To: Superintendent From: The best gift givers – Teacher Rita Simmons, her students, GADOE and GA Aquarium

Imagine my surprise to find a fun email today (so I had to do a quick post) from our beloved Cleveland Avenue Elementary School teacher AND 2013-2014 Atlanta Public Schools’ District-wide Teacher of the Year AND 2015 Georgia Teacher of the Year Top-Ten Finalist – Rita Simmons! She was awarded an opportunity to take students with chaperones to the Georgia Aquarium.  This award was given to her for being a 2015 Georgia Teacher of the Year Top-Ten Finalist (that’s her kneeling in the scarf in front of the students).

rita aquarium

In preparation for the trip, kindergarten through fifth grade had an opportunity to create, write, persuade and present a creative project which introduces their favorite marine animal to the school community.  She said phenomenal creations were submitted!

For some of the students, this was their first time visiting the Aquarium or viewing live marine animals.  There was one kindergarten and first grade group that, after walking into the Ocean Voyager tunnel, had such a positive and exciting reaction that it brought tears to her eyes…awwww…now I want to cry!  To see the whale shark gracefully glide above them as their eyes tracked his movement was priceless in her view (and mine). Look at that little girl’s face!

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On behalf of Ms. Simmons and APS, I send a huge THANK-YOU to Keisha Ford Jenrette of the Georgia Department of Education and The Georgia Aquarium sponsors for their grand generosity and support. Many students will never forget Wednesday, December 17, 2014 – and neither will Ms. Simmons.

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And, I will carry these beautiful images with me into the winter break to keep my heart warm and mind focused on our children. This is the perfect gift for me!

Have a great winter break! See you all back on January 6th!

Proud of the Posses!

I am so proud of our fourteen seniors who were awarded four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships worth approximately $100,000 each by The Posse Foundation, Inc. to attend some of the top college and universities in the country – including Boston University, Syracuse University and Texas A&M University.

The Posse Foundation, Inc. is a college access and youth leadership development program that identifies, recruits and selects leaders from public high schools. These student leaders are placed in supportive multicultural teams called “Posses” to attend partnering colleges and universities.

The 2015 APS Posse Foundation Scholars are:

Name High School Name Posse Finalist University
Orlando Riley Henry W. Grady High School Bard College
Lotus Rios B.E.S.T. Academy High School Bard College
Lena Adams Benjamin E. Mays High School Boston University
Ike Hammond Henry W. Grady High School Boston University
Max Hayes North Atlanta High School Brandeis University
Deborah-Virginia Kawalie-Fataki Carver Early College Brandeis University
Maegann Stafford North Atlanta High School Brandeis University
Kelli Miller Carver Early College Syracuse University
Harris Pitsikoulis North Atlanta High School Syracuse University
Samuel Evans Carver Early College Texas A&M University
Maria Gallo-Blanco Benjamin E. Mays High School Texas A&M University
Antwarn Sanders Washington Early College Texas A&M University
Selema Gonzalez Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School The College of Wooster
Elizabeth Shelby KIPP Atlanta Collegiate The College of Wooster

APS School Counseling Coordinator Dr. Kenya J. Gilliard, coordinated the multi-step Posse Scholars nomination process with students, which includes educating them about the application process and encouraging them to apply, maintaining the required GPA, and coaching them on their scholarship interviews. Thank you so much!

Congratulations to these students and families who are living the APS mission!

Our CCRPI Results, Our Schools and the Power of ‘Hope’

Yesterday, the Georgia Department of Education released the results of the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI).  I’m still learning Georgia accountability too so for folks who are in need of some basic guidance, here are my cliff notes on how it breaks down: For background, you may remember, (but I wasn’t here), that Georgia was one of 10 states granted a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act in February 2012. The new accountability system, the CCRPI, was released May 2013.  This system replaced the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), providing the district with more comprehensive data about the academic performance of our students and our schools.

This is how it works:

1) All of the schools in the state are rated on a 100 point scale and 2) Our overall score is made up of Achievement (60% of the total CCRPI score), Progress (25% of the total CCRPI score points possible) and  Achievement Gap (15% of the total CCRPI score points possible). That’s it in a nutshell.

So how did we do?  Overall, APS scored 62.5, a 2.8 point decrease from the 2013 score and 9.4 points lower than Georgia. Although the state score for high schools decreased 3.7 points from 72.0 in 2013 to 68.3 in 2014, scores for APS high schools remained relatively stable, with APS high schools earning 59.3 points in 2014.  Thus, the high school achievement gap between APS and Georgia narrowed 3.6 points. Similarly, while the state score for middle schools declined nearly 2 points, the APS score remained nearly unchanged. APS middle schools scored 65.7, a .1 point decrease from 2013 and 7.4 points lower than the state.  APS elementary schools decreased 5 points compared to 2013 and are 9.4 points below the state. (Note: APS scores by school level include the average exceeding the bar points awarded by the state).

And there were gains…in schools such as Hope Hill Elementary with an increase of 19.5 points from 2013-2014 representing our largest gain accross all schools, Venetian Hills Elementary with an increse of 18.2 points, Brown Middle with an increase of 14.3 points and South Atlanta Law and Justice with an increase of 16.3 points.  This is only a snapshot, we had a total of 42 schools with gains on the CCRPI between 2013-2014.

An exciting story is unfolding over at Hutchinson Elementary where the school achieved its second consecutive year of sustained growth in its overall CCRPI! Go Tigers!  In 2012, the school’s CCRPI was 42.8.  In 2013, the index rose to 55 and this year Hutchinson achieved a CCRPI of 67.9.  Hutchinson also more than doubled their achievement gap points for narrowing the gap between the lowest 25th percentile and the state mean.

Other APS schools did a great job too. I am also proud of a number of APS elementary and middle schools that scored in the top 25% of APS schools:

Elementary Schools – Morningside, Jackson, Brandon, Lin, Neighborhood Charter School, Springdale, Charles Drew Charter School, West Manor, Smith, Garden Hills, Kindezi, Burgess-Peterson Elementary School, Rivers Elementary School, and Venetian Hills Elementary Schools.

Middle Schools – KIPP Strive Academy, Charles Drew Charter School, Inman Middle School, Atlanta Charter Middle School, KIPP West Atlanta Young Scholars Academy, and Sutton Middle School.

In addition, a number of APS high schools scored above the state average:

High Schools – Early College High School at Carver, The School of the Arts at Carver, North Atlanta High School, Booker T. Washington Early College, Grady High School, South Atlanta Law and Social Justice School, South Atlanta School of Health and Medical Science, and Charles Drew Charter School.

Please congratulate our staff and students for working so hard at their schools.

But still, at face value, the overall test scores give me pause. We have a long way to go to ensure every student in every school is able to achieve at high levels. What I know from experience and best practice – and share in viewpoint with outstanding educators everywhere – is that success can’t be measured by just test scores. Students will perform better in a culture that is less about correcting deficits and identifying weaknesses, and more about playing to and capitalizing on their strengths and providing opportunities to develop practical skills and have rich experiences. In other words, it’s a third, a third, and a third. It takes all three parts. And when you do that, students feel hopeful and engaged, which leads to academic success. We actually need to inspire students and help them feel hopeful about their future.

Studies show that hope is a stronger predictor of college success than test scores or GPAs.

When students have hope, they show up for school. When they show up, they’re more engaged. When they’re engaged, they stay in school. When they stay, they learn more. When they learn, they want to graduate on time. And when they graduate, they have real choices to pursue not only college and careers, but most importantly, a calling that will make them happy and fulfilled.

You can take a deep dive into the CCRPI data by visiting our district’s website HERE.  You can also take a look at the result from the state HERE.

Read more about Hutchinson ES at

Clarifying Class Size Waivers

Following the last two Board votes on class size waivers, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting and talking with staff and community members and listening to feedback on whether the district should continue to request flexibility from the state on class sizes.  My recommendation to continue these waivers was so that our schools, as well as the district, would have maximum flexibility going into the budgeting process. For example, this would give the Board time to thoughtfully consider future Board-approved options and plans, including, but not limited to, findings in our recent equity audit, Board-approved budget parameters, and the upcoming flexibility and operating models application.

Over the past 100+ days of my superintendency, the Board and I have agreed on a course of action and set of priorities to drive the administration’s work this year.  With a clearly articulated mission and vision, clear guiding principles, and aligned operating norms, we have focused on engaging with our community and working on three major planning initiatives: our strategic planning process, our operating model decision process, and our cluster planning process.

During our first semester in APS, we’ve made significant progress and made some big decisions – and some small ones too – to stabilize the district and plan for the future. The Board voted unanimously to support a theory of action, strategic priorities and budget parameters for FY16.  Following multiple community meetings with extensive input, the Board also decided that our district would be best positioned for success if we pushed decision-making into the school level through a charter district operating model with a focus on cluster planning. This does not mean a district of individual charter schools.  What it does mean is that we could transition to a system where parents and community members are engaged in our schools at a higher level and are empowered to inform decisions with principals who would then have greater levels of staffing flexibility and autonomy around resource allocations.

With a potential charter district operating model in mind, our principals are working on their visions as a cluster, and our new human resource team is working diligently on a plan to roll out a new process where principals will have increasing levels of autonomy in how they staff their schools.  In addition, we began the analysis of our central administration expenses.  We have laid the groundwork for a multi-year central administration budget reduction strategy, all with the goal of identifying as many discretionary dollars for our schools as possible.  This will take time to work through, but we are on our way.

When I went to the Board on December 1 with the recommendation for continuing the class-size waivers that have been in place since 2011, I did so with the understanding that we all knew that this was simply granting us the same flexibility we currently have as we go into the budgeting process to make recommendations on where these discretionary dollars should be used.  The strategy was and still is to stay committed to engaging our principals, staff and community through the cluster planning process to understand their unique needs, in addition to the budget priorities the Board has already approved (early childhood, textbooks, teacher quality, HVAC repairs, positive behavioral supports, etc.) and weigh those budget requests against investing in smaller class sizes.  Having a class size waiver grants us this flexibility to consider all options, but discontinuing this waiver would effectively mean that a significant percentage, if not all, of our discretionary dollars would be required to go towards smaller class sizes without the opportunity to weigh other needs.

The Board ultimately decided Thursday night to grant that flexibility to the district in a special called meeting.  To the extent that we are able to push new (because we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence) and redirected resources into the schools with this increased flexibility, which I am committed to doing, I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs.  What I have learned about Atlanta is that a solution for one school is not always the right solution for another school, and imposing the same solutions across the board with one big brush stroke only further exacerbates the inequities that exist within our school communities, which are well-documented in the extensive equity audit.

I am aware that APS has developed a reputation over the years of not being very transparent, and I am sensitive to the fact that the decision-making process around class size waivers may raise further concerns around transparency for some. While I don’t speak for the Board, I will speak for the administration and say I am sorry for any confusion that was created in the way this was handled. Contrary to what some have suggested, however, I did not lobby the Board to change its position nor did I ask for a special called meeting.  Rather, when the Board took its original vote on class size waivers, the administration began working immediately to determine how we would provide impact information and support for the Board in implementing this decision.

I am beginning to better understand the community’s perspective of the district and also understand why there is such mistrust in our community.  I came to Atlanta aware of some of these challenges, and I remain deeply committed to continuing the level of engagement and accessibility that I have emphasized since arriving in APS.  I am committed to explaining the rationale for my decisions and listening to the perspective of others.

Moving forward, we will likely continue to have growing pains as we work to build a high-performing district and tackle the many long-standing challenges APS must address if we are going to graduate students ready for college and careers.  These issues will not be solved overnight, and clearly they were not all solvable in my first 100 days.  Yet, I remain optimistic about the future of APS if our community can remain committed to engaging in open and honest dialogue that considers what is best for all kids in APS.

For information on class size waivers visit:

Go! Raiders Go! The Benjamin E. Mays football team is history in the making

Mays FootballA big congratulations to the Benjamin E. Mays football team after a big win last Friday. Tonight the Mays Raiders take on the Northside Eagles of Warner Robbins in the GHSA Class AAAAA State Championship.

These talented students, coaches and staff are making history! Not only is this the first Mays football team ever to make it to the state championship, when they win tonight, the Raiders will be the first APS football team to win a state championship in over three decades. The last school to do this was Southwest High School in 1973. Mays-SendOFF_12-12-2014063

The game will take place tonight December 12, 2014, 8:00 p.m. at the Georgia Dome. Tickets are $20.

So make sure you fill the Dome and show your APS pride.

Congratulations again to Coach Jarvis and his football team. The entire district is cheering for you.

We Believe!!!!

Go Raiders!  Go!

My Adventures with Backpack Bear – The Final Chapter

My week with Backpack Bear was so much fun! We worked, we played and even gave back to the community. I’m so sad to say good-bye, but it’s time to hand him back over to the kids at Jackson Primary in Ms. Swalm’s kindergarten class. Thank you guys for introducing us, we are sure to be friends forever. As I say goodbye to my good friend Backpack Bear, let me share some of our most memorable moments captured during our last day together.


Backpack Bear met my other good friend, Pete the Cat who was wearing his new, cool, school shoes.

Backpack Bear 2

Backpack Bear helped me “color within the lines” as I finished my final kindergarten homework assignment.


Chief Academic Officer Carlton Jenkins promises to take great care of Backpack Bear and return him home.  Thanks Carlton!  Don’t forget to buckle him in his seatbelt!

What a great week.  I look for











My Adventures with Backpack Bear Part II

What a busy week for our friend Backpack Bear from Jackson Primary!  Take a look at a few of his (our) adventures.

Holiday Card

Monday I learned that Backpack Bear is REALLY GOOD at putting labels on holiday cards!  We are sending out cards to our friends throughout the district, featuring the winning designs from our Winter Card Contest.  Backpack Bear really got into the action and helped me and Katie, our new executive director of partnerships, development and grants.

Backpack Bear helped to stuff holiday stockings this week with toys for over 2,400 Atlanta children at Santa’s Village.  He loved helping to fill the orders…especially while riding in the front seat of the shopping cart.  And yes, he was wearing his seatbelt!


I kept Backpack Bear close during our weekly Tuesday meeting with district leaders.  He was a little nervous being in such a big conference room with so many grown-ups, but pretty soon – he was chiming in on operating models, Georgia Milestones and Title I discussions.  Thanks Backpack Bear for the great counsel!

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Backpack Bear with Nancy Meister and Beth Beskin, State Representative Elect, District 54


Backpack Bear with board member Eshe’ Collins


Backpack Bear with board member Leslie Grant; State Senator-Elect District 42, Elena Parent; Legislative Consultant and Georgia Registered Lobbyist with Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough LLP, Helen Sloat and APS Deputy Superintendent, David Jernigan


This Wednesday, the Board of Education, along with myself and Backpack Bear, facilitated a presentation and question and answer session with the Atlanta area Legislative Delegation on the APS 2015 legislative priorities.  Everyone loved getting to know my new friend!


The week isn’t over.  Can you guess where Backpack Bear and I will be today?  Stay tuned!