The Promise of Partnership Schools in Atlanta

Imagine a traditional neighborhood school with a defined enrollment boundary that serves all students within that boundary. Like any traditional neighborhood school, it follows the district’s transportation and discipline policies. From the outside it looks like any other district school.

This school, however, is different. Because unlike a traditional school—where key decisions regarding time, money, staffing and curriculum are made in the district’s central office—key decisions at this school are made within the building. The school’s support and out-of-school programs, consequently, are designed to meet students’ unique needs and those of the surrounding neighborhood, rather than through a one-size-fits-most approach.

And because of this more-tailored and neighborhood-specific approach, and because of the school’s greater autonomy, more organizations are willing to partner with the school, resulting in more community investment in the neighborhood—and, ultimately, reduced student mobility and higher academic outcomes.

This school actually exists. It’s Thomasville Heights Elementary School, one of several Atlanta Public Schools (APS) “partnership schools,” an effort by the district to turn around its lowest-performing neighborhood schools by partnering with proven nonprofits to operate them.

Thomasville Heights and three other APS schools—an elementary, middle and high school–are run by Purpose Built Schools Atlanta (PBSA), an Atlanta-based nonprofit with an approach for running schools centered on community development. Another APS neighborhood school, Gideons Elementary, is run by Kindezi Schools, a local charter school operator with an innovative, family-sized classroom model of six to eight students per class. The five schools these organizations took over—which together constitute a K-12 feeder pattern—were the lowest-performing in the school district.

The APS rationale for these partnerships? It’s refreshingly straightforward: “For some chronically low-performing schools, the needs outweigh the resources that APS can offer on its own. In these cases, we partner with organizations that specialize in school turnaround and can provide the structure, insight and expertise needed.”

APS partnership schools remain traditional neighborhood schools and part of the school district. They operate according to APS policies regarding enrollment, transportation and discipline. They’re not application-based, and they can’t turn students away. They serve all grades. And their enrollment numbers and performance scores are included in the district’s statistics.

But, unlike their traditional neighborhood counterparts, decisions about time, staffing, money and curriculum (a school’s most important resources) are made at the school level. This is built into the outside organizations’ contracts with APS. And in exchange for this autonomy, districts holds partnership schools contractually accountable for their results.

The APS-PBSA partnership at Thomasville Heights is now in its third year; Kindezi’s partnership at Gideon is in its second. It’s still early, but results are promising.

Enrollment is growing. Test scores are up. Partner schools are benefiting from additional philanthropic investments in preschool and out-of-school programming. One of those investments is a program that embeds housing lawyers in neighborhood schools to serve the community on a pro bono basis. This investment, which started at Thomasville Heights Elementary under Purpose Built, has helped contribute to a significant reduction in student mobility.

Moving From “Either/Or” to “Both/And”

You could think of Atlanta’s partnership model as “neighborhood schools 2.0.” It’s an approach that brings together the strengths of traditional district neighborhood schools with some of the strengths of the public charter school model. And it’s one way of helping us move the district-charter conversation from “either/or” to “both/and” to improve outcomes for all students.

This partnership model isn’t unique to Atlanta. It’s a hybrid approach that’s increasingly being used in urban districts grappling with chronically low-performing schools and declining district enrollment. Rather than closing struggling schools or letting them gradually be supplanted by new charter schools, these urban districts are taking charge and providing incentives to qualified operators, through a competitive process, to instead partner with them. Both parties can win.

In Camden, N.J., and Philadelphia, these district-charter partnership schools are called Renaissance Schools. In Indianapolis they’re called Innovation Network Schools. In San Antonio they’re often called 1882 schools, after the legislation that enables them.

The model varies from district to district (some are neighborhood, others are open-enrollment or specialty schools) and operating agreements are negotiated to reflect both district and partner priorities. But the general contours remain the same: The district provides the school building, students, per-pupil funding, and select services; the nonprofit provides the school model, staffing and expertise, and additional program resources to support the school and school community—and is held accountable by the district for school performance.

Districts that are serious about pursuing partner schools as a school-improvement strategy usually establish an Office of Innovation to support their work. And in cities with unified, charter-district enrollment systems, the district often requires partnership schools to participate, bringing additional equity and coherence to a fragmented choice landscape.

Partnerships are just one strategy for greater district-charter collaboration. There are, of course, others. But as urban school districts try to find a path to higher quality and more equitable public education in their respective cities, the basic outlines of the partnership model—capitalizing on the strengths of both traditional district and charter schools while facilitating greater cross-sector collaboration—hold a lot of promise.

Rebecca Haessig writes about the changing public education landscape at Set the Schools Free. She’s a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.