Closing of Atlanta’s Tech High a blow to goal of preparing at-risk students for business and academic careers

By Maria Saporta

When Tech High, an Atlanta charter school, opened its doors in 2004, the business, academic and technology leaders were thrilled.

The Tech High partnership’s goal was to help train and graduate students attending the Atlanta public high school — preparing them preparing them for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The intentions and the goals were solid — making sure that the neediest students in Atlanta could get the education that would put them on a path of lifelong employment. And businesses would know that a next generation of workers would be able to fill the skilled jobs that were needed.

But those dreams, goals and good intentions are over.

Tech High announced Friday that it is closing its doors because of an unforeseen change in the way that the Atlanta Public Schools is trying to fill its underfunded pensions gap.

In short, the leadership at APS cut the school’s budget by $360,000 (16 percent) so it could allocate those dollars to cover the underfunded pension liabilities. That would mean the school would have had to operate on revenues of $7,411 per student (compared to the state’s average funding of more than $11,000).

“This is a tragic, saddening last financial blow from which we cannot recover,” said Kent Antley, chairman of the Tech High board who is an attorney with Miller Martin. “Our talented, dedicated faculty and staff and our parents and students, who have demonstrated unwavering commitment to academic success, now face an obstacle that is impossible to overcome.”

Tech High had 231 students. It had a 93 percent graduation rate among seniors, and 78 percent of the 2011 graduating class were accepted to a two- or four-year college. More than $1.8 million in scholarships were offered to the 2011 graduating class of 40 students.

In 2011, Tech High received the Academic Gold Award for Greatest Gains from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

What makes those accomplishments even more impressive is that Tech High, as with other charter schools, accepted all students.

“We consistently had about one-third of our incoming ninth-grade students reading at the 4th or 5th grade level,” said Barbara Christmas, an experienced and respected educator, was Tech High’s first CEO. “Their math skills were similar.”

Tech High leaders said that both the percentage of minorities and low-income students at Tech High have been higher than the average for Atlanta Public Schools, but despite those challenges, Tech High showed an amazing ability to graduate a high percentage of their students.

People who have worked closely with Tech High expressed deep disappointment to the sudden turn of events.

“Here we had a school with great potential, serving the underprivileged, and it failed,” said Tino Mantella, president of the Technology Association of Georgia. “I know they saw a pathway to progress, and then APS cut their funding. With 4,000 tech jobs open in Atlanta today….it sure seems like we should be trying to build tech-charters at a blistering pace.”

In fact, Mantella said that it is anticipated that Georgia will need 211,000 adults who are skilled in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Mantella said that Atlanta should have looked to the Gwinnett Math and Science Academy as “an exemplary model.”

Tech High also had built tremendous partnerships and strategic relationships.

Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has been assisting Tech High in implementing a systems engineering course to provide all ninth-graders a foundation in problem solving and critical thinking. GTRI was also planning to introduce exciting laboratories to Tech High students via interactive linkages to demonstrate how real world problems are solved. Three teachers were hired by GTRI this summer to develop problem-based learning strategies to bring to the classrooms in August.

In the business world, Tech High had developed a partnership with Siemens Industry, Inc., that spans from sponsoring the Tech High robotics team to hosting guest speakers in career fields in engineering, information technology and communications.

The Technology Association of Georgia has provided summer internships for Tech High students with their membership companies. In an effort to utilize technology to create a student-centered, inquiry driven learning environment, Tech High had adopted a one to one Nook® Tablet program in partnership with Barnes & Noble.

These are a few of the partnerships and relationships that the school had developed and cultivated over the years, according to Tech High’s current CEO Steven Walker.

“Leveraging resources through partnerships enhances the learning experiences of our students and we are grateful to have a network of partners that are willing to be actively engaged in Tech High’s curriculum,” Walker said.

On its website, the charter school states its mission:

“The mission of Tech High School is to integrate high academic standards and technical training in order to improve student achievement and prepare students for success in higher education and the work force.”

That is an honorable, commendable and necessary mission.

And the decision by APS to cut Tech High’s funding is only one of several misguided decisions that the public school system has made in the past few months.

Without a doubt, APS is facing its own budget issues.

But several of the system’s recent decisions have been raising eyebrows.

Community leaders are beginning to wonder if APS has lost its way — under-cutting successful programs and academic offerings that have a proven track record of doing exactly what is needed — helping students who are most at risk find productive and rewarding academic and professional careers.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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