Tapestry Public Charter School in Doraville provides students different learning environments. (Tapestry Public Charter School)

The Atlanta Board of Education voted unanimously Sept. 5 to deny an application for a public charter school that concentrates on educating students with special needs, such as those on the autism spectrum or with learning disabilities.

The school board vote to deny Tapestry Public Charter School‘s application followed months of parents and students urging members at past meetings to approve the charter school that focuses on neurodiverse students. The vote also comes as the school board searches for a new superintendent and a November election nears.

“We are disappointed by the decision of the Board but also saddened that Atlanta families have been denied the opportunity to experience the small inclusive, individualized, and innovative program that Tapestry has to offer,” the Tapestry governance board said in a written statement. 

“The Atlanta Public School community spoke with a strong voice about the need for a school to serve neurodiverse students differently and embraced Tapestry’s mission. The Tapestry Board is committed to replicate Tapestry and we will take some time to determine our next steps,” the statement said.

APS administrators asked Tapestry to withdraw its application before the Sept. 5 board meeting. The school board had just sworn in Dr. Danielle Battle as its interim superintendent and is currently interviewing firms to assist in a nationwide search for a new superintendent.

The withdrawal request came after Tapestry already agreed to APS administrators’ requests to delay several board votes on its petition.

“Given the district’s superintendent transition, Tapestry was given the option to defer consideration of their petition until after a new superintendent is hired,” APS spokesperson Seth Coleman said in written statement before the Sept. 5 vote.

“If a petitioner withdraws their petition and chooses to resubmit at a later time, if there are not substantive changes to the original petition, a more streamlined process for consideration may be followed,” Coleman said.

Tapestry Charter Public School for grades 6-12 opened in DeKalb County in 2014 after gaining approval by the DeKalb County School District. The school, located in Doraville, has just over 300 students.

Tapestry co-founder and board member Devon Christopher said in a recent interview with Rough Draft that the school is 50% neurodivergent, including those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, and 50% neurotypical.

The Tapestry board wanted to replicate its academic model and after months of gathering data and information, submitted an application to APS in March petitioning the district to open a new start-up charter school called Tapestry Public Charter School Atlanta. Christopher said more than 650 APS families signed a petition saying they would enroll their students at the new Tapestry school if it was approved.

Tapestry officials, teachers and parents of students were interviewed by APS administrators as part of the application process. APS administrators also visited the Tapestry school in Doraville.

The APS school board planned to vote on Tapestry’s application in June, but Christopher said administrators asked for the vote to be extended until August. Tapestry agreed.

APS administrators later asked if the board vote could be extended until August, and Tapestry agreed again. APS asked a third time if the vote could be extended, until September, and Tapestry agreed once again, Christopher said.

But when APS administrators asked Tapestry to withdraw its application before the Sept. 5 vote, the charter school board declined, according to Christopher.

The ongoing vote delays and then the request for the petition to be withdrawn appeared to be about “adult problems,” Christopher said. The Tapestry board made a commitment to more than 650 APS families and their children to try to open a new public charter school and it wanted the board members to answer to their constituents.

“We need to think about what’s best for the kids,” Christopher said. “Regardless of what the superintendent recommendation is, it’s up to the board to decide whether or not Tapestry is a good fit for Atlanta Public Schools.”

The APS Office of Charter + Partner Schools recommended the school board deny the petition for the Tapestry Public Charter School Atlanta. Concerns raised by the office about opening a new 6-12 charter school included district staffing shortages and the fact that many district schools, including several high schools, have less than 65% utilization.

“APS, under the leadership of the new superintendent, needs more time to engage the community on possible proposals to address the underutilization problem before considering adding a new start-up charter school that would further complicate the issues at hand,” according to the recommendation to deny.

The APS Center for Equity and Social Justice (CESJ) conducted an Equity Impact Assessment (EIA) on the Tapestry petition as part of the APS review process and found concerns as well, according to the Office of Charter + Partner Schools.

“[T]he EIA noted that the existing charter school Tapestry operates in DeKalb County enrolls a higher share of white students compared to their representation in the DeKalb County Public School district broadly (40.3% vs. 10.3%, respectively) and a lower share of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (7.5% vs 34.6% direct certification respectively),” according to the recommendation to deny.

“As the CESJ noted, charter schools that do not intentionally seek to balance enrollment may exacerbate segregation, and APS is concerned that a similar disparity of opportunity may exist at an APS location for this school without the use of neighborhood preferences (dependent on final location) and/or a weighted lottery to alleviate these concerns and maintain the district’s demographic parity, neither of which were initially contemplated by the TPCSA petition,” the APS recommendation said.

Tapestry’s board issued a written rebuke to the APS Office of Charter + Partner School concerns, specifically alleging the demographic information it reported of its existing DeKalb County charter school is inaccurate.

“Tapestry does not enroll a higher share of white students,” the Tapestry statement said. “Currently, 32% of students are African-American, 20% are Hispanic, 18% are Caucasian, 10% are Asian, 10% have Native American heritage, and 10% identify as mixed-race.”

“The rates of students with indigenous heritage skyrocket when you include Central and South America. More than 40% of our children are on free and reduced lunch, which is significantly higher than what APS included in its demographic concerns,” according to Tapestry. “Furthermore, 20% of our students speak a first language other than English.”

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.