How Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School is trying to keep its student body diverse

Gentrification drove the school to adopt a “diverse by design” effort
Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School
What does a southeast Atlanta charter school do when its student body all starts to look alike?

Illustration by Mike McQuade

When the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School opened in Grant Park in 2002, it was everything that parents and neighborhood leaders wanted. For six years they’d fought to establish their own school for the community, which at the time was split among five different zones within the Atlanta Public Schools system. ANCS would be walkable for most students, class size would be limited to 20, and pupils would spend time solving hands-on projects rather than being dismissed every day loaded down with homework.

The demographics of the new school—first known as Neighborhood Charter School—reflected the diversity of Grant Park and Ormewood Park, the two communities it was designed to serve. Nearly half of the 104 students were black, and 35 percent were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches—consistent with the racial makeup and poverty rate of Grant Park at the time. In the ensuing years as many as 40 percent of ANCS students were eligible for free lunches. “The beauty of my kids going to the school they did is that all of a sudden my home looked like a Benetton commercial,” says Margaret Kaiser, a former state representative and founding parent.

By 2005 ANCS added a middle school in Ormewood Park to accommodate students going into grades six through eight. In 2015 it was named the best charter school in Georgia. The wait list for kindergarten spots is nearly 200 names long. Today the school enrolls 650 students.

Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School

Illustration by Mike McQuade

Real estate is all about location, location, location. But in Atlanta, it’s more specific: schools, schools, schools. Look no further than Grant Park, where Victorians now fetch around $600,000 and up and average households earn $92,500 a year.

When ANCS opened, the neighborhood was starting to gentrify—a process the school’s success only sped up. And as the neighborhood changed, so did the ANCS student body. By the 2015-2016 school year, black students represented just 18 percent of overall enrollment. Only one out of 10 elementary students qualified for free or reduced lunches, a measure of the growing affluence of many students’ families. Indeed, only one of APS’s 17 charters, Atlanta Classical Academy in Buckhead, had a smaller percentage of students coming from low-income households.

The school’s diversity, both racial and socioeconomic, that was such a point of pride had become a victim of gentrification but also of more choice. Parents now have more options for educating their children. Wesley International, a charter school that opened in 2006 one mile away on Memorial Drive, immerses students in Mandarin. Parkside Elementary, the APS traditional school on the east side of Grant Park, last year posted APS’s 10th highest scores based on the past three years’ average. John Wright, a founding parent whose children attended ANCS and who’s now running for a seat on the APS board, says the school might not have also done a good enough job proving its non-traditional curriculum, which emphasizes projects and working in groups, to minority parents.

In 2014 ANCS instituted a plan to boost the enrollment of students living on low incomes—which, in the neighborhoods ANCS serves, could mean adding more black and Hispanic children. In this regard, ANCS officials weren’t pioneers. “Diverse by design,” as the effort is called, has gained traction among charter schools across the nation, as more and more seek to assemble a student body of different socioeconomic statuses and racial backgrounds.

“We’re really committed to trying to have a racially and economically diverse school,” says Matt Underwood, who became executive director in 2011 after serving as principal of the ANCS middle school. “Not to say ‘kumbaya, look at all the different-colored faces here,’ but because we really believe in—and have seen the benefits of—kids being in classrooms with people with different experiences and life stories.”

The data supports Underwood. According to the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, students at mixed-income and mixed-race schools post higher test scores and are less likely to drop out of high school than students in high-poverty schools. They are also more likely to enroll in college than their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. And there are life lessons that don’t show up on tests: seeing that your classmate’s only meal each day comes from the school cafeteria, hearing about life with same-sex parents, or learning about Ramadan—or atheism—at recess.

By the numbers

Number of students on the wait list for kindergarten at ANCS
Percentage of ANCS students who identified as black in its first year
Percentage of ANCS students who identified as black in 2015-16 year
Percentage of new students who should identify as low-income, per ANCS’s goal
Average household income in grant park, where ANCS is located

In the fall of 2014, the ANCS board decided that at least 30 percent of all ANCS students needed to qualify for free and reduced lunches. After surveying a growing national movement of “diverse by design” charters, the board added Summerhill, where 41.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line, to its attendance zone. It stepped up outreach and education to apartments, including Trestletree Village and Martin Street Plaza. The following year ANCS and other Atlanta charters convinced the Georgia General Assembly to give children living on low incomes an edge in enrollment with “weighted lotteries.” Each spring, the school uses a random number generator to determine enrollment when the number of applicants exceed the number of desks. Kids who qualify as “economically disadvantaged” would receive four numbers in the lottery, while other aspiring pupils receive one.

In addition Underwood appointed Larry Carter, a black fourth grade teacher at ANCS, to lead outreach and teach faculty and students about diversity, equity, and privilege. A team of facilitators from Georgia State University identified what ANCS activities, such as fundraisers, could make people living on low incomes feel uncomfortable. Six of its 13 board members are now people of color and include a developer who learned English as a second language and Pulitzer Prize–winning black journalist Nick Chiles. In 2016 officials from the Georgia Department of Education urged ANCS’s board to go further and helped school leaders establish a goal of 40 percent. ANCS agreed.

School officials held its first lottery using the new system, and the first in Georgia, in March. Nine new kindergarteners and two new sixth graders who identify as socioeconomically disadvantaged were accepted. Underwood says the school will keep using the lottery until as many as half of the students fall under that category, which could also qualify ANCS for Title I federal funding.

Even if it hits that goal, challenges remain, including ensuring the diverse student population actually mixes and students receive equitable treatment. Plus, home prices keep rising as Atlanta BeltLine officials design the nearby Southside Trail and Georgia State University and developer Carter start to redevelop Turner Field. “We can do all the outreach and weighted lottery, but if the tide of gentrification of real estate happens unfettered, there won’t be anyone living here who can get weight to get into the school,” says Underwood, who’s advocating for more affordable housing options in the area.

For now, the lottery is opening a door. On Christmas Eve of last year, Jameka Mitchell and her two children moved from Miami into an apartment at Trestletree. A product of mostly charter and private schools, Mitchell wanted the same for her five-year-old son, Devon. After learning about ANCS from Trestletree’s community advisor, Mitchell entered Devon in the weighted lottery. He started in August. “It makes me feel like I’m taking a great step for my son and I took advantage,” says Mitchell, who drives for Lyft when not studying to become a corrections officer. “Now my son can finally grow. He can’t wait. When he got accepted, he was so happy.”

This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.