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Wednesday, December 7, 2022
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Atlanta high school plans to open an off-site ninth grade academy to boost graduation rates

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Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School plans to open an off-site ninth grade academy in a bid to give students a stronger start and prevent them from dropping out.

Principal Forrestella Taylor told the Atlanta Board of Education on Monday that they must try a bold approach to solve serious problems at the high school, including gang activity, low student attendance and high course failure rates.

The four-year graduation rate at Douglass in 2021 was 69%, the worst of Atlanta’s traditional high schools.

Board member Erika Mitchell called the ninth grade academy an innovative strategy that’s worked in other districts. She said it’s important to raise expectations for students at Douglass.

”I have seen the school at its peak of what we call excellence and then to where we are now,” she said. “I am excited to see what comes out of this.”

It will cost APS more money to run open a second campus.

One example: The board on Monday approved spending $700,000 to improve the Fain site and add a new sign to ready it for students.

They also agreed to a $3 million annual contract with an outside vendor, First Student, Inc., to provide 22 bus and drivers to transport middle school students in those neighborhoods. APS officials said they could not provide buses in-house because of scheduling difficulties and extra routes needed to serve the new campus.

”It is disheartening to face the reality where we are here today, but we do have the opportunity to do something different, something bigger, something meaningful, something powerful that has not been done before,” Taylor said.

The plan is to separate the freshman class from older students by piloting a ninth grade academy in upcoming school year. It will be housed at the former Fain Elementary School, which closed in 2019 and is located a couple miles from the westside high school.

Taylor wants to create a smaller learning environment for ninth graders, whom leaders have identified as among the school’s most vulnerable. On their own campus, freshmen will benefit from more personalized attention from administrators, social workers and counselors, Taylor said.

The move also will distance impressionable 14-year-olds from the influences and distractions that they face when mingling with upperclassmen.

Removing ninth graders will open up space at Douglass to offer credit recovery programs to older students. Taylor estimated 250 students will be behind at the start of the next school year and need help catching up.

She said it’s time to rebuilt the high school whose legacy includes notable alumni such as former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

“We have to create opportunities to make sure that we are creating productive adults that have a bright future,” said Taylor. “Right now, they’ve just simply lost that hope because of their current situation, and they don’t see a way out.”

Taylor stepped in as Douglass’ interim principal last fall, the latest of many leadership turnovers. The board confirmed her permanent appointment to the job effective Tuesday.

Several also praised her plan to turn around the school.

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