I visited the Drew Charter School on April 1, 2016, in the inspiring East Lake Community of Atlanta. East Lake has been wildly successful. The community itself has been a complete transformation, but – almost as importantly – its success has anchored the exciting turnarounds underway in surrounding Kirkwood, and Oakhurst in Decatur. The entire area south of Decatur and north of I-20 is booming – in large part thanks to East Lake and Tom and Anne Cousins.
It was a very proud moment for me – since Edison was elected as the operator of the school in the early year (I was Edison’s first Chief Operating Officer). The Edison model, to grow the school a grade at a time, is now almost fully realized at Drew: they have 11 grades and will open a twelfth grade next year!
And what a grand success it has been. Almost everyone involved credits the success of the school as being an essential component of Tom Cousin’s East Lake experiment. Of course Mr Cousins and his wife Anne, as well as Lillian and Greg Giornelli, deserve massive credit for their incredible multi-year commitment to this project. It was their commitment that made it all possible, including Drew.
Drew opened with a $17.5 million facility. What I saw was an even greater commitment – the junior/senior high school!
And a bit of history below:
Note this article from the ATL Business Chronicle was written in September, 1999. I joined The Edison Project as the Chief Operating Officer in January, 1996, and left Edison in September, 1999 – just as Drew was opening!
I took Edison through the first four operating years. The contracting and planning and budgeting was under my watch, but I never stayed to see it open (sadly).
So Drew was a fifth year Edison School (first year, 1995-1996, we had 4 schools; second year, 1996-1997, 12; third year, 1997-1998, 25; fourth, 1998-1999 51; fifth, 1999-2000 77. Note that Drew opened in temporary facilities for the 1999-2000 school year.
Note Shirley Franklin was Chair of the Charter School at the time.
Sep 6, 1999, 12:00am EDT Updated Sep 6, 1999, 12:00am
The Charles R. Drew Charter School has grabbed the attention of members of the East Lake community. Organizers hope it can keep that attention once it is open.
“If you look across the country in inner cities … people are very excited about public education,” said Shirley Franklin, chair of the East Lake Academy Charter School Board. “There’s a renewed interest in remodeling how public education operates.”
The state board of education unanimously approved the new charter school in August.
But work on the school is far from complete.
The school is slated to open next August in temporary quarters, first serving kindergarten through fifth-graders.
The former Drew Elementary School, which was closed a few years ago due to low enrollment, will be rebuilt. It is scheduled to open in its permanent location in August 2001.
The school will add one grade level per year, up to eighth grade in 2003.
The school likely will have an enrollment of about 850 in the $17.5 million facility.
Meeting multiple needs
A child development center serving community children up to the age of four is slated to be a part of the Drew Charter School. The charter school also will have an attached YMCA.
The YMCA “was something we’d been working [on] with Atlanta Public Schools and the YMCA since Day One. All three parties [see] the YMCA as a critical part of the redevelopment of the East Lake community,” said Greg Giornelli, executive director of the nonprofit East Lake Community Foundation, an effort driven by Atlanta developer Tom Cousins.
There are some immediate tasks to tackle in order to keep those redevelopment efforts on track.
The real estate closing on the Drew Elementary School property will take place in a few weeks, Giornelli said.
Topping the priority list for the charter school’s board meeting in September is discussion of a temporary site for the school and the status of the contract with The Edison Project, the nation’s largest education-management company, which will run the school for the charter foundation.
Rebuilding a community
The Drew School is just one example of the rebirth in East Lake and East Atlanta.
Cousins has been at work through his foundation, along with partners such as the Atlanta Housing Authority, to build a mixed-income housing development — the Villages of East Lake.
Besides being managed by The Edison Project and having its charter school board, the Drew School will be different in that there will be site-based decision-making, Giornelli said. There also will be an extended school day and year.
But to eradicate any misperceptions about the charter school’s identity — such as that it is some sort of private school — Giornelli stresses the partnership with Atlanta Public Schools.
“It never can be anything but an Atlanta public school. It is a unique school,” he said. “I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is a public school, and it’s very much a partnership effort. We are 100 percent accountable to the Atlanta Board of Education.”
The Atlanta Board of Education will pay $6,070 per student for the school’s first year. The expenditure will cover most of the school’s operating costs, except for transportation services and nutrition programs.
Drawing in residents
Atlanta school board member Mike Holiman, who represents District 3, which includes East Lake, hopes Drew’s set-up leads parents to become partners in the school’s success.
“I’ve seen it over and over again — when parents come in, elbow their way through the halls and take over, so to speak, things start happening,” Holiman said.
He said that he believes parents will be involved.
“I was at the initial public meeting when we started talking about the charter [last fall], and I think there were 70 or 80 people there at that first meeting,” he said.
“I can tell you, they are very interested in Drew being something special,” he added.
Developing a curriculum
The Edison Project was hired to initiate the education program, along with technology and management systems at the Drew School.
The Drew School’s curriculum will have an intensive focus on reading and math, with 90 minutes of language arts daily and 60 minutes of math instruction daily.
Franklin of the East Lake Academy Charter School Board gives high marks to the Edison-managed schools she has visited.
“I was impressed with all the people involved — the student body, parents, faculty — their focus on student performance,” Franklin said.
Edison manages schools in a number of places, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas and Washington, D.C.
By this fall, there will be 77 schools under its management.
Changing the school calendar
Under current plans, the school day at the new Drew School will be one to two hours longer than it is at other public schools.
The first school year will be 185 days. There will be a minimum of 200 days in each subsequent school year.
With initiatives such as quarterly meetings between teachers and parents, a Parent Advisory Committee and a mentoring program, parental involvement will be heavily stressed.
That won’t be a problem if parents voice the same enthusiasm for the school as Pamela Davis, who has lived in East Lake for 12 years and is a charter school board member.
Although her children, who are ages 10, 11, and 12, won’t be attending the school, Davis still is confident about Drew’s effects.
“The grades are supposed to improve,” Davis said. “The charter school is supposed to be … one-on-one.”
Davis isn’t nervous about the many eyes that will be focused on the charter school’s performance.
With the community undergoing a number of recent changes, East Lake has encountered scrutiny before. “We overcame that,” she said.
Of the school and community’s success, she added: “It only works if you make it work.”