On the morning after vandals threw a fire bomb through the window of an apartment at the Forest Cove housing complex, students at neighboring Thomasville Heights Elementary School arrived for class exhausted and upset.
Some had barely slept and were still frightened by the act of violence that targeted the family of one of their classmates. Others were bristling with unspent energy, just as they were expected to settle down and concentrate on learning.
The incident in January was a terrifying, defining moment at Thomasville Heights Elementary, a public school located in one of the poorest and most geographically isolated neighborhoods of Atlanta. Teachers, administrators and community members immediately rallied to the family’s aid. Within 24 hours, they had secured clothing, food, furniture, beds and mattresses to replace what was lost in the fire.
At the center of the school’s relief efforts were lawyer Ayanna Jones Little and community housing advocate Christal Reynolds of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. They worked with Forest Cove’s landlord to secure and perform maintenance on a new apartment so the family would not have to relocate.
“The people who live here are resilient. They get up every day and make a way,” says Ayanna. “They are survivors. But everyone needs help sometimes –– and it was remarkable to see how our school community sprang into action for this family.”
Thomasville Heights leaders say the response validates their decision to implement a comprehensive community support plan as part of a larger turnaround effort at the school.
Since July 2016, Thomasville Heights has been operated by Purpose Built Schools, a non-profit organization contracted by Atlanta Public Schools. Purpose Built is charged with dramatically improving outcomes for students at Thomasville, which has been one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Georgia for years.
In 2016, of the 144 students who took the state end-of-year exams, only five were proficient in math, four were proficient in English Language Arts, three in science, and just two students were proficient in social studies. Not one student scored in the state’s highest testing designation. These results had been the norm at Thomasville Heights for years.
Purpose Built has introduced a new curriculum at Thomasville Heights with an intense focus on literacy and math and project-based learning. The school day has been extended to 4 p.m., with more time for academics. There are now more than seven hours of enrichment time each week and 32 additional full-time instructors. Suspensions are down by about 50% over last year.
The school turnaround, however, extends beyond the four walls of the school itself. It embraces the idea that the future success of the school depends not just on the quality of its curriculum, but also on the health and stability of its neighborhood.
Thomasville Heights has partnered, for example, with the Atlanta Community Food Bank to provide 200 boxes of food for families each month. In tandem with a mental health non-profit, CHRIS 180, the school also employs two full-time family therapists. Students who attend the school’s after-school program now receive breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And under its unique arrangement with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Ayanna and Christal are able to provide free legal representation for Thomasville Heights families who need to improve their living conditions and prevent evictions.
The problem they are trying to solve is significant. Over the past four years, Thomasville Heights averaged a 48% turnover rate among students, destabilizing dozens of students’ education midyear.
Almost 90% of the students at Thomasville Heights live in Forest Cove, a 396-unit subsidized housing complex, part of a census tract that has the lowest median-income level in the state.
Forest Cove, located directly across the street from the school, is a mile south of a federal penitentiary and two miles north of a state prison. Only one in four adult residents works full time. The neighborhood is a ‘food desert,’ with no traditional supermarkets within walking distance. All these factors contribute to families leaving the neighborhood and students leaving the school.
“Housing instability is a huge issue when it comes to student turnover. Student turnover is important because when students are moving constantly, it is very hard for them to achieve,” says Ayanna.
Since the start of the 2016-2017 school year, Ayanna, Christal – who are based in the school – and volunteer lawyers from seven private firms in Atlanta have been working directly with families at Forest Cove. Sometimes they write demand letters when maintenance issues go unresolved. Sometimes they act as counselors, providing information to ensure families know their rights as tenants.
While their role can be adversarial, the two women also act as advocates and help mediate to avoid evictions when tenants miss rent payments or are accused of other lease violations.
“We can see what is happening in the lives of students behind the scenes, outside of school,” adds Christal. She spends several hours each week in the community, meeting with parents in their homes. “I get really excited knowing we can help the parent, which will help trickle down to the children, to keep them in the neighborhood as long as they want to be here, and to make sure they are getting a quality education.”
Parents rave about the legal assistance, saying the service has helped Purpose Built build trust within the community.
“If you have an issue with your housing, no matter what it is, they will open their doors and let you come in and help you settle your problem. They will give you the legal advice you need,” says Quarticia Snow, who has three children attending Thomasville Heights Elementary. “And it’s not just limited to the parents of the students at Thomasville Heights. It’s the whole community.”
Ayanna says it’s heartbreaking to see the conditions in which many Thomasville Heights students live – but inspiring to know that the school cares enough about their wellbeing to advocate on their behalf.
“We have seen mold that is hazardous to vulnerable populations like children. There are problems with rats, rodents, infestations of bed bugs. Tenants talk about spiders. I’ve had two residents tell me either their toilet or bathtub is sinking. Lots of leaks and problems with pipes, the HVAC system, the sewer backup,” says Ayanna. “I get to go and say, ‘You’re not going to treat this person like this –– not on my watch.’ I get the chance to be the voice for people and teach them how to use their voice and let them know they deserve to have a voice.”
Deborah Wells, one of Thomasville Heights’ school therapists, says students’ living conditions inevitably contribute to problems with attendance, behavior and academic performance.
“We see a lot of kids who have been exposed to a lot of trauma. They witness a lot of violence. They are not getting their basic needs met – food, clothing, shelter,” says Deborah.
The good news? The school’s community support effort is already paying dividends.
Within the first three months of the 2016-2017 school year, Ayanna, Christal and the volunteer lawyers helped 44 students stay at Thomasville Heights by preventing evictions or other housing-related moves. Enrollment remained steady –– at about 395 students –– from October 2016 through March 2017.
The work is paying off. That 48% student turnover rate has plummeted 17% in just one year, down to 31%, according to unofficial numbers from Purpose Built Schools.
“Now that we know a number of the parents, they are spreading the word for us. They are the ambassadors. That is what outreach is all about,” says Christal. “When we are in the neighborhood, they will say, I need you to go down two doors, talk to my neighbor, talk to my cousin. They are ready for the help. Maybe they have been crying out, but nobody has really been on the ground to facilitate change until now.”
The Walton Family Foundation provided funding to support turnaround plans at Thomasville Heights Elementary. This is the first of two articles about community support efforts at the school.