Tech High Hopes: Think Tank Founds Atlanta’s First Charter High School

DONTERIO CULLINS HAS ALWAYS FELT comfortable hunched over a greasy truck engine. After school, the ninth-grader often gets in hours of work on his mother’s truck, replacing valves, tinkering with spark plugs. Last month, he put a whole new engine in a car and sold it to his stepdad.

“Yeah, I put an engine in it,” Cullins said, smiling broadly as he remembers the project. “I can basically say I love it,” he said of the work he does at home in his driveway.

Under the hood, Cullins knows exactly what makes pistons move; he locates problems and solves them; he understands every connection. There are other connections, he admits, that didn’t come so naturally to him—like the one between his education and his future.

Cullins is in his second semester of ninth grade at Tech High, a charter school in downtown Atlanta. He spent almost 10 years of his education drifting through his school days—until this semester.

“I knew that if I didn’t make a change, things wouldn’t go as well as they could for my future,” he said. “I committed to make a change—to myself, my mother, my teachers.”

Alan Gravitt is one of those teachers—an energetic physics teacher who also has several start-up technology companies and the founding of the state’s alternative teachers’ union on his resume. He puts his hand on Cullins’ shoulder and beams as Cullins talks about his new resolve.

Cullins explains “The Plan,” an assignment from another teacher, in which he has to map the way from his ninth-grade desk to the career of his choice. He’s interviewing auto mechanics and engineering students, visiting auto shops and college classes, and writing a paper about his experiences. Gravitt offers to arrange a visit with a friend of his—the mayor of College Park, Georgia who also owns an auto body shop.

“Wow, thanks Mr. Gravitt,” Cullins says before he leaves for his required afterschool study hall, one step farther along “The Plan” for his life.

Cullins’s story is the vision of Tech High, established this school year by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The school gives its 100 students—most of them transfers from under-performing inner-city Atlanta schools—math and technology-focused education designed to ready them for technical schools and the workforce. Teachers have advanced degrees, private sector and military experience, and high expectations. They teach small groups of students so they can be there to put a hand on a shoulder or arrange a meeting with a mechanic.

Transformations like Cullins’s have not been easy or immediate for Tech High, 70 percent of whose students are on free and reduced lunch, but they’re happening, said the school’s CEO Barbara Christmas. Christmas is a long-time public school teacher and administrator, and former head of the state’s alternative teachers’ union, who now calls herself an “entrepreneur in the field of education.” As Tech High CEO, Christmas deals with raising support while the Principal Byron White tends to education and discipline.

“A lot of our students say they couldn’t learn where they were,” Christmas said. “Many of them were shocked. It shocked them to see how much they didn’t know. We’ve had some attrition, but we’ve had some big success stories.”

According to the school’s internal testing, the average improvement in reading scores from first semester to second semester was more than one grade level, she said.

Putting Policy into Action

It’s the kind of change Holly Robinson of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation always knew could happen. Robinson, senior vice president of the Foundation, had been a teacher, an advisor, a deputy superintendent, and an education analyst in Georgia.

When a group in Atlanta started talking about starting a charter school in 2003, Robinson and her colleagues went from studying schools to founding a school in a hurry. The Foundation seemed a logical choice to get Atlanta’s first charter high school off the ground. It was already running the Charter School Resource Center, training educational entrepreneurs around the state, and Robinson knew everyone in the Georgia education scene, on both sides of the aisle.

The Foundation’s bipartisan ties proved extremely valuable. At a time when education policy battles often devolve into tough politics, the Tech High charter was approved unanimously by both the Atlanta school board and the state board of education. Christmas, a prominent Democrat and former candidate for state superintendent, signed on as CEO. Atlanta entrepreneur and prominent Republican Don Chapman headed up the Tech High Foundation board, raising money for the new venture. Christmas’s and Chapman’s reputations and experience earned Tech High supporters at every major foundation and business in Atlanta. And state school superintendent Kathy Cox was behind the charter all the way, Robinson said.

“It has just been a wonderful and exciting thing—for Atlanta and for the whole charter school movement,” Robinson said. “We’ve had tremendous support both from the business and the academic community.”

By avoiding a political storm, Tech High—governed by a board that includes Foundation Executive-Vice President Kelly McCutchen, Foundation board member Craig Lesser, three parents, and two faculty members—was able to start putting policy into action by the fall of 2004. The school opened in a renovated corner of a former children’s science museum downtown, much of it bearing the mark of the local business community’s generosity—computers from Hewlett Packard, cafeteria chairs from AT&T. Paint and carpet transformed the cavernous insides of the science museum into school hallways and classrooms. And, in the shadow of the Atlanta skyline, a new philosophy started transforming students.

High Quality

Tech High’s Spanish teacher is a native Spanish-speaker with experience as an information systems analyst. Principal Byron White is a Marine who later became an engineer for Motorola. And Joseph Gibson, Jr. boasts degrees in History and Physics, and experience as an Army officer in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A start-up school, much like a start-up business needs employees who are flexible, dedicated, and willing to work long hours, Christmas said. Christmas also wants teachers who have both education and real-life experience.

“They can help kids relate what they’re learning to real-world experiences,” she said. “You’ve got to be really smart to figure out how to reach some of these kids.”

All of Tech High’s teachers are dual-certified, meaning each of them teaches both math and science, or English and history. This cuts down on the number of students each teacher must get to know and improves relationships, Christmas said.

High Expectations

From dress code to daily lessons, Tech High sets the bar high for students. For many of them, coming from large Atlanta public schools, the experience was jarring at first.

“In the first half of the year, it was a lot of shock,” said White. “They were saying, ‘Nobody’s ever held my feet to the fire. This is serious.’”

The Tech High dress code requires that students wear polo shirts and slacks every day. School policy dictates that students come to tutoring sessions with teachers after school and on Saturdays if they ever fall behind in schoolwork.

Tech High also hosts professional development days, on which students are required to wear professional attire—skirts and suits for girls, and shirts and ties for guys. Professionals from around the Atlanta area come to share their career stories with students, and students get a chance to practice basic etiquette and interaction with adults.

Robinson has always believed that, “if you give the students high expectations…that you can turn things around. They want those lines in the sand.”

Traditional public schools are often bogged down by discussion about funding, transportation, and buildings, Robinson said, giving short shrift to their real purpose—producing results in students. Tech High, working with about 2/3 the budget per student of Atlanta Public Schools, is focused on getting more academic achievement for less money. (Atlanta Public Schools operate on about $9,000 per student; Tech High operates on $6,500 per student.)

“They’re our customers and that’s what we’re in business to do,” Robinson said.

Bethaney Wright notes the difference between her experience at Tech High and her public school.

“My learning experience at Tech High School has been very rigorous. Only two quarters have passed, but I feel like I’ve acquired enough knowledge for an entire year,” she wrote in an essay posted outside her classroom door.

Highly Personal

When Christmas walks down the halls of Tech High, she can name every student she meets; she inquires about their lives, other activities, progress in certain classes. White speaks fondly of the times he gets out from behind the principal’s desk.

“I can go in the classroom and actually teach a math class,” he said. “You don’t get that at a mega high school.”

You also don’t get Individual Learning Plans at a mega high school. But at Tech High, White sits down with every family in the school once a year and goes through a lineitem list of every grade and assignment the student received. He and the parents use those conferences to come up with a plan of action to address the grades. White said giving parents a seat at the table in their children’s education inspires parental involvement.

Parent attendance at these meetings isn’t perfect, but White calls back if parents don’t respond. And, if they don’t respond on the second try, he sets up a home visit.

Another advantage of Tech High’s personal atmosphere is that it makes discipline easier, White said.

“They feel like, since I know every one of them…I know what each one of them is doing or has done,” he said. “The element of care reduces discipline problems.”

Arthur Bell, another Tech High freshman, notices the difference: “It’s . . . almost totally different [from my last school]. You can make up a lot more things; there’s more individual focus.”

High Hopes

After 2004-2005, Tech High will add one grade a year until it is a four-year high school of about 500 students. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation and the Tech High staff are excited to see their idea keep growing. Robinson has always been convinced that this is the way to get great results with less money.

“I really feel that this is an enormous opportunity to see what can happen given the right circumstances,” she said.

This spring, the Foundation and Tech High will wait to see if a couple weeks of testing reflects the years of dreaming and hard work that have gone into creating Atlanta’s first charter high school. The Tech High faculty and board are confident that testing will reinforce what they’ve already seen in the halls of Tech High.

“About 90 percent of what it’s taken is to convince them they can do it,” Gravitt said of his students. “They’ve not been challenged. They’ve not been expected to do the work. They’ve just been drifting.”

But when Donterio Cullins walks the halls of Tech High, thinking about his plan for becoming a mechanical engineer, he’s not drifting anymore.

Mary Katharine Ham is Editor of The Insider.