Feature                                                 Pages 35-37


Freeing School-Site


Charter district status is allowing school teams in Decatur, Ga., to find solutions meeting particular needs


Most school officials find their hands are tied by state legislation when they try to change the way their students are educated. That was not the case when the school leadership team at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur, Ga., tackled the hot-button issue of grading in 2010.

The school team studied, drafted proposals, sought parent input and decided to replace the standard letter grade model with criterion-based grading using rubrics provided by the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme. School officials did not seek approval of the Decatur City Board of Education nor did they seek a waiver from the Georgia Department of Education, which requires letter grades for students in grades 4-12 statewide.

Thomas Van Soelen formerly worked as an associate superintendent in Decatur, Ga.

In fact, all of the schools in the City Schools of Decatur have the authority to make decisions about some of the most important issues in schools, such as grading, scheduling and assessment, without approval from the local board of education or the state legislature. That’s because the Decatur school system is one of 19 in Georgia (out of a total of 181 districts statewide) that took advantage of a 2007 state law that allows public school systems to convert to charter school systems.

A charter school system is a local public school system that operates under the terms of a contract between the local board of education and the state board of education. The model embraces participation in decision-making authority by stakeholders, affording teachers, parents, administrators and school boards more flexibility in determining the educational needs of students.

When the Georgia legislature developed the charter school system model, it did so with several goals in mind: a streamlined mechanism for innovative, systemwide reform; increased parental and community involvement; focus on student achievement, accountability and outcomes; expanded local autonomy; and the ability to prioritize resources based on student and local needs. These goals resonated with several Georgia school systems, including the City Schools of Decatur.

Chartering Decatur
A small city school system outside Atlanta with 4,200 students in eight schools, Decatur serves a population that is 38 percent minority and has 25 percent eligibility in the federal school lunch program. Six years ago, Decatur Superintendent Phyllis Edwards brought the verbiage from the state legislation to senior staff members and the board of education for consideration.

Parent and community involvement in the decision to petition for charter system status was important. Although the state board of education required two public hearings regarding the charter system petition, Decatur held nine evening meetings to inform parents about the petition and its implications and to answer questions.

These meetings were well-attended because parents were interested in how the change would affect education in the city schools. What did a charter school system mean? In addition, many parents who came to the public sessions had supported a 2004 reconfiguration of the elementary schools that desegregated the small system, moving from seven small neighborhood K–5 schools to an early childhood learning center, three K–3 schools and one systemwide 4th/5th-grade academy. They wanted to ensure charter system status would not undo the change.

In 2008, Decatur’s district leadership presented its petition to the local school board. The petition included a table that outlined the decision-making scope of three entities within the system: the board of education, each school leadership team and the system charter leadership team. For example, the table notes that the board of education maintains responsibility for fair, nondiscriminatory hiring practices, although the schools make recommendations regarding hires. The charter leadership team, which consists of two members from each school leadership team, collaborates on charter revisions. Finally, the school teams manage local school improvement plans that include innovations in schedules, courses and school culture.

The approval by the Decatur school board cleared the way for the district’s petition to be presented to the Georgia Department of Education. Upon review, the state education board’s charter subcommittee questioned the role of the Decatur City Board of Education in the charter school system’s decision-making process. Participation by all stakeholders was an important element of the school district’s petition. Ultimately, the state board of education approved the petition, noting that the board of education is a necessary body in a charter system.

Another important element of the first charter petition was the inclusion of an “impact principle” that states that school leadership teams cannot make decisions that might adversely affect other schools. For example, the middle school team cannot decide to change bus times, because a change would affect the elementary and high school students who ride the same buses at different times.

After approval, a contract was drafted promising flexibility from numerous state education code sections and state board of education policies and procedures, with the exceptions of state assessments, data reporting, IDEA and student safety issues.

Intense Questioning
In July 2008, the 125-year-old Decatur school district began to function as a charter system. There were no balloons, no new mascots, not even new letterhead. But the change in culture was significant. As Decatur learned what it meant to be a charter school system, stakeholders coined the phrase “The Year of the Why.”

As is the case nationwide, Georgia public schools had for years received directives from the state department of education regarding issues such as curriculum and grading, and they were required to comply, usually within a short time frame. When met with those directives, school system leaders asked, “How are we going to get X done?” Today, charter system status allows school leaders to ask different questions, most significantly “Why do we want to do this?”

As system leaders retrained their brains to ponder purpose before diving in, they asked questions such as “Do we need this? What do our data say?” With charter system status, they were the ones who decided if legislation was right for their system, for their students.

Shifting Decisions
One of the biggest draws of the charter school system is the fact that the majority of decisions fall to the school leadership team, which consists of a minimum of seven members: the principal, two staff members and four parents. The design is intentional that at least 50 percent of the members are nonemployees.

District leaders in the Decatur, Ga., schools prepared for an accreditation with a silent brainstorming exercise that helped them clarify direction and purpose.
With the establishment of school leadership teams, the role of the building principal changes dramatically. Previously, the principal made hundreds of decisions each day without consulting anyone else in the system except a supervisor if necessary. Now parents are included in some decision-making processes, which can be a challenge with regard to setting boundaries for parent involvement in decision making.

Some principals took a pro-active stance and added an item to a fall school leadership team meeting agenda that addressed boundaries or posed a framework: “I will always be clear if I am asking for your input or for your decision.” Others responded to parent-related challenges as they arose.

At Decatur High School, subcommittees of the school team have addressed topics ranging from International Baccalaureate implementation to a reimagining of Homecoming Week. The school leadership team appoints subcommittee members who were not on the school team in an effort to broaden the base of support and involve interested, enthusiastic parents.

One topic the leadership team at Decatur High School addressed was block scheduling, which had been in place since the early 1990s. The team charged a subcommittee with evaluating the scheduling structure and recommending changes. A high school senior became involved in the process, researching, collecting and analyzing perception and achievement data, and writing scenarios — for which the student earned directed study credit.

After close analysis and discussion, the school team voted to modify the block schedule for the following school year and presented the new schedule to the Decatur City Board of Education, as an information item.

A New Model
Today, Decatur is completing its sixth year as a charter system and has been approved through the 2022-23 school year. After a decade of declining enrollment, the school system has experienced 37 percent growth during the past six years. The system boasts a strong series of reforms, including expeditionary learning in grades K-3, International Baccalaureate for grades 4-12 and a 1:1 iPad initiative in the 4th/5th-grade academy. Decatur has become a “hot spot” for newcomers to the Atlanta area.

As America’s traditional factory model of schooling is slowly being chiseled away by blended learning and competency-based education, charter system status is helping the City Schools of Decatur to advance to the next iteration of education.

Thomas Van Soelen, former associate superintendent in Decatur, Ga., is president of Van Soelen & Associates in Lawrenceville, Ga. E-mail: Thomas@vansoelenassociates.com. Twitter: @tvansoelen


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