Think Promise Neighborhoods Before Promise Neighborhoods Were Cool

The school's ambition is an integral part of an even bigger one -- to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty that has been endemic to its section of Atlanta.
12/15/2014 11:55 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2015

Drew Charter School has a big ambition -- to provide a cradle-to-college pipeline so that every student living in its Atlanta community graduates high school with college admittance in hand.

The school's ambition is an integral part of an even bigger one -- to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty that has been endemic to its section of Atlanta.

Twenty years ago, its neighborhood -- the East Lake area of Atlanta -- was known as a miserable place to live, with high crime rates and a beleaguered population.

A passage from a 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, however, depicts the transformation from that harsh reality.

They used to call East Lake a shooting gallery, a poverty trap, and worse. The neighborhood's massive public housing project was so violent it earned the nickname "little Vietnam." Times and reputations have changed for East Lake, now a mix of single-family homes with leafy tree cover and tidy apartment complexes surrounded by golf courses.

What happened is that building developer and philanthropist Thomas Cousins established a foundation that worked with the Atlanta Housing Authority and other public and private partners to build housing that would attract working and middle-income people, but where 50 percent of the units were reserved for people eligible for public housing. That 50 percent rule ensures that the neighborhood will remain economically integrated.

There have been other attempts around the country to build stable, economically integrated neighborhoods; the most successful example is probably Centennial Place, which is also in Atlanta and which I wrote about last year. But few projects have been able to maintain the hoped-for stability among residents.

In talking with national housing experts, it has become clear to me that if an excellent school is not at the heart of a housing project, it will always struggle to retain a stable population of families with school-age kids. Whether families are middle-class, working-class, or impoverished, they will leave a bad or uncaring school if and when they can, causing lots of turnover in the neighborhood.

But families don't seem to be leaving East Lake in search of a better school, probably because their children already have one of the top-performing schools in the state to attend.

To give just a little bit of context, 85 percent of the school's student body is African American, and 63 percent come from low-income families. Last year, just about every student met or exceeded state math, reading, and English language arts standards, and more than 94 percent met state science, social studies, and writing standards. I won't go into all the other data, but essentially its students perform at levels comparable to or at rates higher than those attending much wealthier Georgia schools.

This isn't because the students do endless test-prep. It is because they learn a rich, comprehensive STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) curriculum that focuses closely on building knowledge as students work on carefully developed projects that both engage and challenge them.

I have to say, when educators tell me they use a project-based curriculum, I worry - not because projects are a bad idea in theory, but because they are so often bad in practice.

Drew teachers, however, spend their time on both developing projects and working with colleagues to ensure that the projects meet rigorous standards so that student learning is meaningful. So, for example, this fall I saw a group of fifth-grade students working on a project where they drew the outline of a Union soldier on poster paper and then worked together to identify and write what the soldier might have heard, smelled, tasted, felt, and seen. This was part of a ten week project exploring the age-old question of whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in the formation of character and personality. The students were learning about the role of perception and experience, linked to both the fifth-grade science and history curricula.

The students' work and engagement, and the integration of all the curriculum areas, was impressive to see. I'm sure teachers around the country would love to emulate that assignment. But projects of that scope require hours of collaborative work and thought. I caught a glimpse of a little bit of that work when I sat in on an hour-long meeting of grade-level teachers who talked through their upcoming projects, graded them on whether they met challenging standards, and then worked on revisions.

Because it is a charter, Drew has a little more flexibility than ordinary public schools to develop its own curriculum. But the folks at Drew are quick to point out that two of the key players, elementary school principal Barbara Preuss and board member Cynthia Kuhlman, instituted many of the same practices when they were assistant principal and principal, respectively, at Centennial Place Elementary. In addition, much of the rest of Drew's leadership comes straight out of Atlanta Public Schools, where they also used many of the same kinds of practices. They say Drew's success doesn't derive from its governance structure, but rather through the careful, consistent implementation of good teaching tied to rigorous standards and informed deeply by research.

Drew is demonstrating that a school can be a powerful anchor for a neighborhood.