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School turnaround is not a swift undertaking. On average, it’s estimated that it takes 10-20 years to see positive, lasting change in education. 

But every student deserves an excellent education. Now.

That’s why it’s imperative that we find an effective, scalable model for turning around Atlanta’s historically underperforming schools. Now. 

Mike Davis is Chief Executive Officer of Purpose Built Schools Atlanta. Mike has focused his career on improving access to excellent education experiences for historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities. He has more than two decades of non-profit, business, and educational experience.

Several years ago, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) forged a unique partnership with Purpose Built Schools Atlanta (PBSA) to help answer the question: How can we bridge the achievement and opportunity gaps between students and schools in low-income zip codes and high-income zip codes?  

We partnered with APS to operate an underperforming cluster of neighborhood schools in South Atlanta and turn them into nurturing learning environments where students thrive. With a unique approach to public education, we are proving that Title-1 schools in APS can improve when given equal access to the support and enrichments that every student needs to thrive–no matter their zip code.

In Atlanta, there are inequities in how students and schools in low-income communities experience public education. For example:

  • Across America — not just Atlanta — many schools serving predominantly Black students experience higher transiency rates, disrupting the long-term secure adult relationships at the heart of learning. These students deserve the support needed to remain in their homes and neighborhoods so they can stay in their schools and build nurturing relationships.
  • Many Title-1 schools concentrate solely on state-tested subjects like reading and math at the expense of the enrichment opportunities that middle- and upper-class families expect and demand in their schools. Students deserve equal access to enrichments that can help them discover their full potential.
  • Schools serving low-income communities can historically be unwelcoming and intimidating to caregivers, which has subtly discouraged parental involvement. But students deserve positive schools with high caregiver involvement.

So, how does our approach help mitigate these gaps? Every student deserves high-quality, rigorous academics–that’s our foundation, of course. But we also go above and beyond by providing unprecedented enrichment opportunities and wraparound support so that students have what they need to reach their potential. 

After the first four years of operating this full PreK-12 pipeline, it is clear our schools are vastly improved. Our model has resulted in strong student growth, more stable schools with student-centered cultures, increased caregiver engagement, and unprecedented equity-based investments.

Strong student growth

Despite the pandemic that disproportionately impacted low-income families, working for six years in Georgia’s lowest-income feeder pattern, three of our four schools achieved net gains in student achievement on Georgia Milestones (Developing and Above).

More stable schools with student-centered culture and increased caregiver engagement

Inside our schools, we focus on culturally relevant and engaging project-based instruction, with daily enrichment classes, tiered interventions in reading and math, and a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning. With an intentional focus on restorative justice, we reduced out-of-school suspensions by 40% across all four schools prior to the pandemic. 

Caregiver attendance at parent-teacher conferences has more than doubled since each school’s baseline. 

Unprecedented equity-based investments

PBSA has invested more than $20 million in equity-based student and family support programming since 2016. This includes housing support working with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which has represented 418 families (with 1,016 children) in housing-related disputes, including 128 instances of threatened foreclosure and 379 instances of neglected repairs. Also, in partnership with AVLF and Partners for Home, PBSA provided $182,000 in direct rental/utility assistance to PBSA families to prevent eviction and homelessness.

PBSA is also supporting the economic mobility of community members. For example, Start:ME, an incubator for small business start-ups, supports new or expanded businesses in the Carver Cluster; 77 new or expanded businesses supported by Start:ME in the Carver Cluster since 2017. Five PBSA caregivers have participated in Start:ME to support their businesses since 2017. Additionally, through a partnership with FCS, PBSA staff can qualify for down payment assistance to purchase homes near their schools.

Finally, we are also providing mental health support along with help from community partners like Chris 180, whose therapists work on-site, and provide services such as individual and group counseling, behavior support, skill building, and staff training on trauma-informed care. Since 2016, 571 students have received free mental health and counseling sessions from Chris 180; and 2,533 PBSA staff took part in at least one of 185 trauma-informed teacher trainings by Chris 180.

I am thrilled to be embarking on this journey alongside the incredibly dedicated staff at PBSA. We don’t undertake this effort lightly. We each feel the responsibility to do everything we can for our students and families, and we see the potential in each child in our care. These young people and their families have not had the support needed to bring equitable access to opportunity. Schools take a long time to turn around, but it’s clear: our model is working.

Thousands of scholars have made meaningful and significant individual and collective gains. Our schools grow stronger every year, and the families who entrust their children to a Purpose Built school each day have increased access to support and resources. If you ask anyone who attends our schools whether they are better off now than five years ago, the answer would be yes. 

Turning around schools is not for the faint of heart. It’s slow, messy, hard work that requires a long-term commitment. But finding a model that works is possible because we are seeing progress in South Atlanta. 

Every morning, I remember my why. These students and their families are better off because of this unique partnership with APS and the support of so many community partners. It is my honor and privilege to continue this great work. 

Join the Conversation


  1. What about requiring teachers to demonstrate competence in their area of instruction? We can’t do that because the teachers’ unions will not allow that. If not proficient provide an opportunity for remediation.

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