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North Atlanta Principal 'Ambush' Can Affect Charter Vote; Eerie Similarities to Lakeside Flap

North Atlanta High School principal's removal an affront to local parents – deja vu for Lakesiders and leaves questions about how communities with strong school ties will vote on charter expansion

It’s ironic that APS Superindendent Errol Davis would surreptitiously remove North Atlanta High School’s principal just as he and other public school officials are organize against the expansion of charter schools. Parents were quoted as feeling “ambushed”, reflecting a key aspect in the charter debate—that schools should not only be more autonomous, but possibly reflect individual communities. One of the precepts of installing charter schools is more control by parents and community in setting the direction of “their” school.

When Lakeside High’s principal, Wayne Chelf was first escorted out of the school building in 2007 without warning (he was later temporarily restored and later still “offered” another assignment), questions were raised by some parents as to whether becoming a charter school would prevent interventions of that sort—and whether they could choose their own principal. Such a charter would be a “system charter” of course, like Chamblee High—not managed by a private company.

Like in the instance of North Atlanta High, where Davis said emergency action was necessary because the school was to be “taken over” by state officials (later repudiated by DOE), now disgraced DeKalb Superintendent Crawford Lewis’ only immediate explanation was he was “under the impression” that students’ safety was at risk. That rationale was swept aside and forgotten within two weeks when under pressure from the community, Lewis held an assembly in the school cafeteria (as Davis did in North Atlanta’s gymnasium) with the benefit of time, delivered a much more nuanced position devoid of any need for the security forces storming the school. Incredibly, in what then became a policy review, reflecting on school academic performance, the essence was to frame the school as “excellent” (avoiding insulting notoriously proud parents), but “not exemplary”—a “next step” that Chelf was not capable of delivering. The metrics that would be used to measure “exemplary” were left to the imagination of the audience—and probably left with Dr. Lewis after first being implicated by the GBI in November, 2008.

Eerily, Davis’ rationale was identical. Incredibly, North Atlanta (once Northside High School) is the “flagship” school of Atlanta Public Schools, the term Lewis used for Lakeside. Similarly, North Atlanta enjoys the backing of an affluent, highly educated community, mostly white, with a growing minority population, where the so-called “achievement gap” was replacing overall average performance indicators as paramount.

Another similarity between the two schools’ principal firings was the political environment in 2006, 2007. A growing list of public scandals was accumulating in DeKalb, including what has since been forgotten—test cheating at a few elementary grade schools, the few that were looked at before the subject was dropped. Where each DeKalb scandal was replaced by another, serving a “distract and forget” effect, one wonders whether we will see the same litany unfold with APS on the heels of the testing scandal there. The only real difference between these cases is the level of attention given by the media, but I suppose that’s to be expected because we are all “Atlanta” in name. Oh—one other difference is that APS leadership may have a bit of a problem with potential political changes that may be emerging as the city becomes a magnet for mainstream (read: affluent) residents once more—and growth returns to the city.

Regardless, if I was a North Atlanta community resident and I saw my school invaded without reasonable explanation; I would wonder whether “we” had a school at all. Whereas I might have not voted for what will amount to an expansion of the charter school system in Georgia—I might be having second thoughts. Regarding the Lakeside community, I wonder what the average stakeholder thinks might be accomplished here with one or more charter schools, whether privately run or “system charters”, whether primary school or high school.

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David Warlick October 13, 2012 at 10:50 PM
Dr. Atkinson would seem to have two choices. She could put unprepared individuals into senior leadership positions and then train them, or send promising junior individuals for a specialized PhD and then promote the best of them. I like Dr. Atkinson's approach better than H. A. Hurley's. Say the 9 qualified leaders cost $1,000,000 to $2,000,000 in training and we have 100,000 students, for a price of about $1 or $2/student/leader. You can't afford that?
H.A. Hurley October 14, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Educators take jobs that they are qualified for. There are many certified/qualified admin. Who can improve DCS? PhD is a research degree required at universities. This degree is not needed to supervise teachers, keep schools clean and safe, know the laws, treat everyone with respect and dignity, and oh yes, educate children. DCS was THE BEST school system hears ago without paying for PhDs. Spend the money on children, schools, parking lots, buses, teachers, busdrivers, cooks, custodians. An MEd or EdS is the typical degree for school administrators. If an educator would like to earn such a degree, they pay for it. They have a professional responsibility to pay for their own education, not taxpayers. No matter how little or how much $$. Since DCS has come to this point with their own people, why not attract competent, ethical, skilled and knowledgable administrators from outside the system. We all have seen what DCS is producing, and continuing to produce. The superintendents have had PhDs, and how is that working for us? School level admin. do not need it to be effective. Please make education better for our children and not line the pockets with PhDs. This superintendent continues, along with the board, to make incompetent decisions. Business as usual!
Tom Doolittle October 15, 2012 at 02:55 PM
I stated charter schools "such as Chamblee HS" (and Peachtree Middle) are "system charters", meaning they are traditional public schools administered by public school employees. More accurately, they are termed "conversion charters" (converted from existing public schools). This form of charter school makes up a significant number of charter schools in the state--a distinction that has been sorely lacking in the Referendum debate. It is very likely that you will see either see very little interest in these after the referendum passes--except in affluent areas, they will be debated as an alternative to establishing a privately run charter that only a few people in the high school zone can attend.
Leo Smith October 16, 2012 at 03:21 PM
Thanks for the well written article. You did a great job of illuminating a "case in point." Interest in conversions if the referendum passes will depend on how well traditional school boards communicate the advantages of working with them. (there are several) One thing conversion public charters and independent public charters have in common are "parent governing boards." Like International Academy of Smyrna, these boards have primary control of the administrative and operational direction of their schools. Conversions work in partnership with local school boards. Some argue that some BOEs will approve more start-ups as to limit potential "independent" start ups approved by a state commission.
Tom Doolittle October 23, 2012 at 07:30 PM
..and if there were more conversion charter schools, there would be less need for privatized charter operations (that's what they are, whether "directed" by a board or not)...and if the need for privatized charters was negligible, the interest would be negligible and there would be no need for the new Charter Commission.

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