BETTING ON BOOK!
“The work that we do is so important, because these are our kids. We can no longer accept failing schools. We know that all children can learn.” – Jennifer Freeman, BOOK V.P.
Throughout the nation urban education is in crises, but a four-year-old, Atlanta-based nonprofit called Better Outcomes for Our Kids (BOOK) may be the best bet yet for its future success. It is one of the city’s few nonprofits that have been founded and operated by African Americans primarily focused on public charter schools.
Better Outcomes for Our Kids, Inc. (BOOK) is dedicated to increasing the access, awareness and accountability of high quality, publicly funded, educational options for African American children.
“BOOK is a passion; it’s a calling that I’m trying to turn into a movement,” opines David Mitchell, BOOK’s founder, President and CEO. “I have been a champion for saying public charter schools should be an option for African American families.”
“It’s definitely a calling for me to educate people on the different educational opportunities, particularly with my parents both being educators,” adds Otis Threatt,
BOOK’s engagement officer. “It’s very important that we are informed and aware about educational opportunities for African Americans.”
Most of the growth of the Quality School Movement in Atlanta, which introduced charter schools to many African American communities struggling to educate their children, followed the “Atlanta cheating scandal” in 2014.
“The whole thing about school choice resonated with me because I believe parents must have options that fit their child, and you have to advocate on behalf of your child,” says Jennifer Freeman, a business development and political consultant who joined BOOK a year ago. “It’s really making sure that all parents know what their options are, and that’s what BOOK is really all about. We’re not trying to be in the middle of a political fight, rather just letting people know what’s on the menu.”
BOOK unabashedly advocates primarily for public charter schools as an education alternative. “We think that the public charter schools have been a vessel of innovation,” says Mitchell, a corporate capital professional. “In most cases that innovation has been formed in areas supporting ‘the least of these’. We just felt like African American families, in many cases, were not aware of that vehicle. We’re not telling African American families that’s a vehicle they should choose. We’re simply saying African American families need to know that vehicle exists.”
The Charter School Movement has provoked a national controversy and produced a cadre of naysayers. Take Lisa Leake, an Alexandria, Virginia educator, for example, who argues, “I am passionately against charter schools, as they are portrayed as saviors for children in poverty, but in fact they are not! Have you seen the education documentary ‘Waiting on Superman’?”
Ed Johnson, who writes a social media commentary column called an Advocate for Quality in Public Education says he is concerned about the ongoing survivability of public education, and “BOOK as an organization is contrary to that concern.”
He adds, “BOOK is not an organization to engage the community in doing the hard work of improving our schools, as opposed to trying to promote easy fixes such as Charter Schools,” argues Johnson, an unsuccessful Atlanta School Board candidate and former Morehouse adjunct professor whose weekly email blasts are reportedly ‘read everywhere’. “There is no magical fix. What BOOK stands for is wanting to have instant pudding with these charter schools.”
Mitchell vehemently disagrees with his chorus of critics. “Since the beginning of what is now called The Quality Schools Movement, which used to be known as The Public School Charter Movement , this tension between communities that support traditional schools is [viewed] as a threat which is less about children and more about money, and more about control, and more about power then making sure kids are getting educated,” Mitchell maintains. “You’ve got folks on the other side who will say public charters are destroying the framework and foundation and formula for public education. I beg to differ.”
The charismatic Mitchell continues: “Most African Americans that go to traditional schools in economically struggling communities are typically going to public schools that are also under performing.”
Greg Clay is a politically savvy businessman who leads BOOK’s advisory committee called The Men of BOOK. He’s the captain of a growing seven-member team of African American men that consists of educators, businessmen, civic leaders, and former elected officials.
“Before I got intimately involved, BOOK was super controversial,” Clay reveals. “Although Dave [Mitchell] says BOOK is an organization where we are the waiter bringing all these options for parents and students, there was this stigma in the community that we are just pro-charter schools. We’ve had to beat back on that narrative. The organization really has evolved. To look at where BOOK was last year comparable to this year, it’s very different in the way it is perceived and the way we have moved closer towards the center. As an organization we are saying there are some good options out here in addition to charter schools.”
That’s what Mitchell wanted for his boy/girl twins – a good school option – and that’s why BOOK was born. His children were designated to attend an elementary school in his southeast Atlanta neighborhood that he deemed totally unacceptable. Then good fortune intervened.
“It was really an act of God that my wife was recruited to be a board member of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, and as a result my children were able to get into one of the best schools in Georgia,” Mitchell recalls. “A school that was the 2015 Georgia Charter School of the Year.”
But Mitchell didn’t stop there.
“BOOK is the brainchild of me saying I didn’t want another family like mine to find themselves in a position, where because of poor test scores, sub-standard physical plant, or fear for their safety, not to know what there other options are,” recounts Mitchell, whose mother is a retired former inner-city art teacher. “BOOK was founded for that reason only. Not to tell parents what’s good or bad; not to tell parents to go left or right, but to say here is the menu of options for your child. Pick one that’s best for you and their educational needs.”
Jennifer Freeman, a former educator who is revered within Atlanta political and business circles for being a “fixer and problem solver” applauds Mitchell for his vision, dedication and fervent pursuit of a formula for his “BOOK movement.”
Mitchell is an articulate and knowledgeable Morehouse College graduate with a background in finance who is the younger brother of former Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell.
“This is David’s baby. It was his idea,” Freeman says about BOOK. “It was created out of an experience he had as a parent and a father, which is the nucleus of why we do this work.”
Freeman, Mitchell, Threatt and Clay contend that the only difference between a charter school and a traditional school is that the school principal has more flexibility to try different and more innovative things to get kids educated with public dollars.
Mitchell tells this reporter that he tries not be a scorekeeper, but believes if test scores, innovation, and parent engagement are the templates used for evaluating a school’s performance, that African American parents need to understand how to navigate this eco-system. Charter schools are a lot more flexible, and inventive; Mitchell and others say. There’s far more “autonomy” and much less “red tape” for school leaders to “positively move the needle,” they allege.
“When you start looking at schools that are doing well on the standardized tests; when you start looking at leaders encouraged to work ‘outside the box,’ and are taking the time, effort, and the patience to learn their community, learn their kids, and develop the strategies needed to get those kids educated, that success begins to show up in classroom performance and test scores,” he opines. “And, that’s a school in my mind that needs to be duplicated. Anytime I’ve gone into a school, be it a traditional or charter public school, the difference I’d see was built around the teachers and the person who was leading it.”
And, where is the riveting and robust Mitchell leading BOOK? Freeman, his principle partner, says BOOK has rebooted, reorganized, refocused and refined its mission. BOOK has reportedly regained its momentum and made some meaningful change and impact in 2019.
“We are making a difference when it comes to getting the word out about who BOOK is and who BOOK is not,” says Freeman. “For you to feel like you are making a positive dent in this work, you have to make sure your foundation is laid. That is the hard, but necessary work that BOOK has done.
“BOOK is a baby for our babies,” she continues gleefully. “In the lifeline of a nonprofit, especially a black nonprofit, we are in infant stages right now. It is going to become a well-oiled machine.”
“It’s been a rough road,” is how Mitchell assesses where BOOK is now. “We have been running an organization that’s trying to make monumental change, in a sometimes hostile environment, with very little funding.”
Mitchell has skillfully crafted a new marketing message for BOOK’s future growth. “BOOK’s new marketing imagery is going to be focused around the concept of ‘the waiter.’ The waiter is the person that comes to your table, gives you a menu of all the options available in the kitchen, and then comes back to take the order that’s best suited to feed your family. He believes wholeheartedly, that this represents the foundation of the American Dream.”