Politics & Policy

Schools Fit For King

The dream lives on for education reformers.

There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society, who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.–Martin Luther King Jr.

Atlanta’s Auburn Street at the turn of the 20th century was known as the “richest negro street in the world,” a vibrant community of black businesses and learning. Locals called the area “Sweet Auburn.” Martin Luther King Jr. called it home.

But in the years following King’s death in 1968, Sweet Auburn crumbled–as did Harlem, Chicago’s southside, and other predominantly black inner-city communities. Wealth gave way to poverty, and K-12 education collapsed. Today, Sweet Auburn survives, with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site at the center of the community. But standing in the middle of the site, one can be forgiven for looking around and wondering if King’s dream of equality has died–especially equality in education.

It is no small irony that the King site is encircled by a black metal fence that protects the historic area and its tens of thousands of visitors annually from the run-down community that rings it. Despite recent efforts to restore Sweet Auburn to its former luster, a park ranger told me two years ago, the community ”ain’t so sweet anymore.”

Neither are its schools. The nearest elementary and middle schools to the King site are moderate- to low-achieving schools that don’t promise great futures for their graduates. But dreams die hard. And while King would be distressed, were he alive, by the state of many traditional public schools in and around Sweet Auburn, he’d likely celebrate the innovative K-12 programs that have sprung up since the city’s first charter school, Charles R. Drew, opened in 2000, just two miles away in the East Lake Community.

That’s Eva Davis’s impression, anyway. Davis was a local organizer during the 1960s who worked with King in the 18 months prior to his death. She knew him well, both as an orator who led America through the civil-rights era, and as a skilled strategist with whom she sat in the backroom at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Street to plot the movement’s next steps.

A single mother with little education, Davis moved into East Lake’s public housing projects in 1971–the year the buildings first opened. It took less than two years for these projects to grow the highest crime rates in the city, and for the local elementary school, once a sought-after center for learning in Atlanta, to become more of a retaining facility than a school. (For more on the East Lake story, see here.) The community began its revival in the early 1990s when developer Tom Cousins set out to restore it. A centerpiece of the restoration was the (K-8) Charles R. Drew Charter School.

It was the first charter school in Atlanta. That its students were far behind academically was soon apparent, as only 32 percent of fourth graders passed the state’s reading exam, while just 15 percent passed the Georgia math exam. That was in 2001. By 2004, those numbers were 73 and 69 percent, respectively. The 2005 numbers are even better, and today Drew Charter’s middle-school students are among the highest performing in the city. In fact, the Edison-run school is a favorite of parents seeking a high-achieving environment for their children.

But East Lake was just the start. Reneé Lewis Glover, head of the Atlanta Housing Authority since 1994, borrowed the East Lake model (or East Lake borrowed hers–there’s an irreconcilable difference of opinion on this matter) and applied it to other high-poverty communities. Centennial Elementary School, a mile west of Sweet Auburn and near Georgia Tech in the heart of downtown Atlanta, has transformed itself from being among the lowest-performing buildings in the city to its current status as a premier elementary school. Ninety-one percent of Centennial’s students are minorities, and most of them are poor enough to qualify for the federal free-lunch program. Nonetheless, well over 90 percent of them pass their state exams.

Though a traditional public school, Glover set high standards for achievement and gave the school’s leaders considerable latitude in designing curriculum and training teachers. A big part of the school’s success has been its partnership with Co-nect, an organization that specializes in training teachers to make data-driven instructional decisions.

More changes are afoot. Two KIPP Academies have recently set up shop in Atlanta, while the Core Knowledge program drives the curriculum at one of the city’s best middle schools–Inman, a mile from the King site, which has a 50-percent minority enrollment.

To be sure, the city still has far to go. The majority of Atlanta’s school children don’t have access to these innovative schools, and too many traditional schools continue to slug along doing business as usual.

This week is a good occassion to stop and remember what school reformers are fighting for: The right of every child to have a quality education. This is the dream of a man whose city won’t let go of the sweet sound of children learning. How much sweeter the sound will be when it can be heard within a stone’s throw of King’s boyhood home.

Martin A. Davis Jr. is a senior editor and writer for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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