannot be ignored.
By coming into North Atlanta less prepared than students from Sutton, admin transfers may experience what researchers term “mismatch.” Recent research discussed in The Atlantic has shown that when students are placed in classes where they are less prepared than their peers, they are more likely to become discouraged and drop out.
The time to integrate students is at a young age when gaps can be overcome. Expecting students to arrive at North Atlanta in 9th grade grossly underprepared and succeed in classes with Sutton’s students does a disservice to the students the admin-transfer process is intended to help.
If APS as a whole is unable to properly educate its kids in grades K-8, how can it expect North Atlanta to work miracles in the one/two years before students are eligible to drop out?
How does North Atlanta’s SAT performance compare to other schools?
Black, White, and Hispanic students at North Atlanta all exceed APS averages on SAT tests. Both Blacks and Whites also exceed national averages. See the attached table reflecting 2011 scores by race/ethnicity.
Black students score approximately 38 points higher than the APS average and 29 points higher than the national average. White students graduating from North Atlanta score higher than all but two schools in the Atlanta metro.
What mistakes did APS make in the shakeup?
The mistakes made by APS reflect faults of both substance and form.
Mr. Davis claims to have based his decisions on a detailed review of data, but it appears that his review ignored the context within which that data should be considered. North Atlanta is by and large not made up of privileged, wealthy students. It is unreasonable to hold the school to a standard based upon the “resources” of the area when wealthy kids and their resources go to private schools.
The form of the dismissals was unnecessarily dramatic. I understand Mr. Davis’s goal of providing the incoming principal a fresh slate. However, the exit of current administration didn’t need to be so eventful. Administrators could have been told they would be reassigned on October 29 and given a few weeks to prepare. Alternatively, the incoming principal could have been given some time to decide which administrators he wanted to keep and which he felt needed to be replaced.
What should North Atlanta parents do?
APS is undergoing dramatic changes. Enrollment has steadily declined for over 10 years. The only areas which have seen increasing enrollment are the Grady, North Atlanta, and Jackson clusters where middle-class and upper-class families have purchased homes.
Also, in Buckhead, more white students are choosing to stay in the public education system. Ten years ago, only about 25% of white students in Buckhead stuck with APS from 1st grade through transitioning to Sutton in 6th. Respect for Sutton has grown and this past year, over 50% of students made the transition. That is a significant increase in just 10 years.
One reason that schools in these areas are succeeding is that they have active parent associations. It’s time for these parents to take on roles in the Board of Education. Parents interested in an improved APS should consider running for at large posts on the Board of Education. Elections will be held in the fall of 2013. Without a majority of competent board members, we will continue to see this type of mismanagement.
Overall, I think Mr. Davis is genuine and intelligent. In many ways, he has done a good job of managing APS, but missteps like this one undo much of the good he has achieved.