APS Advances Strategy for Transformation

When I unveiled the APS Turnaround Strategy during the State of the District last October, I explained that because of the longstanding, multi-generational educational needs of our students and a looming, high-stakes potential takeover Opportunity School District, we did not have time to waste. I also expressed that we would move with deliberate speed in a way that would not always be popular or comfortable, but always essential or even critical.

We’ve been working on transforming APS for months: the Day One: Be There attendance campaign, our remediation and enrichment initiative for students affected by CRCT cheating, the launch of a college-access and scholarship partnership with Achieve Atlanta, and the establishment of a College and Career Academy with Atlanta Technical College to name a few. We have embraced a Charter System District model and cluster planning that will mean investments in signature programs for each cluster that creates pathways from kindergarten to graduation.

But we have to do more … because we are a district performing far below the potential of our kids.

Being only weeks into the implementation of our Turnaround Strategy (I invite you to go here to learn more about it), I already have much to report. In addition to the acceleration of the roll-out of social and emotional learning in schools, we have made progress in recruiting turnaround principals and teachers, and providing targeted professional learning for teachers. We are also launching high-impact tutoring in targeted schools immediately as well as a Spring Break Academy this April.

Last semester, we announced a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to solicit interested and qualified education partners who can provide turnaround services, intervention, and supports to dramatically improve student achievement in the short and long term.

At the Feb. 1 meeting of the Atlanta Board of Education, we will present three potential education partners who emerged as finalists to support turnaround work. The Rensselaerville Institute’s School Turnaround program, a nonprofit leadership development initiative designed to assist principals to achieve rapid improvement at low-achieving schools, submitted a proposal to support schools and leaders across the district. The other partners are non-profit organizations with track records of strong student achievement and have submitted proposals to work with schools in the Carver Cluster.

Purpose Built Schools, an arm of Purpose Built Communities and a partner organization with Charles R. Drew Charter School, has proposed to operate Thomasville Heights and Slater elementary schools, Price Middle School and Carver High School. The Kindezi Schools, which runs two successful charter schools in Atlanta, has offered to operate Gideons Elementary School. While both organizations are current charter operators, APS, through this RFQ process, is only considering partnerships that would involve Kindezi and/or Purpose Built Schools serving neighborhood schools with traditional attendance boundaries, not charter schools.

We will spend the next five weeks exploring the big ideas proposed by these partners, and we will do so through community meetings and open houses.

But there are other changes that must occur in the near future and this involves the operating models of some schools in our district. Let me stress first: We do not take the matter of operating model changes lightly. Therefore, we conducted a thorough analysis that considered:

We filtered all considerations through the guiding principles of our Turnaround Strategy. And as a result, I will recommend the following plan to the Atlanta Board of Education on Monday, Feb. 1, for action at its March 7 meeting:

  • Merge Grove Park Intermediate with Woodson Primary in the Douglass Cluster

During the 2012 redistricting process, Woodson Primary School was created as a K-2 site, serving the same attendance zone as Grove Park Intermediate School, which has 3rd through 5th grades. Grove Park’s three-year CCRPI average is 46.5, the third lowest in the district, while Woodson’s 2014 CCRPI is 83.2. Both schools are significantly under-enrolled and need renovations. To ensure stronger alignment between the primary and intermediate program, the schools will consolidate on the Grove Park campus at the start of the 2016-17 school year.

I am pleased to announce that I plan to recommend Dr. Susan Crim McClendon, a veteran APS administrator with a strong track record of performance including her work at Woodson Primary, as the principal of the new merged school.

A proposed Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) could provide as much as $18.5 million for renovations at Grove Park. The vacated Woodson site will be considered for a possible early childhood center.

  • Close Bethune Elementary and open a new innovative K-8 STEM academy at Kennedy Middle in the Washington Cluster

Ever since Kennedy Middle closed during a 2012 redistricting process, the community has asked APS to find ways to repurpose the building and leverage the asset as part of the community’s redevelopment efforts. We hope to use as much as $2 million from current SPLOST funds for facility improvements to the Kennedy building this summer and then – contingent upon SPLOST 2017 funding – another $10 million for a larger scale renovation. The community will be encouraged to participate in a planning process for the new academy including setting the vision for the school, identifying potential STEM partners and ultimately naming the new academy.

I will be recommending Dr. Diamond Jack as the new principal for this STEM school. She has built a strong foundation for STEM as principal of Venetian Hills Elementary and has experience as a middle school math and science teacher as well.

Reopening the school – under the guidance of a turnaround leader with STEM experience – will address Bethune’s three-year CCRPI average of 42.1, the second lowest in the district. Additionally, a new school – starting as a K-5 and adding a middle grade a year in subsequent years – would meet current academic needs and the anticipated growth of the Westside.

  • Merge Connally Elementary with Venetian Hills Elementary in the Washington Cluster

For the new school year, students from both schools would attend classes at Connally, following building improvements this summer. Connally has the third lowest three-year CCRPI average (46.5) in the district; Venetian Hills’ 2014 CCRPI is 76.8. Both schools have very low enrollment numbers and require significant renovations.

I recently appointed Lincoln Woods, an APS veteran and southwest Atlanta native, as principal of Connally, and he has made great strides in rebuilding the culture of the school and building strong partnerships. I’m confident that he will continue his success in a merged school.

About $23.5 million in SPLOST 2017 has been budgeted for a full-scale Connally renovation to serve the merged student population. The Venetian Hills site is also being considered for an early childhood center.

We remain committed to including families, communities and staff in the operating model changes and the education partnership selection process, and we will implement this work in an open, transparent manner. We have scheduled a series of conversations with our stakeholders over the next several weeks to share more about the Turnaround Strategy, proposed school changes and education partners. You can learn more about those sessions here; and I encourage all of you to attend and participate.

Change is never easy. But we must do what is best for students and our mission to prepare each and every one of them for graduation and college/career.

It Takes Courage to Leave a Legacy

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These beautiful APS students joined me last March in Selma to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As I go into this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, I have the greatest sense of pride for the legacy that he left us. That legacy is his dream of hope, equality and nonviolence.

I’ll be in my hometown of Selma, Alabama this year where we will celebrate Dr. King’s legacy. To me, legacy isn’t a birthright or a bequest. It doesn’t always happen just because you are born into a certain family or live in a wealthy zip code.  Legacy, for me, is built and handed down from one generation and is even acquired without compensation. It is a gift to be opened and then re-gifted to the next generation.  It’s a deliberate continuous effort built upon strength, determination, purpose and courage that anyone can create to ensure their achievements are significant and contribute to the betterment of mankind. That’s the legacy I will celebrate!

Dr. King explains the heart of legacy in one of his most eloquent quotes about courage:
“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

I feel that our work within public education and those still committed to the value of a public education pay tribute to his great legacy. I am reminded of the courage I need in my job at Atlanta Public Schools. My Selma upbringing paved the way for me to take on what some have labeled the most challenging school district in America.

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I was so excited to greet these young leaders from Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy. Each of these young women is blazing a new  trail and determined to leave her own legacy.

I believe my job, our job, must be to ensure that every student has access to a high quality education. With that high quality education, we have the power to break the cycle of poverty, the cycle of ignorance, the cycle of corruption, the cycle of violence. And, that happens because a high quality education also provides students with the academic, career and decision making skills to give them choices in life. Every day when I talk with our APS students, I am reminded about the full meaning of King’s legacy. It takes courage to do the right things for our students—to put them first so that they are our next legacy builders.

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As a Selma native, it was a joy to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, alongside my dad. Selma has always been in my heart and mind, holding me steady, serving as my ‘true north’—guiding my life and career path. I was humbled and honored to receive the inaugural Phoenix Award from The Sullivan and Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson Foundation and Museum, Inc.

 

Resolved to Turnaround APS

As we enter the New Year and a new season of making resolutions, it should come as no surprise to anyone keeping our district and our schools on their radars that we have a clear, succinct resolution for 2016: Turnaround Atlanta Public Schools.

It’s not only our resolution, but it is our mandate.

In fact, the Turnaround is happening RIGHT NOW. We have started hiring tutors to provide focused tutoring for literary skills at 16 of our highest-needs schools. We are prepared to serve more than 1,900 students in grades three to five in daily sessions for 45 minutes in a 5-to-1 pupil-to-teacher setting. This tutoring is scheduled to get started in just a few weeks!

We are well into preparations for our Spring Break academy, which will be available to third- through fifth-grade students in targeted schools. Parents of eligible students will be contacted soon for enrollment information and other details.

And now we are starting the rollout of initiatives that will require even greater community engagement.

As I outlined in the State of the District last October and in board meetings and community gatherings since, we will consider any and all viable options for our schools and students, even if they generate controversy. Nothing is too bold for our kids. They deserve nothing less.

To that end, we recently issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), in which we formally invited organizations with track records of improving student achievement to submit proposals as to how they could replicate such successes in our highest-needs schools.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of chatter about this RFQ and already a lot of misinformation out there.  So, I think it’s important that I clarify what this RFQ is and what this RFQ is not. This RFQ is not a charter school application process.  We have a clearly defined process for applicants who are interested in opening a start-up charter school, and while we will continue to honor that separate process, that is not the purpose of this RFQ.  The RFQ is for organizations that can demonstrate how they could dramatically improve student achievement for both short-term and long-term success; increase the operational efficiency of a low-performing school; and provide a high quality educational environment for APS students within the target schools in partnership with APS to improve the quality of neighborhood school options.

The RFQ period closes on Friday, Jan. 22. We plan to review potential providers at the Feb. 1 board meeting, after which we will engage parents and community stakeholders in a transparent process. To the extent that a partner is willing to work with us in the 2016-17 school year, our goal is to bring those actions to the March 7 board meeting.

You may also have noticed recent advertisements for turnaround talent. We have embarked on a search for principal and teacher candidates who thrive in turnaround environments. I ask you to encourage qualified friends and colleagues outside of our district to consider APS as an exciting, challenging new experience in public education for them. They can learn more at www.APSrecruits.us.

When the state announced a new Opportunity School District that would potentially take over our lowest performing schools if approved by voters, it became abundantly clear that our runway had been dramatically shortened and that if our kids would have any real chance, we needed much more than systematic, incremental change.

It became clear to me that APS desperately needed transformational change!  And that is why I believe the steps we are taking as part of our school turnaround strategy are so critical.

As I shared at my State of District address this fall, transformation is not always popular, it’s never comfortable and it doesn’t come with the luxury of incremental progress over time. It does not come with the time to fully build trust and engagement so the community can fully understand the need and process of change implementation.  But what I am hopeful it will come with is dramatic improvement in the quality of education for kids, and at the end of the day, that is what our kids deserve and that is what our community is demanding of this district.

That’s my resolution and my pledge to all of you as Atlanta Public Schools stakeholders.

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Have a Safe and Happy Winter Break!

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Elizabeth Mori, Grade 10, North Atlanta High School 2015 APS Winter Card Contest Winner

With the Winter Break upon us and 2015 drawing to a close, I encourage all friends and stakeholders of Atlanta Public Schools to reflect upon the difference we make in the lives of Atlanta’s children.

I am thankful that we, as a community with many talents, have come together to share those gifts with one another and, most importantly, with our students and staff. While we’ve had our struggles, we’ve also had successes.

I am thankful that I get to work with some of the hardest-working educators, administrators and professional support staff in public education. But most of all, I am thankful for our beautiful students and committed colleagues across the city who give us hope for the future and have amazing talents and gifts of their own as shown by the winners of my annual Winter Card Contest.

I wish you all the best of the season and a safe and Happy New Year with friends and family!

Reflections of 2015

We in Atlanta Public Schools had an amazing 2015 fall semester as shown by the images below. We will miss all of our wonderful teachers, staff and students over the Winter Break. I’ll be back and tweeting and blogging again in the New Year on Monday, January 4, 2016!

 

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Our first step in building a new Safety and Security Department

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Superintendent Carstarphen, accompanied by APD Officer LeFever, sings at an October 2014 meeting with school resource officers focused on social-emotional learning. 

Late one Friday this past September, our Atlanta Public Schools community was shaken by a senseless shooting that took place outside of Grady Stadium during one of our football games.

Two months later, video footage of a violent fight at one of our high schools headlined the evening news.

Far too often, my phone buzzes with another sobering report of an incident or altercation at or near one of our campuses.

These events and others underscore the need for action. And they underscore the need for all of us to help transform the culture inside (and outside) of APS and foster an environment where our students, families, and staff feel safe, welcomed, and respected in our schools and at school events.

The culture and cycles of violence in our schools and communities must end. I believe that we do this through education – taking effective action to change outcomes in the lives of our students and families – including rethinking how we provide safety and security supports in APS once and for all.

For this reason, last spring, APS sought partners to pursue funding that focuses on improving school safety and policing.

Through these partnerships we will be able to develop a multi-pronged approach to help students redirect their behavior through Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), increase student participation in finding solutions to behavioral issues through the establishment of Restorative Justice in schools, fund programs to strengthen emergency preparedness, and adopt new safety control technologies.

NIJ Grant Partners (WestEd, APS and GSU)

Representatives from APS, APD, WestEd and Georgia State University celebrating receiving a $7.5 million grant from the National Institute of Justice at a Nov. 23 press conference. 

 

We also plan to launch an in-house safety and security department that supports our vision of developing school environments where students feel safe to learn, caring adults support students, and our children become productive citizens in their communities.

For a little background, APS has been contracting with the Atlanta Police Department for officers at our school sites and other facilities since 2004. Under our current agreement — which runs through June 30, 2016 — APS spends roughly $5.7 million each year for those contracted services.

We are grateful to the Atlanta Police Department for their services over the last 11 years. There are many beloved officers working with us right now in APS. Just this past Saturday, I had the chance to hang out with Officer Antwan Denson during the Hoops For A Cause event and saw just how much he cares about our kids.

We were appreciative this fall when Atlanta Police Chief Turner supported our efforts to win the NIJ grant with a letter of recommendation. In addition to strengthening safety and security in APS, creating an in-house department will also allow APD to focus on keeping Atlanta safe without having to pull officers from our schools or extracurricular events to handle emergencies or large events around the city, which happen often in a metropolitan city like Atlanta.

Our department will include up to 60 sworn, armed officers who will have the same authority as the contracted police officers we currently have. There will also be a variety of support positions, including the four that the Board of Education voted Monday to create: Executive Director of Safety and Security, Chief of Police, Security Operations Director, and an Emergency Management Compliance Manager. We have already started a nationwide search to fill these positions.

As full-time APS employees, these officers and support staff will be full-fledged participants in our efforts to build a child-centered culture and support our students academically and emotionally. They will take part in the same professional development and team-building work as our teachers and other staff— especially with respect to whole-child development, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), PBIS, and conflict resolution. Having our own sworn officers has many benefits for the district including increased flexibility to create a framework that reflects the needs of the district and individual school communities.

This model is hardly a new one for school systems across metro Atlanta. In fact, Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett school systems all operate in-house police departments— some stretching back decades.

The Board and I are deeply committed to the belief that our children must have a quality education that provides real choice and opportunity in their lives. That starts with our students feeling safe and welcome in our schools, surrounded by adults who love and care for them and are trained to diffuse situations before they escalate.

Safety always comes first.  We believe this decision will enhance safety as well as support our mission, “With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.”

We’ve heard from some community members who have more questions about the role of Atlanta Police.  I want to be clear that we will continue to work with Atlanta Police for emergency situations and to help us to design this new model. We need them to continue to be a critical partner to ensure the safety of our schools and communities.  I believe that by having in-house sworn police officers in our district, we will expand and improve the safety, growth and development of our students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready, Set, Learn.. The New Atlanta College and Career Academy

Being ready means you are set.  You’re fully prepared.  You can now take that next step. At Atlanta Public Schools, it is our mission to ensure our students graduate ready for college and a career.

This week we received phenomenal news that APS students will benefit from a $3.3 million grant from the Technical College System of Georgia to help fund the Atlanta College and Career Academy (ACCA)— a 21st century technical center, created in partnership with Atlanta Technical College and APS.

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Several of our APS staff joined representative from Atlanta Technical College and the Technical College System of Georgia during the announcement  of the grant. 

I’m so excited to have this additional option for our students. ACCA aligns with our mission that every student will graduate ready for college and career, and expands our efforts to expose all high school students to a college preparatory, career and technical curriculum.

The primary goal of the ACCA is to prepare high school students for high demand, high-skilled technical careers, which will also address the economic and workforce demands of Atlanta and the state of Georgia.  The ACCA will offer students an additional opportunity to earn a promising career-focused education in a collegiate setting.

One of the many great things about this program is that beginning next school year, our students can select to attend classes at ATC with an option to dual-enroll in both academic and technical classes, which will provide opportunities for completion in advanced academics and technical pathways.  In addition, students may earn a technical certificate, a college diploma or an associate degree, while enrolled at the Academy. Over 100 programs areas will be available to students offering credentials such as:  C++, CISCO certification (computer networking); Certified Professional in Health Information Technology (CPHIT), education endorsement in Early Childhood Exceptionalities and Infant and Childcare, which are recognized by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission and Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).

This project has been in the making since 2011; however, it could not have come  at a better time than now as the ACCA will enhance our proposed cluster signature programs by offering continuity for existing Career Technical Architectural Education pathways and providing high-quality alternative programs that may not be part of a cluster’s signature program.

Business and community stakeholders have committed to partnering with ACCA to ensure student success. Thoughtful leaders such as Tom Money at Kauffman Tires, Tina Fernandez at Achieve Atlanta, Amy Lancaster at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Mike Kenig from Holder Construction, and Dave Cole from IBM will join representatives from APS and ATC to serve on the Academy’s board of directors to help guide its success.

I am thankful for the commitments and investments in APS students.  It takes partnerships such as these, the support of organizations like the Technical College of System of Georgia, and our APS families to make our district stronger and to help us on our journey to ensure every APS student is ready for college, career and a great life.

 

 

Get Ready for Mother Nature: Winter Preparedness in APS

None of us can control Mother Nature, but we can do our best to plan for inclement weather. This week marks the beginning of Georgia Preparedness Week (Nov. 30 through Dec. 4). My number one priority is to make sure Atlanta Public Schools students and staff are safe and ready to learn and to teach.

Did you know that last year APS updated its comprehensive decision-making protocol for bad weather? I am committed to communicating inclement weather decisions to parents, students and employees, and this school year, we have a plan in place that continues to put safety first. Should severe weather threaten us during the school day, we will bring in additional drivers to ensure buses start and run on time. We will also ensure that district vehicles, equipment and supplies are prepared and in place before an emergency strikes.  APS has now established schedules and guidelines for early dismissal and delayed openings, and provided inclement weather training for all drivers and supervisors. Additionally, we have made emergency food, water and medical supplies readily available and easy to access at all district facilities and ensured that the needed technology and equipment are available for emergency communication.

Furthermore, this year we will again monitor weather reports closely and hold conversations throughout the day, overnight and early morning as needed with our emergency preparedness partners to help us make the best decisions for our students’ safety.

APS activates our severe Core Weather Team, which includes representatives from APS Operations, Transportation, Safety & Security, Facilities Services, Communications, Curriculum and Instruction, Nutrition and Information Technology departments when our city is under a severe weather threat.  Our team enters into a live conference call to assess the weather information we are receiving as well as emergency plans driven by the City of Atlanta and the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Office, Fulton County Emergency Management, and others.  In these conference calls, we rely heavily on information provided by the National Weather Service and local meteorologists to provide the best and most reliable information. The meteorologists often want to wait as late as possible, when better data allows for more accurate forecasts and precise modeling. Sometimes, this wait can conflict with the district’s need to notify families early as possible. Once we make a decision about school operations during bad weather, we will begin notifying parents and caregivers as soon as possible.

Here are some important steps to know when severe weather impacts our school day:

  1. APS will contact parents and guardians as soon as possible; therefore, it is important that we have current contact information. I encourage all APS parents and guardians to log in to the APS campus portal to update their preferences for emergency notifications, which include robo-calls, text messages and e-mails at http://www.atlantapublicschools.us/CPP. Parents, make sure we know how to contact you in an emergency. We will do our part to notify you, but we need your help to stay informed.
  2. Should we need to close our schools early due to inclement weather forecasted for the same day after school has already started, the Core Weather Team will convene as early in the school day as possible, likely around 9:30 a.m. to make a recommendation. You would, in this case, begin receiving notice of our decision by 10:30 a.m. that day from the district’s communications channels, including the local news media.
  3. If inclement weather is expected the next day, our team will begin the conversations and close monitoring on whether to delay or close schools.
  4. We will aim to give you advance notice so you can put plans in place for your children should we have to cancel classes or afternoon activities early or if schools have to close for a full day or more. Depending on when the bad weather may hit, we will communicate our decisions in time for local newscasts (4 a.m., noon, 4 p.m., 5 p.m. 6 p.m. 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.). However, you don’t have to wait for news broadcasts.
  5. We will communicate with families via robo calls, texts and emails, the district website, social media such as Twitter, and local news outlets when there is a change in our normal school routine. I strongly encourage you to sign up to receive these communications from us. It is extremely important that you make sure we have updated contact information for your family.

As a district, we have a plan, but I want to make sure you do as well. In the event severe weather strikes, does your family have a plan in place? If not, make a plan today.

You should know how to contact one another in an emergency and reconnect with loved ones if you become separated. Create a family meeting place that’s familiar and easy to find. Be sure to address all the unique needs of young children, pets, older loved ones and family members with special needs in your plan. For more information and ideas on how to create a family emergency plan, visit the Ready Georgia site.

Be prepared. You should have enough food, water and supplies to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. Learn what essential items you need in a ready kit; most of these items are reasonably priced and easy to find, but could be vital in saving your life. For a detailed list and more information on how to prepare a customized Ready kit for your family, visit http://www.ready.ga.gov/Prepare.

Baby, it’s cold outside. Be safe and stay warm!

Meria

 

Twitter handles to follow during inclement weather:

@apsupdate @atlsuper

National Weather Service: @NWSAtlanta

The Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency (AFCEMA),

@AFCEMA

Take a look at the work we’ve done at APS to prepare for inclement weather:

Winter Weather Descends upon APS

APS Prepares for Winter Weather