The Connection Between Desegregation and Early Childhood Or If You Build It, They Will Come

Thomas Van Soelen
Associate Superintendent, City Schools of Decatur




 Thomas Van Soelen

The Board of Education of the City of Decatur and her superintendent, Dr. Phyllis Edwards, have intensely cared about early childhood. They demonstrate this commitment through time, capital expenditures, general fund expenditures, and the courage to create something brand new.

Additionally, the Board of Education and Dr. Edwards care deeply and acted boldly on the belief that children learn best with schoolmates that are dissimilar to them. This story shows how desegregating an urban southern school system in 2004 placed them on a trajectory of student achievement.

Now, for the connection between desegregation and early childhood:

City Schools of Decatur is a unique independent Georgia school system, touching the city of Atlanta. City Schools of Decatur was approved as one of the nation’s first conversion charter systems by the Georgia state Board of Education July, 2008. The system serves approximately 3,250 students (58% white, 30% black, 12% other) in seven K-12 schools and 355 learners in an infant-preKindergarten center. The district employs 550 employees including 290 teachers.

College Heights Elementary was a PK-5 elementary school located in the southern section of Decatur, Georgia. Representative of a typical southern town in the 1960s, College Heights’ student population was 99% black, 99% qualifying for free and reduced lunch.. Among the 6 other (P)K-5 elementary schools in the 4.2 square mile area, others were 99% white with less than 10% qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Although the Separate But Equal schools did indeed close in the late 60s, desegregation clearly still existed.

Additionally, a decade of declining enrollment impacted the schools, particularly schools that were primarily black and poor. When Fifth Avenue Elementary School, less than .7 miles from College Heights, was closed in 2002, 94 students attended school there. 

When hired in 2003, Dr. Edwards found a system of small schools that needed to coalesce into a school system. The community touted high academic standards and boasted about achievement awards. What the system did not report is the 40 point disparity on state assessments between black and white students. 

Edwards was commissioned to create the first strategic plan for the system. Among the many concepts the Board wanted her to enact was more fiscal responsibility, as operating 6 elementary schools (Fifth Avenue had just been closed) for 750 children was certainly not efficient. 

Partnered with the Boston Consulting Group, Dr. Edwards presented several scenarios to the Board and the community for the input. Amid yard signs of “Chaos Coming!” the Board persevered and chose to close two schools (one primarily black and one primarily white) and reconfigure the remaining schools into three K-3 schools and one school for all the 4th and 5th graders. This move placed students together – integrated them completely – in 4th grade rather than in 6th grade. Since that time, discipline referrals at Renfroe Middle School, the system’s only middle school, have drastically declined. 

However, this small line in the Strategic Plan –A new elementary configuration will be proposed and implemented. This configuration will take into account economy of scale in delivery, seek to enlarge a sense of community vs. neighborhood schools, and further integrate the elementary student population – did something far more important. Young learners were now going to school with children whose background did not resemble theirs. The K-3 enrollment zones needed to be redesigned, and so they were, with careful attention to socioeconomic status and race as contributing factors among many. 

Effective August, 2004, the new buildings opened staffed by existing principals and staff. New busing routes, a system-wide school reform initiative: Expeditionary Learning, and a Strategic Goal of acting in systemic ways were implemented. 

The change that has the largest impact on the school system was the creation of the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. With a strategic partnership with Early Learning Property Management (ELPM), the closed College Heights Elementary School was renovated into a high-quality, accredited birth – prekindergarten center. 

ELPM's mission is to build high quality early learning centers, primarily in disadvantaged neighborhoods, that provide high quality education and nurturing programs birth through five years old. As a non profit, ELPM collaborates and works closely with funders, grantmakers and philanthropists who share a common goal and commitment to address the issues facing early childhood learning. By coordinating and aligning resources through public and private partnerships young children have access to quality, affordable early education critical for a successful educational journey. 

ELPM provided a long-term lease below market cost for City Schools of Decatur. CSD pays $250,000 of this lease each year with a combination of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax dollars and general fund allocations. 

When opened in 2005 with 212 students, City Schools of Decatur brokered a partnership with the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA to provide birth-age three (preschool) services. The YMCA rented approximately 50% of the building, opened year-round, and charged tuition rates for families. 

City Schools of Decatur did not know if the adage of “If you build it, they will come” come to fruition. To assure that the building would be full, any family in metro Atlanta could register or put their name on a waiting list. Within the first full year, it became quite clear by a 300+ child waiting list that the center would only serve City of Decatur residents and City Schools of Decatur employees. The current wait list hovers around 175 children. 

In 2006, City Schools of Decatur negotiated a partnership with the local Head Start provider, the Partnership for Community Action, to open one classroom of three year-olds who would be funded by Head Start. That was just the beginning of a partnership where City Schools of Decatur would stretch conventional approaches of federal grant managers. After another year of negotiation, the YMCA agreed to blend all their classes with Head Start-funded children. No longer would one class look the same (100% black children) compared to other classes. Another year later, Head Start-funded teachers were evaluated by City Schools of Decatur personnel rather than asking Partnership for Community Action staff to come and complete that work. Partnership for Community Action also co-funded an instructional coach at College Heights to support all the learners in the building. For all of these nontraditional actions, funding, hiring, and evaluation agreements needed to be created. 

Operating the birth-three classrooms was a challenge for the YMCA. They were able to service 96 young learners in the space they were allocated within the building. The remainder of the building housed 6 Georgia lottery-funded prekindergarten classes and the City Schools of Decatur’s special education preschool services. The YMCA needed several more classrooms in order to break even. Amicably, the YMCA and City Schools of Decatur dissolved their partnership in December 2010. 

After seeking out several other providers and acquiring very little interest, the College Heights Director (funded 100% by City Schools of Decatur) and district office staff collaborated on a proposal for the district to assume the birth-age three classrooms. The College Heights Advisory Council met and considered a proposal from the Metro Atlanta YMCA and the proposal from the City Schools of Decatur. The vote was unanimous to propose to the Board of Education that the district assume the birth-age three classrooms. 

Although district and school leadership could not find any examples nationwide where a K-12 school district completely owned and operated an early childhood center, families trusted that City Schools of Decatur could offer a high-quality program similar to their K-12 programs. 

At a special session of the Board in November 2010, the Board of Education voted to assume ownership and full operation of the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. The next day, Human Resources posted jobs and prepared for 60 new employees to start payroll in January, the Center Director – now being renamed to Principal – met with staff and parents and explained transition processes, the Finance Director arranged for final payments with the YMCA that included City Schools of Decatur purchasing much of the equipment and furniture from the birth-age three classrooms, and the Senior Accountant promulgated new processes for how the district would collect over $1,000,000 in tuition fees in both electronic and in-person ways. 

Now a short 16 months later, College Heights – the new College Heights – is thriving. The City Schools of  Decatur Head Start partnership has expanded to include 20 four year-old slots as well as 8 Early Head Start slots. With the exception of the Early Head Start-funded slots, all Head Start-funded students are fully integrated, supporting the district goal of providing a systemic, equitable program for all Decatur students. Center staff is working closely with the Partnership for Community Action to construct a new model for integrating their Early Head Start learners. 

The state Department of Early Care and Learning noticed the success of College Heights. Three more pre-Kindergarten classes were added, totaling 9. For the City Schools of Decatur, this means that 50% of Kindergartners who begin with the school system are enrolled in the pre-Kindergarten programs. 

This success has had a cost. Lotteries are now held for the pre-Kindergarten slots. Residents are always prioritized over City Schools of Decatur employee children. Six portable classrooms now exist at College Heights to accommodate the total student population of 355 young learners. Despite tuition costs for the birth-age three program, the building still has operational costs that need to be supported by the general fund. 

The chart below demonstrates how various revenue streams support College Heights. Bright from the Start represents lottery funds that support Georgia’s pre-Kindergarten programs. QBE stands for Georgia’s Quality Basic Education Act that partially funds K-12 education. In 2010, College Heights served enough students with disabilities to qualify earning some funds from the state designated for the principal. 


However, the results are worth it. College Heights engages in a both short-term and long-term program evaluation. Yearly universal screening instruments are implemented for all learners and higher education partners are sought for their data analysis expertise. The 2009-2010 results indicate a reduction in the achievement gap between black and white students on almost all measures (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening-PreK, Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, and Preschool Evaluation Scale). The School Improvement Plan for College Heights was written to support the specific areas where the gap did not close (Letter Sounds and Nursery Rhyme Awareness). The plan also used Kindergarten entrance data on the Measures of Academic Progress assessment that all K-10th grade students take three times/year. 

Long-term results are somewhat more elusive to capture. A powerful design would be to track the path of learners who engage in learning at College Heights and those who do not. In particular, in line with the mission of Early Learning Property Management, City Schools of Decatur seeks to impact the lives of students who qualify as economically disadvantaged. However, efforts by City Schools of Decatur staff to recruit pre-Kindergarten students has resulted in 100% of children who register for Kindergarten and qualify for free and reduced lunch have been enrolled in the City Schools of Decatur pre-Kindergarten program. Thus, it is impossible to treat the College Heights experience as a treatment because there is not a control group. 

One data point the district can report that has been impacted by this work is student retention. In 2006-07, City Schools of Decatur retained 109 students. In 2010-2011, City Schools of Decatur retained 31 students. Although multiple factors impact this data point, a focus on early learning has helped our students overall. 

Another line in the Strategic Plan – Createan Early Childhood Learning Center for children ages zero-preK and that provides an equal opportunity to acquire developmentally appropriate instruction prior to entering kindergarten – looked quite simple on paper. The importance of this daring move by the Board and the Superintendent and its connection with desegregation efforts will be felt by the community for decades to come. That impact has been noted in enrollment growth: City Schools of Decatur has grown 30% since 2007: “if you build it, they will come.”