Openly gay Atlanta School Board candidate Charlie Stadtlander, a former teacher, sees a lot wrong with public education in the city, but they all go back to one core issue: ensuring students have a safe, welcoming environment to learn in.
“The quality of education directly correlates to the quality of life, whether that be crime rate, the ability to support yourself, the ability to function in society,” the District 3 candidate told Georgia Voice.
District 3 could be considered heavily LGBT, as it includes areas like Morningside, Ansley Park and Midtown, he said. Right now, the district is represented by Atlanta City Council hopeful Matt Westmoreland.
“I think it’s important to have a LGBT voice on the Board of Education who also understands our money is not being spent properly,” Stadtlander said.
Property taxes and Atlanta’s education system
“The model of raising property taxes to fund schools that are failing is an unsustainable model,” Stadtlander said. “We’re continuing to raise money, lots and lots of money, but we’re not getting better and better results.”
Because of increasing property taxes, people who can’t afford them are leaving Atlanta — taking their tax dollars with them. And many parents who remain opt to send their children to private schools.
Stadtlander believes one reason the school system isn’t seeing the results it wants is because it’s not addressing the “unique challenges” that affect students.
“This institutionalized approach of trying to address all challenges as though they’re the same doesn’t work, isn’t going to work and needs to stop. We need to realize that if we don’t meet the students and the parents where they are, as far as helping them deal with the challenges they need help with, … then again, our efforts are futile,” he said.
One such challenge is poverty. Stadtlander remembers third-grade students in his class who he thought were giving him behavior problems: they fell asleep during class and weren’t engaged in the learning process. When he looked further into what was causing these students to behave this way, he learned they weren’t engaged and were tired because they hadn’t eaten since lunchtime at school on Friday because their families didn’t have money for food over the weekend, or students were falling asleep because they didn’t have good home environments in which to sleep. Those problems were addressed by finding resources that helped parents stock their pantries, or by the simple solution offering ear plugs.
“It would be easy to label kids like that as ‘problem kids.’ Once I realized what these challenges were, it required a little bit of extra effort and innovation,” Stadtlander said. “You realize it’s not that some students don’t want to learn, they just need some help. All of them want to learn and all of them want to get a good quality education.”
No hate in schools
“As a student who was bullied myself while I was in school,I know that sick feeling in your stomach when you have to go to school afraid,” Stadtlander said. “I know that feeling personally and it’s a big part of what led me into the classroom to begin with. … If you do not have a safe and welcoming environment for every student in the classroom — and that includes social media and the school bus, online, text messaging, whatever it is — a learning environment is not taking place.”
Stadtlander is an anti-bullying advocate, and helped craft multiple states’ anti-bullying legislation. He also previously served as Lakeside High School’s bullying awareness coordinator while a teacher in DeKalb County.
In Georgia, laws require every school to have an anti-bullying plan in place, but Stadtlander said his concern now is how well those plans are implemented.
“A statewide and district-wide [plan] is only as good as the administrators and the educators who are willing to implement it,” he said. “We have more instances than makes any of us comfortable of bullying that occur in Atlanta public schools, in District 3.”
He said it’s up to the Board of Education to ensure those plans not only get followed, but assess how well they’re working. Bullying affects students’ academic performance, socialization, self-esteem and career, just for starters, and in some cases has led to suicide.
“We are not only making sure our bullying plan is the best that it can possibly be, but we’re also making sure it’s being implemented, executed and assessments are being done to hold administrators and teachers accountable for what’s going on in t heir schools and in their classrooms,” Stadtlander said. “I’m not naive to think that we’re going to be able to prevent or stop every instance of bullying that occurs. If I could wave a magic wand and make every instance of bullying go away, I would do that in a New York second. But I think we have a lot of room for improvement.”
Bullying is especially of concern for LGBT students in Atlanta public schools. He said transgender students worry about using the bathroom during school hours, for example.
“We can spend as much money as we want to try to improve the quality of education … but if we’re not making sure every student has a safe learning environment to receive the high-quality education we’re trying to give them, then no learning’s taking place,” Stadtlander said. “If I’m elected, [anti-LGBT bullying] will stop. I’ll do whatever I can at the Board and I’ll go to every school in my district and every school across Atlanta Public Schools. Parents will know they have an ally … someone who they can reach out to who will be their voice who can help them navigate this very stressful situation.”
Stadtlander said he hopes to rid schools of a system in which bullies are not addressed. He said first bullies must be rehabilitated, but if that doesn’t work, “ultimately we have to be willing to say, ‘Enough’s enough.'”
Stadtlander raised $57,550 in his campaign as of July 10. He has several challengers: Rashida Winfrey, Antoine Trammell, Michelle Olympiadis, Jennifer Lambert, Marvin Cartee and Adzua Agyapon. The Board of Education elections will be held in November, the same time as Atlanta City Council and mayor.