These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Lessons from the Peach State

Drew students
Image Courtesy of Charles R. Drew Charter School

East Lake, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Atlanta has much to show us about how to revitalize an impoverished community without pushing out current residents. Twenty years ago, it was home to East Lake Meadows a public housing project that was known as for its high crime rate, failing schools, and food desert.

In 1995, the city’s nonprofit, business, and philanthropic leaders came together around a vision of community quality and equity; East Lake and Atlanta leaders wanted a community with new mixed-income housing at The Villages of East Lake, quality early childhood options, excellent K-12 schools, neighborhood recreation and all of the other community assets that most us expect to see in a quality inclusive neighborhood.

Denver, like most cities, has tried similar efforts in new neighborhoods or urban development efforts. Think Stapleton, Five Points, Sun Valley, Green Valley Ranch. Many of these projects have successful aspects but none have delivered on the whole vision of a married affordable and integrated housing, recreation, high quality schools, and community services.

It has taken twenty years to build out all aspects of the reimagined East Lake neighborhood. While the East Lake project was about much more than schools, the project leaders recognized the importance of having children– and quality schools, programming, and supports for kids– at the center of the community. Without support for young children ages 0-5, early childhood education options, and a strong cradle-to-college education pipeline, new housing would have limited impact on the redeveloped neighborhood.    

Enter East Lake’s community school, Charles R. Drew Charter School. When they founded the school, community and school leaders wanted a very different school for the neighborhood than Atlanta offered at the time. The founders wanted a school that would get kids to grade level; an educational program that supported kids to explore essential questions, learn to reflect upon their own learning and construct student-led projects with community relevance; and to have a rich offering of arts, PE, and sports. The founders also knew that a great school would require that stable school leadership have control over the program, people and budget. So, using the state’s nascent charter law, Drew was founded as the first charter school in Atlanta.

Drew first opened in 2000 with a K-5 school and has expanded overtime to include a secondary school with grades 6-12 on a separate campus. The school now serves 1,800 students in PK-12th grade, many of whom live in the East Lake and surrounding communities and 70% of whom qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The school’s first high school class graduated just two months ago.

In many ways Drew has delivered on this initial vision of a community school that supports students to explore and achieve at high levels. According to school-provided data, 100% of the students who were in sixth grade at Drew made it to their graduation ceremony six years later. Of Drew’s first graduating class, 95% will be attending college this fall; about one-third of the graduated will be attending a selective college. (This is a much better outcome than most Colorado high schools promise, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds). The average ACT score for Drew students was 20, putting it in a similar ballpark to some other Colorado schools serving large percentages of low-income students.

The Drew elementary test scores compare well with the best metro Atlanta elementary schools including those serving significantly more affluent students. The demand to get into Drew has grown so much so that there were 222 students on the waitlist for Kindergarten for this coming year.

What truly sets Drew apart is its educational program. The school’s education philosophy could be described as progressive, with a program and curriculum built around STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) and Project-Based Learning (PBL). Few public schools (district-run or charter) serving low-income neighborhoods have successfully implemented a project-based STEAM program coupled with in- and after-school enrichment that include sports (no football though), arts, and extracurricular clubs. Yet Drew is an example of this model that works.

Student are engaged in the development of project-based learning starting in elementary school. I saw evidence of elementary school projects that ranged from building soap box cars to an investigation into “bling”–what it is, why we have it, and its implications including the impacts of blood diamonds. Elementary school children learn to design and build products in a workshop that has equipment like band saws, drill presses and 3D printers. High schoolers take four years of science and about 30% of students are engaged in arts courses every year. The schools have a rich arts program that include band, dance, visual arts, and even a harp program.

The intensive culture of Drew can be seen on the walls of the schools where student work is displayed with critiques a la Regio Emelia, and in the interactions that kids have throughout the building where there is a sense of excitement and joy in being in school. It can be seen in the tangible projects students take on.

Case in point, the high school juniors recently explored a series of questions around what drives poverty and how their class could begin to combat poverty in neighborhoods near the school; the students decided to build public street libraries in their fabrication labs and install them on targeted blocks.  

Drew looks and feels very different from the typical chaos of a struggling urban school or the rigid vibe that some high performing charters have where students are required to walk the halls in lines or with their hands crossed and mouths closed.

This all begs the question why does this school work? Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter.

First, community-driven school planning matters. The planning for this sort of school required the integration of all sorts of wraparound community supports including high quality ECE and health programing (birth to four), recreation, childcare, before and after school care.  Even facility placements are well-thought out and integrated. For example, the elementary school is in the same building as the YMCA and ECE center, each with different entrances. Drew Elementary kids and the community both use the Y facilities, and all elementary students are taught to swim!  

I think Drew successfully integrates community resources because there was a clear plan and vision for how schools would contribute to and interact with other community institutions (a large percentage of the staff are former Atlanta Public Schools educators). This is fundamentally different from many other charter schools I’ve visited that are often staffed by smart, passionate but inexperienced former Teach for America members. Often we either focus on creating schools that are only focused on doing education because that’s what schools should do, or we try to incorporate all of the supports often with a half-baked plan of what communities should (or are able to) provide to students. Drew proves that with the right planning you can use school design to build and bolster community offerings that too many low-income neighborhoods lack, and deliver the educational outcomes kids deserve.

Second, enrollment policies matter. Drew is intentionally positioned to serve students in the East Lake community. While the school is not a boundary school, where students are granted priority spot if they live in a certain place, the school does hold a preference for students that attend the preschool, students who live in The Villages of East Lake and East Lake and Kirkwood neighborhoods, and students with siblings at the school, which means regardless of the demand for seats from surrounding communities, the school will continue to primarily serve low-income families in the East Lake community. Denver and other Colorado school districts should be capitalizing on the benefits of socio-economic integration for all students by supporting similar policies that ensure equal access to quality schools for all students regardless of their family income or value of their home.

Additionally, to ensure Drew continues to serve students from low-income families, the school utilized a weighted lottery in 2017 to give preference to “economically disadvantaged” students. A few schools in Denver have enrollment policies that prioritize access for low-income students. The Odyssey school (first to do so in Denver) and DSST have policies where they reserve a percentage of seats for low-income students and have a preference for low-income students respectively, but hardly any other schools in Colorado have such enrollment policies.

Third, high performing schools, particularly for low-income students, can incorporate any number of different educational programs. Successful schools do not necessarily need to follow the now-ubiquitous no-excuses model. Drew provides an important example that project-driven curriculum and more flexible school cultures can, when done right, support students to be college and career ready. Drew provides an example that there is not necessarily a tradeoff between offering a rich arts education and rigorous core academic classes. There is no doubt that nationally we need more schools that offer options that meet diverse learning needs and student interests.

Ultimately East Lake and Drew Charter show that with attention to creating quality schools in the context of thoughtfully designed mixed-income housing and community wellness resources that you can support families to escape the perils of poverty. While too early to tell, I suspect that the vast majority of Drew’s graduates will end up being community leaders as adults.

This is a model of school design and community development that we should pay attention to. Too often solutions to housing, education, transit, recreation, and community supports are disconnected from each other. I am happy to see Purpose Built, an organization that was formed in 2009 to replicate the vision and process of East Lake in other communities, has expanded. Denver, Aurora, Englewood, Commerce City, Westminster, and other Colorado communities that are embarking on various forms of urban redevelopment, should take note.

We have much to learn from East Lake.