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Dear Decaturish – Reopening plan shows how City Schools of Decatur fails most vulnerable students

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Dear Decaturish – Reopening plan shows how City Schools of Decatur fails most vulnerable students

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Superintendent David Dude
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Editor’s note: Prior to the publication of this letter, Decaturish asked Superintendent David Dude to respond to claims made by the author. Dude acknowledged receipt of the questions via email but has not responded to two follow up requests for comment. This post will be updated when Dude provides a response. 

Dear Decaturish,

For years, the City Schools of Decatur (CSD) has been plagued by pervasive issues of inequity and racism. Despite a commitment to addressing equity concerns by incorporating equity initiatives into its strategic plan and establishing an office of Equity and Student Support, CSD Leaders have failed to move the needle in terms of addressing the disproportionate outcomes affecting the academic achievement of and the disciplinary actions against its marginalized students, particularly the Black students.

For the past 10 years, CSD has chosen to focus its efforts and resources on being a school system that provides a rigorous curriculum to prepare its students to be highly competitive in a post-secondary academic environment.  By all standard measurements to that end, CSD has undoubtedly succeeded. U.S News and World Report lists Decatur High School as #20 in it’s ranking of top high schools in Georgia. Decatur High School students test in all categories well above the state averages and 95% of them graduate.  

Naturally, these District achievements have had a drastic impact on the city of Decatur at large. Over the past 10 years, CSD has seen unprecedented growth in enrollment as families, sharing the same value for high academic achievement and college readiness, moved here for the school system alone. The gentrification of the city compromised its racial and socio-economic diversity by sky-rocketing housing costs and property taxes, thus resulting in a community that has now become unaffordable for the average middle class family.

CSD’s ability to master college readiness, on face value, appears to be the standard all parents strive for as it attributes to increased home values and better academic outcomes for its students. However, CSD’s singular focus on academic achievement and college readiness overwhelmingly benefits high-achieving students, many of whom are white and/or come from families of high socio-economic status. This narrow striving towards a single goal of euro-centric values in higher education has come at a brutal cost to its most under-served populations: special needs students, Black students, and low-income students.

CSD has long wrestled with dual identities: it is a great place to educate a typical or high-achieving student, and if your child is on the margins for any reason, be it ethnicity, socioeconomic status, learning or developmental disorders, disabilities, or any other barrier to effectively assimilate to the mainstream classroom environment, CSD has proven year after year, it is unwilling to serve your child or their needs.

CSD’s process for psychoeducational evaluations, assessments, interventions and services, is unreasonably arduous and time-consuming, taking years for some children to get the learning accommodations they desperately need, not to be academically competitive or ready for college, but just to meet the learning and developmental milestones expected for their grade-level.

As a result, many families, frustrated by CSD’s failures to accommodate atypical learners, are forced to finance private therapies and tutoring; unenroll their students and send them to specialized private schools; and/or move out of the district. Those families who lack the resources to mitigate CSD’s failure at serving their special needs kids, remain stuck and struggling in a learning environment that tells them that they need to be an IB model student. Those are the kids making up the 5% who don’t graduate from Decatur High School. Those are the children who are being disciplined at higher rates than their peers. Those are the children that disengage because they naturally do not fit the IB Model Student that CSD upholds as the gold standard for student success and achievement. Those are the children who are doomed to fail at academic achievement before their secondary educations even begin.

The global pandemic of COVID-19 has only magnified the flaws and inequities of most institutions, especially healthcare and education. It should be no surprise that white and high socio-economic populations have far better outcomes when faced with the challenges of COVID-19, not only in survivability of the disease, but also in virtual learning.

CSD originally offered a reopening plan that was loosely based on student needs, prioritizing mandatory evaluations and assessments for special education, 504, etc., conducted 1-on-1.

Adapted Curriculum/Program Special Education classes, and some 3-5-year-old students with IEPs. When this plan that was set to move forward on October 12 was delayed indefinitely, families, mostly white and mostly of privilege, organized around a shared interest to reopen schools for a variety of reasons with a common theme being kids’ emotional and academic struggles are not being met and school closures were affecting some students ability to remain academically competitive against peers in open districts. These families used their resources, their large social networks, and their titles to organize and apply pressure to CSD to abandon it’s plan that prioritized some students over others and pivot towards an opening choice for all.

In one of many botched approaches towards developing a reopening plan of our schools, CSD assembled a 60 person committee, The COVID-19 Stakeholder Planning Committee (CSPC) in a most inequitable way.

It was volunteer only, the invitation to join was buried in a massive district communication and implied that parents needed some sort of area of expertise in medicine, epidemiology, or science to join, and parents were only given four days to sign up. The makeup of the committee was disproportionately represented by parents who had organized for a Face to Face choice for all and it pitted experts against experts in outlining details of the plan, that included two separate recommendations for whether metrics like community spread and hospital capacity should be considered or not.

What was most concerning of all, is the original make up of the committee lacked any representation from our Black community and their advocate organizations. CSD made no effort to reach out to its partner organizations like the CSD Black Parent Alliance (CSD BPA) Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights (Beacon Hill), or the Special Education PTA (SEPTA) to bring their voices to the conversation. Instead, these members had to appeal to Dr. Dude to be added to the committee after the deadline. He allowed the CSD BPA representation, but when the designated representation from Beacon Hill requested to join the Student-Focus Sub-committee that had NO representation from Black community members or their advocates, Dr. Dude rejected the request. Those partner organizations also pointed out that many members of the Black and disability communities would elect to remain in virtual learning due to increased risk of adverse consequence from COVID-19 for those communities and requested that the CSPC include a subcommittee to address improving virtual learning. Dr. Dude also denied that request. As with many efforts in CSD, the committee moved forward despite severe under-representation from members of its most vulnerable communities.

In the midst of organizing the CSPC, the Head Start community took a massive blow. Without a word from CSD, Easter Seals, the new grant holder for Dekalb County Head Start Programs, shuttered its partner sites, including the one at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. Without sufficient notice, 30 families of low socio-economic status and 15 teachers, a community that is overwhelmingly Black, were left scrambling to find childcare and new jobs. Again, without any communication or guidance from CSD.

As a former Head Start family member and volunteer for the Beacon Hill, I reached out to the Decatur Education Foundation, to help find emergency childcare placement for these families and try to connect the displaced teachers with the job opportunities as CSD Pod Facilitators. Despite repeated emails to Central Office officials, Dr. Dude chose to ignore our efforts to partner and help the displaced families and teachers of the Head Start program. Eventually, we learned that some of the families were allowed to stay on at College Heights and the Frazer Center, but to do this day, Dr. Dude refuses to publicly acknowledge or address the loss of the program and what CSD has actually done or will do to help that impacted community.

Despite overwhelming feedback from parents at Board of Education meetings about timely communication, the CSD released its revised reopening plan, purportedly based on the CSPC’s report, a plan that seems to largely ignore the committee’s recommendations; and once again, gave parents a highly aggressive deadline to consume the information for the plan and make a choice as to whether they would send their child for in-person instruction or remain virtual, with options that parents could identify a preference and if that preference was flexible.

The newest plan is completely inequitable. The plan told parents if they failed to make a selection in four days’ time, they would be defaulted to virtual learning. If a family opted for virtual learning, they would have to remain in virtual learning for the remainder of the year. This plan was communicated only through email. Any person working with low-income families, knows that email is the LEAST reliable way to reach these parents. In its aggressive timeline for parent choice, CSD failed to offer itself the opportunity to reach its most vulnerable families through multiple channels of communication, like text messaging services, letters mailed to their homes with a survey and postage paid return envelope, or phone calls.

In addition to only a four days’ notice, the plan’s deadline for choice fell on a Sunday, the last day before the holiday break. Dr. Dude abruptly cancelled the scheduled Superintendent Town Hall, which meant that parents and school principals only had two days’ time to ask and answer questions before parents had to make a choice with incomplete information from the district. Some parents are left wondering if staff had to work outside of contracted hours to track down parents during the first week of break, the week that was supposed to make up staff’s contracted break that was removed by the cancellation of the Fall break.

The “Guiding Principles” of CSD Reopening Plans lays bare its intention to prioritize advancing academic achievement over creating a safe in-person environment for our most vulnerable students to return to the building.

The Guiding Principles state:

“One size does not fit all. Learning experiences must be designed to meet the needs of individual students while challenging each student to reach the next level of success. For most students, this means attending school in-person with their teacher and peers.”

While CSD recognizes that “one size does not fit all” that is exactly what it’s offering to its families. CSD continues to fail over and over to provide learning experiences that are specifically intended to close the achievement gap and provide adequate support to its special needs students. Instead of investing in school psychologists and more special education professionals, it pours its resources into expanding IB programs, gifted services, and the AP curriculum. While the Georgia Department of Education and CSD claim to have adopted a motto of “Compassion over compliance,” they refuse to change grading or assessment models that would relieve the academic pressures that contribute to the mounting stress and mental health crisis the global pandemic is causing students and families.

This commitment to not only uphold, but advance academic achievement/college readiness, is further reiterated by their statement that, “A continuous improvement cycle must be used in all aspects of the district to ensure the highest quality of education is maintained over time.” Experts in mental health and even the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges that when we are in a state of survival, such as a global pandemic, we should be lowering expectations of one another. It is scientifically unreasonable to expect humans, let alone children, to perform at their highest executive levels, during a survival state, such as a global pandemic.

CSD also recognizes that Students learn best alongside peers with a teacher in the room with them.” This is indisputable common sense and it is severely lacking in context with regards to facing a global pandemic that has killed 350,000 Americans, 585 of which are educators. In acknowledging that an in-person learning environment is the gold standard of education, it is also admitting that its virtual option is sub-standard.  As a result, CSD is pouring all of its resources into bolstering the viability of its new in-person model at the cost of the students who need to remain virtual for physical health and safety. CSD is increasing the class sizes of its virtual cohorts to the effect that virtual classes will be double or even triple the size of in-person classes, with high probability that these young students (K-5) will be reassigned a new teacher in the middle of the year, with a new class of students from across the entire district, not necessarily even from their own neighborhood school.

In this current model, CSD is offering two completely different and inequitable learning environments. Families who take the health risk to return to in-person learning get the benefit of a smaller class size, with a teacher ratio no greater than 15:1, although with small physical classroom spaces at the lower elementary schools, those ratios improve to 12:1 and 10:1, depending on classroom capacity. These children will get “hands on” learning and individual support in ways that virtual students will not.

Now, CSD will make the argument that this is fair and equal because every family had the choice. Once again, CSD is demonstrating how it consistently confounds equality with equity at every turn.

An equitable plan would return students based on the highest needs, starting with high needs kids whose parents do not have the financial resources to mitigate learning losses or developmental regressions caused by a virtual learning model. Because a choice for all was granted, it naturally increases the number of people in the building and maximizes classroom capacity. Families who do not have the resources to mitigate learning loss or developmental regressions tend to also lack the resources to mitigate the financial devastation a COVID infection could bring their family. Many children with special needs are also burdened with co-morbidities of health that make COVID a greater risk for them. The changing demographics in Decatur means that socioeconomic status has fallen along ethnicity lines. The vast majority of families who cannot financially survive a COVID infection in the city of Decatur, also happen to be our Black and Brown families who rely on school for critical social services. As we saw in NYC schools, where white wealthy parents were effective in forcing a school reopening; when given the choice, Black families keep their kids home, regardless of the cost to their learning. This choice for reopening by ethnicity has followed a similar pattern in Fulton County and in CSD’s last published data on parent choice by ethnicity.  Many families accept that learning losses can be recovered, but death and chronic illness cannot.

For all its investment in college readiness, at the sacrifice of its most vulnerable students, CSD students remain ill-equipped to thrive in institutions of higher learning.

For the DHS class of 2014, 86% of those who graduated were enrolled in post-secondary education.  By 2018, only 20% had earned a career pathway credential and were working in Georgia. 28.5% of graduates were still enrolled in post-secondary. 24.4% were working without a post-secondary credential or enrollment. 26.9% were unaccounted for, meaning they were either not employed in the state of Georgia and they were not enrolled in or earned any post-secondary credential from any college or university in the US.

In summary, after 4 years, a staggering 51.3% of 2014 DHS graduates had not earned nor were they working towards a post-secondary credential.

Under the guise of academic achievement, CSD invests in a model that serves only the highest achieving students, at the neglect of closing the achievement gap for marginalized and atypical learners, and the return of that investment is poor. This means that CSD, by its own measures and standards, fails over half of its students, even the ones who appear to be on the right track for college readiness.

CSD needs to divest from the IB model at the elementary and middle school grades. They need to reallocate resources to special education services that include a robust staff of school psychologists, not just for psychoeducational evaluations, but to be available to provide actual counseling and guidance on serving our most vulnerable students. They need to hire paraprofessionals for every elementary classroom so that all the students with IEPs, 504s, and EIPs aren’t corralled into the same classrooms, overwhelming teachers with paperwork and increased demand for differentiating learning for a multitude of complex learning styles and abilities.

Above all, the CSD Board of Education needs to change our district leadership. We need a superintendent that has a demonstrated track record of closing the achievement gap and equipping ALL of its students for success after high school, whether it be ivy league college, state school, technical school, or joining the workforce with the skills they need to effectively engage with others and contribute to society in the best way they can. CSD needs leadership that truly prioritizes equity and demands that equity is the guiding principle for every decision that is made. CSD needs a superintendent with meaningful classroom experience, especially experience serving special needs students. CSD needs a superintendent that values the education of each and every student under their care, especially the ones that are already undersserved and at high risk, not just the ones that make the District look good on arbitrary and outdated measures and standards. CSD needs a superintendent that will reestablish trust among administrators, teachers, staff, and parents and unites the entire community around serving each and every one of our kids.

Of all the truths that this global pandemic has revealed, among them is that Dr. Dude is not the right fit to lead this particular district at this particular time.

– Susan Camp, CSD parent of a special needs child and a member of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance of Human Rights education committee

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