Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The Case for Re-allocating SPLOST 3 Funding and Re-writing the Rules for Arabia's Enrollment
A review of recent data from the DCSS Planning Department’s website tells the story - Arabia has pulled a bait and switch.
A brand new Arabia Mountain-area high school is currently scheduled to open for the 2009-2010 school year. The attendance lines have not been drawn as promised, because Arabia is no longer scheduled to be a neighborhood school. At its inception, the new school was promoted as necessary to provide relief to Martin Luther King Jr. HS, Miller Grove HS and Lithonia HS as promised by Dr. Lewis in his State of the System address in January 2007. Now that it has been built and become a crown jewel, the administration has quietly changed direction and decided to instead deem it a "Choice" school, meaning students must qualify, apply and then win a seat in a lottery. Now, it will only be accepting 350 students from MLK and 250 students from Lithonia, leaving 1,000 seats available for "Choice" transfers (although it looks like for the first year, they are only accepting 500 "Choice" students for a total enrollment of less than 1,100). The capacity of the building is 1,600 students with expansion room for 2,100.
It is my opinion that one reason for this bait and switch is to ensure that Arabia won't have to take on AYP transfers (from failing NCLB schools). If Arabia did take on AYP transfers, this could greatly relieve the overcrowding at Lakeside, Dunwoody, Chamblee and Druid Hills due to the hundreds of AYP transfers from Arabia's demographic area these schools have had to accept by law. Arabia, however, will conveniently slip by the NCLB law by labeling it a "Choice" school that will only serve qualified, pre-tested students, hand-chosen by the school system to attend this suddenly "special" school. I think this move goes against the grain and purpose of public education. Could you imagine the outrage if Lakeside tried to implement this type of acceptance policy?
Additionally, House Bill 251 was the first school choice legislation to pass one chamber and was passed by the Georgia House of Representatives Thursday by an overwhelming vote of 139 to 23. This Bill would allow parents of public school students to enroll their children in another school within their assigned school system. Was the requirement for Arabia to accept only pre-tested, qualified students an effort to circumvent legislation like this in the future? Will Lakeside, Dunwoody and the rest have to accept students who request transfers based on this bill now? The bill stipulates receiving schools cannot be over-crowded, however, "over-crowded is not defined by law and DCSS doesn't seem to think our buildings really have a maximum, as they can continue to add trailers such as the 21 at Lakeside to accommodate the unchecked influx. Aren't 21 trailers sitting on the tennis courts at Lakeside enough to call it over-crowded? Not to DCSS - they just refuse to say no to anyone who asks for a transfer - as long as it's not a transfer to Arabia.
Interestingly, there is a bill in the Legislature, SB 90, that allows for private school vouchers to be given using public school funding. Below are a few reasons, aside from fiscal responsibility, the State PTA does not support the voucher plan currently being debated in the Legislature:
• Private schools choose the student not the other way around
• Private schools may discriminate based on ... intelligence, academic success or behavior. Public schools take everyone; private schools exclude those who they don’t choose to serve.
• In a US DOE survey of private inner city schools, 68% stated they definitely or probably would not accept vouchered students with learning disabilities, limited English or low academic achievement.
Ironically, Arabia will now adhere to several of the same tenets as private schools, only they will be fully funded with taxpayer dollars. It seems we have built one heck of a really nice private school that has been kind enough to take in 600 students from the area – as long as they pass muster and win a lottery. Meanwhile, schools like Lakeside, Dunwoody, and Druid Hills remain seriously over-crowded due to AYP transfers, Administrative Transfers, Cheaters and Special Permission as well as growth.
MLK is currently 637 students over capacity, Lithonia is 276 over capacity*. The school system, as stated above, now says it will only accept 350 students from MLK and 250 from Lithonia. I think another reason for the bait and switch is to leave MLK overcrowded and still in need of the large addition planned for it with SPLOST 3 - an addition that would not be necessary if the school system would have re-drawn the attendance lines as originally planned and taken all of the over-capacity students from these schools. But they pulled a bait and switch, leaving MLK, Lakeside, Dunwoody, Druid Hills, Chamblee and SW DeKalb with the same old over-crowding issues, solved by adding more and more trailers to their campuses. Meanwhile, students at Arabia (which was built to relieve over-crowding) will enjoy a spacious, open campus with plenty of fresh air and space to expand programs if they choose.
Arabia High School will hold 1600-2100 students.
As publicized, "Arabia Mountain High School will be 240,000 square feet with a capacity of 1,600 students and an expansion capacity of 2,100 students." (For comparison, Lakeside is 164,666 SF with a capacity for 1,281 and a current enrollment around 1,700.) Arabia will include an environmental sciences lab, three business labs, Vocational Technical environmental sciences lab, a 600-seat auditorium, three music rooms, an indoor (and outdoor) running track, practice athletic fields, an outdoor classroom/amphitheater and walking trail. Why are we putting so many of our resources into a school that will no longer solve one of our biggest problems? Why do we need a "Choice" school within a stone's throw of SW DeKalb, a "Magnet" school for high achievers? Will we need to provide transportation via the new "hub" system or are students expected to get there on their own? AYP transfers coming from Title 1 schools get Federal mileage reimbursements and would have the resources to pay for their own transportation. Are they being shut out of Arabia?
Oddly, the school system has decided to make Arabia a "Choice" (a euphemism for "elite" in this case) school for qualified applicants only and they are pretending that this was their plan all along. (In reality, there is little actual "choice" for those who aren't accepted.) The decision has been made NOT to relieve over-crowding at MLK. Lithonia will be balanced and Miller Grove is no longer over-crowded and in fact has 13 available seats*, most likely due to the exodus via AYP transfers. The school system instead will only take 600 students from these schools. This leaves 1,000 (or more) seats available for "Choice" lottery winners from around the county. What if those students "Choose" to leave a school like Stephenson (with nearly 300 empty seats) or McNair (with 577 empty seats) or Towers (321 empty seats) instead of an over-crowded school like Lakeside? How will this solve our number one issue – balancing enrollment? Arabia is a crown jewel - a gorgeous facility - not unlike many very elite private schools. Should we really be funding such a thing with taxpayer money? How is this different from a private school voucher in reality?
Please encourage your Board representative to vote to reassign some of the SPLOST 3 dollars to meet the ever-growing needs at these north DeKalb schools and to open Arabia to accepting AYP transfers in an effort to relieve overcrowding at the three schools that currently take on ALL the AYP transfers.
*UPDATE - Enrollment numbers have dropped further since this writing. Currently, the 2008/09 enrollment reports tell us that Lithonia is only 45 students over capacity, Martin Luther King HS is 446 over capacity and Miller Grove now has 330 available seats.