My First Visit to West End Academy Performance Learning Center

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One of the students walked me through a quiz question. It was tough. Associate Superintendent of High Schools, Timothy Gadson, had to lend a hand!

West End Academy offers online courses to 11th and 12th graders in a non-traditional setting where students drive the pace of their own learning.  West End has seen tremendous success.  Every student has an individual education plan that is tailored to meet their academic and social needs.

At West End Academy I was able to meet the leadership of Community in Schools who are key components to the success of this school because of the wrap-around services they provide. Principal Evelyn Mobley was able to quickly summarize the core design of the Academy, especially the elements of credit recovery and acceleration. To me this is what makes the school unique and a valuable support system to other high schools across the district. Students were able to participate in blended learning which has proven to be highly successful in environments where students need to make up their work and get back on track for graduation.

20141020_092445I was able to see a mix of classrooms from English language arts to math and science. In math class, I was able to engage in a refresher on synthetic division. It became very clear to me again that I’m glad to no longer be in high school! The best part was that the students were able to talk me through the course work as well as using the technology to reinforce areas where I had become rusty – and I mean really rusty. After one practice problem and some extra support from my 11th grade classmate, synthetic division was easy again.

In science I asked about labs and was told that all of the lab work actually takes place as part of the technology programming.  I would love to see hands on labs integrated back into the school.  There is no replacement for good,old-fashioned hands on learning and many students will benefit from the tactile experience of dissecting, measuring and analyzing in a lab environment.

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20141020_100520The school believes that every student deserves five basics: a personal, one-on-one relationship with a caring adult; a safe place to grow and learn a healthy start and a healthy future; and a chance to give back to peers and the community. To me that sounds like a recipe for success.

Students come to West End from all over APS’ high schools and must have completed the 10th grade with at least 12 credit hours.  Students return to their home schools to receive 20141020_092903their high school diplomas after earning enough credit hours.  West End currently serves 150 students and has a waiting list – I want to see the number of students grow.  There is so much good taking place here and all of our students who could benefit from the services should be allowed to attend.  I’ve already reached out to senior leaders to figure out how we can make this happen immediately.

Thank you Princpal Mobley for a great tour. West End Academy definitely lived up to everything I’ve been hearing from the community and Board of Education members.

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BOE member Steven Lee stopped by just in time to help me with a math problem.


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The Cool Kids of Kindezi

kindezi12We had a great visit with the leaders and students at the Kindezi Charter School this week.  Principal Dean Leaper opened the school in 2010 with 96 students in grades K-3.  Today the school serves 218 students in grades K-7 from all over Atlanta and next year will add an eighth grade class.

Built on the idea that school should feel like family, Kindezi embraces a small class size model, with six to seven students per class.  They’ve stood firmly behind their model, and even their middle school grades have a 1:6 ratio between teachers and students.  Their standardized test results are impressive, they are one of the highest performing charter schools in the state and the highest performing elementary school in APS.

kindezi6During my visit I noticed bright and cheery classrooms that utilized every inch of space, student work that showcased students’ creativity and critical thinking exchanges between kids and teachers.

I was happy to meet Ava who heard me speak over the weekend and remembered what I said about attendance.  During the speech I reminded the audience that too many of our students miss school one day every two weeks. That adds up to one month of missed instruction every year. Over five years, it adds up to about half a school year of missed instruction. I was really trying to remind everyone that absences hurt achievement, and Ava really heard me!

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Nubia really, really, really likes cats!

In the school’s latest annual report, Principal Leaper says that the success of the school is a result of their guiding principles which include family-sized classes to allow for maximum differentiation of instruction, Socratic tutorial and close, positive relationships between students, teachers, families and administrators.  He also says the school has high quality teachers who are empowered to use their experience and creativity to bring out the best in their students creating a culture that combines rigorous expectations partnered with caring, individualized support.

A special thank you to my tour guides for the day, Nubia and Johari.  Like their classmates, they were really cool kids – very informative, energetic and all around awesome.  6thgrader Johari did a great job of giving me his take on the novel “Miracle’s Boys” by Jacqueline Woodson and 7thgrader Nubia explained her writing/art project and how she REALLY loves cats.

Have a great school year Kindezi!

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This is Ava! Glad I had the chance to meet her up close!

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Q and A session with amazing students at Grove Park

IMG951769Whenever I visit our schools, I just love to see the great work of our amazing students display on the walls. Grove Park has managed to take a large, grand entrance, infuse it with art and make it feel welcoming.  It is important that our children are exposed to many different forms of the arts as it directly impacts student achievement.  I was happy to see this and I must say, I was impressed by their work!

During my visit I was interviewed by some amazing fifth grade students.

IMG951766The impromptu interview was hosted by three intelligent young ladies; Rekeeseya, Raegan and Diamond. They asked me some tough questions about my job as the superintendent. 

Here are some of the thought provoking questions they asked during our short Q&A session.

Q: Do you like running the Atlanta Public Schools system?

A: Yes, it’s a great job! The best in the city.

Q: Is running APS a challenge?

A: No it is not a challenge. I think it is an opportunity to do great things for children and to support our families and staff in the way that they all deserve.

IMG951756Q: Do you like being the superintendent?

A: Yes, I love this work. It’s a calling for me.

Q: What do you like about your job?

A: I like the students the most. Especially the students who were interviewing me because you can tell they have great strengths and talents that they bring to school every day. It’s our job as the adults to mine those things and give them hope about the future.

Q: What are the challenges facing the Atlanta public schools?

A: I think the biggest challenge is the culture in the district and around the district. This is a school system that needs everyone inside and outside of schools putting our decision-making and everything we do with children at the center. When we don’t do that, bad things can happen for children and that is unacceptable. Therefore, we need a culture that is student-focused. I think another significant challenge is that the district has not had an instructional vision that drives the use of all of our resources such as time, people and money. So we need to be sure that our vision and the work we’re doing every day in our mission supports a college and career focus.

 IMG951760Q: What is your favorite restaurant?

 A: I love breakfast. I think breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so  I spend a lot of time thinking about places where I can eat breakfast 24 hours a day. My favorite place is Thumbs Up! But, I am still a committed patron of Waffle House. (The students and teachers later told me about two other places that are great to get breakfast, so I’ll be trying out Highland Bakery on Highland and the Majestic on Ponce de Leon. I can’t wait!)

My tour continued with a visit to Ms. Boldon’s classroom.  What an inspirational classroom leader! Ms. Boldon has lost 240 pounds during the past three years and has been featured in Women’s Health Magazine.  Her drive for her personal best has translated into high expectations in her classroom.

IMG951760We ended our tour with Ms LaToya Jenkins who is a recent Steve Harvey Hoodie Award winner!  Ms. Jenkins was nominated by her parents who told the awards committee about her dedication to the cultural and academic growth of her students.  She’s traveled all over the world with her students and is an 18 year veteran teacher.

Thank you Principal Muhammad for a great tour.  There are great things taking place at Grove Park!

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Wonderful Woodson Elementary School

Cutest student greeters ever!

Today was my very first visit to Carter G. Woodson Primary School.  My special assistant Angela King Smith was once a student teacher at the school many years ago.  On the ride there, she expressed reservations about what the school was like when she was there and her hopes that all of the new things she had heard were indeed true.  I was pleasantly surprised, as was she, about the full transformation and transition of this school under the leadership of Dr. Susan Crim McClendon who is starting her fourth year as principal at Woodson.

When we pulled up, students were already outside working with the school’s counselor, Dr. Sonya Anderson, harvesting kale and pulling weeds in their “No Place for Hate” garden.  Dr. McClendon and a few of her awesome students from Ms. Armstrong’s 1st grade class greeted me with tons of energy as we entered Woodson.  They were energetic and read a beautiful card to me:

“Dr. Carstarphen, Thank you for visiting our school.  I am so glad to have you here.  Dr. McClendon is nice.  Dr. McClendon is a good principal.  You will be pleased.  We are outstanding in Miss Armstrong’s class.  She is very nice.  Have a good time.”

All students in the school have access to mentoring support from Buckhead Church, which is only four miles away.  Ms. Kara Barfield from the church, was on hand with one of the volunteers to ensure parents and visitors received information about these valuable mentoring resources.  It is my understanding from the principal that only one family has turned down this support.

This school was full of color! Long gone were the days of dark halls that Angela remembered, instead I was able to see teacher presentations that were completed with grade-level data inspired by our recent State of Schools.  They call it the State of the Grade, and each teacher works through their grade-level information so that they have comparative data from one year to the next. This allows them to zero in on their grade and school focus.

This year math is at the centerpiece of this analysis.  With help from Georgia State University, the school is using research-based work from a science study to improve their instructional design for math.  It’s called the Five E’s:  Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate.

Further, the principal redesigned the master schedule for the school so that math is the first thing they teach in the morning followed by reading, science and social studies respectively.  She explained that getting this right at the early grades will help the cluster as they focus on STEM for their area.

I saw other best practices throughout the school such as a math lab that is part of the student’s ‘specials’ classes and a pre-k class working specifically with autistic students.  Teachers even participate in school climate support by wearing their khakis and white shirts each Monday to model proper dress code for the students.   In teacher Tammy Cook’s room students were enjoying a hands on activity based on the book “Not a Box.” Exploring prior knowledge, Ms. Cook led a discussion around what boxes are used for normally and then challenged students to use their imagination to turn the box into an airplane, shoes or a house.  The kids had some really creative ideas.

The newest addition to the building is its gym which is a great enhancement to the site.  The gym is a stand-alone building on the rear side of the school.  It is a super clean and safe environment.  Additionally, thanks to a great relationship between the school and the Grove Park Recreation center students can use the field at the recreation center, giving Coach Hill a great extension for the gym.

On another interesting note, the mother of Coach Porter, a dedicated volunteer at the school, once served as the administrative assistant to Principal McClendon’s father when he was superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

Woodson Primary has great community support to enhance the fine arts, which is needed, because this is a school where music and art resources are shared with Grove Park Intermediate.  I was delighted to see Ms. Lyla Womack and her friends who promote the Dare to Dream Ballet Project.  She says, “We tell our children if they can see it, they can be it, but what if they’ve never seen it?”  Therefore she is taking 1,000 inner city youth to the 2014 Urban Nutcracker Ballet with funds she has raised herself.  We were able to talk through the status of her efforts while in the school’s gorgeous Target/Heart of America renovated library.

The before and after pictures of the library are just one small remaining visual of what things were like back when Angela was student teaching here, but today the library is beautiful with its sherbet, teal and lilac walls, complimented by lime green chairs, all so beautifully colored you could taste the room’s flavor just by looking at them.

Thank you Principal McClendon for your efforts to change the image, the culture and the performance of this fantastic school.  I appreciate your dedication to our Woodson students and staff.

Fun Fact:  Principal Crim-McClendon is the daughter of Dr. Alonzo A. Crim, Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools from 1973 to 1988.  Crim High School in southeast Atlanta is named in Dr. Crim’s memory.

 

 

 

 

 

My Visit to Westside Atlanta Charter School

W6Westside Atlanta Charter School is an APS charter school that focuses on language and literacy.  It is a school with very humble beginnings, opening last fall in an empty retail space in a mixed-use building that the school then renovated into classrooms for students. Today, it is a site with two locations within a few feet of each other, teaching students in grades K-3.  It is expected to expand each year until the school serves grades K-8.

According to the school’s principal, Pete Settlemeyer, kids at Westside come from Bankhead to Buckhead. It did appear to be true as it is one of the few schools I’ve seen in APS with noticeable racial diversity.

W5Mr. Pete, as the kids address him, has a self-described “Pete the Cat” alter ego and looks forward to the day that he can be that cool. As far as I’m concerned, he’s already cool, “…rocking in his new school shoes.”

The school kicked off its book fair earlier this month just in time for standards based report cards to go home with students, which is intended to reflect student performance on Balanced Literacy, Mathematical Inquiry, Integrated Science and Social Studies, Project-Based Learning and Design Thinking.   Their classroom instruction is based on the Stanford’s d.School. The d.school’s concept design thinking involves working through a problem with empathy and ideation for solutions. In the early grades, students are expected to learn the common vocabulary so that over time they can be prepared to implement the design with fidelity.

Students in Ms. Katie Lewis’ class shared their enthusiasm for cool experiences like “no shoes for the day” (but socks are worn) and “treasure box prizes” to encourage students to earn good behavior and promote engagement. I met student ambassadors like Kelis who welcomed us to each classroom so that teachers were not interrupted during instruction.

W2Eager to involve parents, teachers and the community at large as they grow, Westside has developed a community perception survey which will allow parents and teachers to give feedback this fall and in the spring.

There are three big partners for the school:  Brock Homes, Columbia Residential and the Atlanta Housing Authority. But I also saw a Hands on Atlanta office that looked quite inviting.

Thanks for the tour Principal Pete!w9 w8 w7

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Lunch at Bolton Academy

I finally had an opportunity to spend more time at Bolton Academy last week. It is a lovely school in a gorgeous neighborhood rich with lots of diversity. In addition to wanting to see the school’s academic program, I wanted lunch!  Whenever I visit schools I always try to get a better understanding of the food choices offered, especially to our elementary school students.

I have to say that the cafeteria is one of the most inviting, bright and welcoming of all the elementary school cafeterias I’ve seen thus far.  They have great big windows that look out over greenery and fill the room with light. Bolton is considered one of our newer buildings, built in the early 2000s.

 

I wanted to try as many of the meal options as possible which included a chicken sandwich on wheat bread, pepperoni pizza, french fries, green beans, coleslaw and of course my reduced sodium and reduced sugar, fat-free chocolate milk.

I’ve been pretty open on my blog before about how unsatisfying the french fries are in our schools for the student and for me.  I really wish we could get this particular food offering right.  I’ve reached out again to my nutrition team and encouraged them to be more consistent from school to school. The pizza for elementary students was very different from what we offer at our high schools and my solitary little pepperoni left me a little sad.  But most disappointing was the coleslaw.  One thing I know we can get right here in the southern United States is our coleslaw! Of course I requested the recipe and it had plenty of good cabbage in it, so maybe it’s the reduced fat mayo mixed with the cider or the garlic powder, but something just wasn’t right. I reached out to our nutrition director and suggested that hold a contest for a new coleslaw recipe that meets our nutritional standards. I just know someone’s mom, dad or grandma has a recipe that our kids will love. I was very excited to learn that our food and nutrition leadership is already on top of collecting recipes and testing them. I do hope they add coleslaw to that list. I’ve added it to my collection of least favorite choices. Maybe it’s the recipe; maybe it’s the preparation; maybe it’s a combination of both but here’s the icky recipe we use (see photo).

Principal Strickland was a great host and the school was full of color and happiness.  She knows all the students and the students adore their teachers. Their cute mascot, “Hooty the Owl” was everywhere, and I loved the mural of children in the entrance.  An International Baccalaureate school offering the Primary Years Program, the hallways boasted strong statements that encouraged students to be good to themselves and others.

It was clear to me that Principal Strickland and her staff are grooming critical thinkers with a global mindset. Maybe they could travel to the Netherlands, believed to the originators of coleslaw, and bring back a great recipe!

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Our coleslaw recipe.

Gimme a B! My visit to Bunche Middle School

Bunche3Having been a former middle school teacher, I definitely had a good sense of what should be happening in the classrooms and even during transitions when I arrived at Bunche Middle School.

Things were running smoothly with students and teachers and it was fun to see the cheerleaders weaving through the hallways wearing their big yellow bows as classes changed. The cheer squad has had a great athletic season, winning their second back-to-back cheer championship recently! I tried to ignite some impromptu cheering in the hall, (Gimme a B!), but the students knew better and strongly discouraged me from making too much noise and being a distraction. They were super sweet and indulged me with a good (and quiet cheer) as they waited to enter classrooms with their classmates – who probably thought we were all being very strange.

Bunche6As I walked the halls and looked at bulletin boards for the different content areas, it was clear that writing is a priority in the school. On every rubric for each content area, writing was a part of the expectation of students.   Teachers utilized the rubrics to give feedback about their student’s writing skills.

Even though Bunche is getting a new building by the end of the school year I still wanted to see the facility itself which was once a high school. This building was built in the 1950’s and is a good example of the challenges some of our older buildings still have. The mechanical systems are very old and require a lot of maintenance to keep them running, especially the air conditioning unit. But it is a large site that has served as a good temporary swing space for this school.  I look forward to a renovated Bunche that is going to support the efforts of its strong leadership and instructional staff.

As always, I never have enough time to do all the things I want to do, but I did get the chance to stick my head in the door of a model demonstration classroom.  It wasn’t enough time to soak in everything that was happening, so I look forward to visiting again and sitting – but preferably cheering – through a lesson.

Fun Fact:  The school is named after Ralph J. Bunche, a political scientist and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize—making him the first man of color to receive the award.

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The air-conditioning unit at the temporary swing space (I tour everything).