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100 Days into Transformation Results in ‘Democratizing Education Through Student Voice and Hip Hop’ – How Cool Is That?!?

Today marks the 100th day of the first year of full implementation of our transformation in Atlanta Public Schools. As part of that work, APS is changing some of the ways we teach our students, giving them an authentic voice as they interact with the curriculum and shape learning for themselves.

When I was preparing for the State of the District last October, I wanted to convey the kind of enthusiasm and energy I had for this Journey of Transformation to turnaround schools, improve equity and end intergenerational poverty in Atlanta.

For those who know me well, they know I am obsessed with the genius of the dynamic new musical phenomenon on Broadway that is Hamilton. Coupled with our burgeoning partnership with Flocabulary, a teaching method that infuses hip hop and spoken word with history lessons, we had our muse for the State of the District. (As evidence, you can re-experience the State of the District here – put on your dancing shoes!)

So 100 days into the school year, we are asking our school communities to push harder again (as explained in my previous blog). The energy (and, to be fair, angst for some) remains at heightened levels across APS. But, if you look at our progress through someone else’s eyes, you might be able to see the magic and possibility of our transformational work and the beauty and talent of our students and staff.

Alex Rappaport, co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary, captures his experience with Atlanta Public Schools for EdSurge News. It features the partnership and our students. Please enjoy it here. I have also shared it below.

Join the transformation and believe in the change – I believe in you!

Democratizing Education Through Student Voice and Hip Hop

By Alex Rappaport, Jan 19, 2017

Earlier this fall, Flocabulary partnered with Atlanta Public Schools on a writing contest called Hip Hop History. The challenge posed to students was simple: Write a rap song about a historical figure who inspires you. The results were remarkable.

Students from grades 1-12 participated in the contest, and the historical figures ranged from George Washington Carver to Michelle Obama. One ninth-grader named Asmara decided to write about Trayvon Martin:

They call it looking suspicious; We call it being Black and alive.

They call it keeping criminals off the streets; We call it genocide.

Trayvon: your death had no meaning in the government’s eyes.

They killed you unjustly and had it advertised.

The superintendent’s office evaluated submissions from across the district and invited several groups of students to perform their work at the annual State of the District address. The students performed proudly in front of more than a thousand teachers, parents and guests, bringing the crowd to its feet and stealing the show. When asked to choose a winner from the student groups, the audience refused. The consensus was that all of the students were winners that day.

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Talented students from Kimberly Elementary perform at APS State of the District

In our current social climate, diverse voices and perspectives are more important than ever. We can’t rely on gatekeepers to tell the whole story.

So, what did this contest have to do with democratization? At its surface, the contest was aimed at fairly traditional learning outcomes. Once students chose a subject, they used standards-based academic skills like independent research, critical thinking and non-fiction reading. The use of songwriting also allowed students to be creative and encouraged them to work collaboratively, two important 21st-century skills that are increasingly important in the workplace, yet hard to teach in the classroom.

But the contest went far beyond standards and skills. It also elevated student voice. By giving students a chance to take ownership of the curriculum and content, we allow them to shape what is being covered and how it’s being taught. (Researchers have taken notice of this too: A literature review by the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University concluded that student motivation and academic achievement increase when students’ interests and goals are reflected in the classroom.)

Lessons that elevate student voice also allow diverse identities and cultural perspectives to break through the curriculum—a curriculum that has been covered in the permafrost of a limited cultural perspective for far too long. This perspective can be biased and sometimes just plain wrong. As recently as 2015, it was discovered that a major geography textbook, published by McGraw-Hill Education and adopted by the Texas Board of Education, referred to slaves as “workers” in a chapter on global immigration. The book was rolled out to thousands of high school students, one of whom caught the error himself, and wasn’t updated with a correction until a parent demanded it. How would a textbook cover Trayvon Martin?

While the students rapped about history, they were also making some of their own.

The idea of elevating student voice is becoming a major focus area—right alongside traditional K-12 themes like core curriculum, assessment and graduation rates—among superintendents and chief academic officers. The willingness of Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to showcase the writing contest on her district’s biggest stage is one example. But bringing activities that elevate student voice into more classrooms will mean designing new tools to support teachers and creating new frameworks to connect the activities to core standards and skills.

Lessons that showcase student voice bring new vantage points and ultimately democratize education, particularly for students whose cultural perspectives have been suppressed or marginalized. In our current social climate, diverse voices and perspectives are more important than ever. We can’t rely on gatekeepers to tell the whole story.

The Hip-Hop History contest worked because it sat at the intersection where popular culture and academic content meet—a pedagogical sweet spot where authentic engagement can be a springboard into skills and standards. The Atlanta students showed remarkable depth of knowledge, but it was their confidence and ownership of the content that shined through. For those of us in the audience that day, one thing was clear: While the students rapped about history, they were also making some of their own.

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Therrell High School drops the mike for Atlanta Public Schools

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APS Considers School Changes for Improved Quality and Efficiency

As part of the work for students, Atlanta Public Schools has had to strive to improve quality while increasing efficiency. That is why we have continued the work to right size the district to more effectively direct resources toward the students. That has been difficult when you continue to work within an infrastructure that at one point was designed to service more than 100,000 students but today serves about 52,000.

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This school year, we successfully opened two dynamic new schools, including Hollis Innovation Academy …

We have also wanted to deliver the most coherent and effective academic programs possible to our students as well as providing the most complete and essential services we can with limited resources.

To that end, here are some of the details for the emerging potential recommendations:

  • Consolidate Benteen Elementary School with D.H. Stanton Elementary School on the D.H. Stanton campus.
  • Merge Adamsville Primary and Miles Intermediate schools into a single, cohesive school on the Miles campus.
  • Close Whitefoord Elementary School and rezone students to Burgess-Peterson Academy and Toomer Elementary School.
  • Consider changes that would impact the Douglass Cluster. We will have more information regarding these potential changes for this cluster in the next few weeks.
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… the Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy.

Over the past two years, among the changes necessary have been consolidating or closings schools. Let me stress now as I have in the past: We do not take the matter of school mergers or school closings lightly. We are driven by a number of factors, but most importantly we are working to improve quality while also improving efficiency.

As we did last year, we looked at College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) scores, school enrollment under 500 students and usage of classroom space, renovations needs and the proximity, capacity and performance of nearby schools.

Even after the mergers, consolidations and new partnerships of last two years, the fact remains that we have more work to do here to eliminate redundancies and create stronger, more effective programs that lead to students graduating with real choices in college, career and life.

Adamsville/Miles Consolidation

For this proposal, we plan to close Adamsville Primary School and restructure Miles Intermediate as a PreK-5 school. To balance elementary enrollment in the Mays Cluster, some students would be redistricted for West Manor Elementary.

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Adamsville/Miles/West Manor

We found the primary and intermediate split between Adamsville and Miles creates a lack of coherence in academic planning and programming. Additionally, all three schools – Adamsville (381), Miles (396) and West Manor (270) – are significantly under-enrolled. Both Miles and West Manor have sufficient capacity to accommodate more students.

Due to increased total enrollment after a merger, the new school on the Miles campus will qualify for additional staff allotments and core services. The school would earn a full counselor and earn more allotments in extended core curriculum, such as orchestra, band and world languages. West Manor could potentially quality for additional allotments in extended core as well. The teacher allotment formula, which is drive by class size ratios, will remain the same.

I am recommending that Thalise Perry, currently principal at Miles and an experienced APS administrator with a strong track record of performance, serve as principal of the new school.

The chair of the Atlanta Board of Education will empanel a committee to engage the community to name the new school.

Benteen/D.H. Stanton Merger

For a Benteen and D.H. Stanton merger, we found that Benteen Elementary, with 310 students, currently stands as one of the smallest elementary schools in APS. While both schools have significant capacity, D.H. Stanton has a larger building and will also be the site of a new Sheltering Arms early childhood center, which is currently under construction.

benteen-stanton-map-11717Again, schools with higher enrollment qualify for more staff allotments and core services, so this new school would earn a full counselor and earn more allotments in extended core curriculum, such as orchestra, band and world languages.

Some rezoning will be necessary to ensure whole neighborhoods are zoned for the same school.

I am recommending that Robin Christian, the current principal of D.H. Stanton and another strong APS leader with a record of school turnaround, serve as principal of the new school.

Again, the board chair will form a naming committee for the new school.

Whitefoord Closure

We also propose to close Whitefoord Elementary School and redistrict students to Toomer Elementary and Burgess-Peterson Academy. The district is in discussion about an appropriate new location of the existing care center at Whitefoord to ensure that Whitefoord families can continue to access its services.

Whitefoord Elementary, with only 272 students, is another one of our smallest elementary schools. Toomer and Burgess-Peterson, both located in the Jackson Cluster within reasonable proximity of Whitefoord, have capacity to handle additional enrollments.

Based on the district’s extensive facilities assessment report from November 2015, the condition and suitability scores for buildings on the Whitefoord campus ranked among the lowest in the district. Estimates to restore the buildings to original state would exceed $7 million.

Due to increased enrollment, both Toomer and Burgess-Peterson will qualify for additional staff allotments and core services. Each would earn a full counselor and earn more allotments in extended core curriculum, such as orchestra, band and world languages.

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As part of school changes, Purpose Built Schools became the operating partner for Thomasville Heights Elementary.

We have met with staff at all of the affected schools (except Douglass Cluster, but we will be doing those over the next few weeks) and have scheduled town hall meetings and public hearings. More details and rationale about the proposals and the upcoming meetings are posted at www.atlantapublicschools.us/schoolchanges.

These are not easy decisions. I am particularly aware of the fact that we will be asking some of the hardest working and most talented people in APS to reapply for jobs. Some will get hired by their new schools, but all will receive priority treatment if they apply for jobs elsewhere in the district.

And it can be hard for the community as well, but I am hopeful that we can work together to ultimately make the best decisions for students.

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APS Working to Keep King’s Dream of Hope Alive

As we recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday today, we will certainly hear about “The Dream,” explained eloquently by Dr. King as he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.

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Dr. Martin Luther King gives his “I Have a Dream” speech 53 years ago in Washington D.C.

The Dream:

Hope.

Equality.

Nonviolence.

Opportunity.

Reflecting today, I know how blessed I am by The Dream and that my own opportunities and successes are a gift from those who came before me, especially those who marched and fought for civil rights even at the expense of their own well-being, their own fortunes …  and sometimes their own lives. Those sacrifices paved the way for a world in which we strive for equity and fairness for all, and that success isn’t determined on the color of one’s skin, the wealth of one’s family or the zip code of one’s home.

The Dream is alive today … and we must keep it well.

Within our own schools, we have students who need to be better served by our district and supported by our community. They are unable to keep up because their families are struggling without resources, facing intergenerational poverty and needing quality educational services from birth to high school graduation to college. For example, in too many schools, more than 80 percent of our students are not reading on grade level.

Research findings highlighted just this month during a forum of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. In their “Top 10 Issues to Watch in 2017” report, they noted a Harvard University study showing American children are less likely than children living in other developed countries to grow up and make more money than their parents.

The lack of social mobility – this ability to work one’s way out of poverty – is especially prominent in the Southeast United States. The metro Atlanta region ranked 48th out of 50 of the nation’s largest commuting areas. In short, that means that children born into poverty in Atlanta face some of the greatest odds of working their way out of poverty than anywhere in the developed world.

The City of Atlanta ranks first in the nation for income inequality, with one in four residents living in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report called Changing the Odds: The Race for Results in Atlanta. Even as our city thrives, the median household income for black families is $26,605 and is $84,944 for white families.

That same report reveals how our families in high poverty do not have access to critical programs in early childhood education. More than 80 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children in the wealthier areas of our city were enrolled in preschool compared to only about 25 percent of children from the least wealthy.

These are the kind of numbers and reports that keep me committed to long hours at the office and focused all of the time on the Journey of Transformation in Atlanta Public Schools.

While these may be disheartening statistics, they didn’t happen overnight, and, for African Americans in particular, go all the way back to slavery. So it won’t be fixed overnight, which is why I respect and honor today people like Rep. John Lewis and others who have committed their lives’ work to truly achieving Dr. King’s elusive and worthy Dream.

From where I sit as an urban schools superintendent, I know the work is hard, having already dedicated two decades of my life to helping us achieve The Dream. And we must take effective action to change these outcomes so The Dream will not degenerate into a dream deferred for far too many children.

As we moved into a new year and in honor of today, I renewed a solemn resolution to do my part to not let that happen in Atlanta. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Board of Education offered me a chance to add another year to my term as superintendent. I humbly accepted the offer as I plan to stay in Atlanta until the transformation of its public school system is complete.

We have a lot of work ahead, but I believe we have the right people with the right attitudes and the right plans to fully achieve The Dream and give every child in Atlanta a fighting chance at a choice-filled life.

The Dream is a legacy for all of us to hold, a legacy for all of us to keep. It stays alive through a conscious decision to act with a strong will and determination and only becomes deferred when people look away and do nothing.

We all have choices – in Atlanta, our choice is to act.

Hope. It’s my dream for APS to work to keep The Dream alive and help change the lives of our children so that they, too, can dream and achieve and prosper.

Nonviolence. It’s my dream for all of our students to live in a safe, caring world and to develop the social emotional skills they need to cope and overcome whatever challenges they face.

Equality. It’s my dream to see us close achievement and opportunity gaps where all of our students have an equal chance at a great education with 100 percent of APS students reading on grade level.

Opportunity. And it’s my dream that every single one of them will earn a high school diploma that gives them many opportunities for college, for careers and for life.

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APS Keeps Watchful Eye on Weather; Announces Early Dismissal for Friday

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As temperatures in metro Atlanta threaten to dip near freezing this week, I am reminded of how stressful the inclement weather associated with this time of year can be on everyone. Will I get caught in the snow? Will my child be stuck on a bus on the interstate? Is it too cold to walk home or take the bus?

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Students from E. Rivers Elementary show off their winter clothing.

Below you will see how we make critical decisions and understand why I have already decided to cancel afterschool activities for Friday, Jan. 6, and all activities on Saturday, Jan. 7. We will follow a staggered schedule as we dismiss students two hours early on Friday.

In my life, I have experienced the full range of weather from always cold and snowy (Cambridge, Mass., and Washington D.C.) to sheer freezing (Saint Paul, Minn.) to warm and icy within days (Austin, Texas and Atlanta), so I understand the various impacts weather conditions can have on our students and staff.

We cannot control Mother Nature, but we can try to be as prepared as possible. So I want to take a moment to remind you of our inclement weather practices as well as our notification procedures. Remember: Amid the threat of inclement weather, our No. 1 concern is the safety of our students and our staff.

When severe weather threatens the Atlanta area, we diligently update our website and keep every school principal notified. Whenever you feel the need to contact APS about weather issues, please call your school first. I make certain all principals are updated in real time about our inclement weather decisions, so they will always have the information.

In addition, I encourage you to log in to the campus portal for parents, update your preferences for emergency notifications, which include robo-calls, text messages and e-mails at http://www.atlantapublicschools.us/CPP.

In general, we maintain a vigilant watch on weather conditions, particularly through the harshest parts of winter. I have a Core Weather Team (comprised of representatives from APS Operations, Transportation, Safety & Security, Facilities Services, Communications, Schools and Academics, Nutrition and Information Technology departments) which monitors reports from such groups as Atlanta Fulton County Emergency Management, Georgia Emergency Management and the National Weather Service.

In a live conference call, we assess the weather information and emergency plans driven by Atlanta Fulton County Emergency Management Office, the National Weather Service and others. In these conference calls, the team relies heavily on National Weather Service input. Before I make a final decision, I also communicate with area superintendents.

We notify parents, caregivers and staff as soon as we make a decision based on weather conditions with the intent of providing such notifications at a time that enables you to take care of your children and families safely and expediently.

Mother Nature is unpredictable, so the decision-making process doesn’t always fall into a neat timeline. But this is how the decision process typically unfolds depending on when we get weather reports.

When inclement weather is expected for the next day, we begin monitoring the weather by 11 a.m. and hold an initial APS call at 7 p.m. If a decision is made to close or open schools, we immediately notify media outlets and APS parents, caregivers and staff. We continue monitoring the weather and hold a final decision call at 3:30 a.m., after which we immediately make notifications.

If inclement weather is forecasted the same day, we hold a morning decision call at 9:30 a.m. and, if necessary, again at 2 p.m. about evening district activities. We make notifications immediately after decisions are made.

We understand our school community’s concerns during these moments, and we always do our best to communicate these latest developments with you.

Stay safe!

Winter Card Winner - "Snowman" by Zakiya Thomas, 12th grade at Booker T. Washington; Art Teacher: Sachi Richardson

Be Safe and Happy over Winter Break!

With the Winter Break upon us and 2016 drawing to a close, I wanted to take a moment to encourage all friends and stakeholders of Atlanta Public Schools to reflect upon the difference we make in the lives of Atlanta’s children.wintercard1

A great joy of being a part of APS is the opportunity to work with our students and observe and interact with them as they learn and grow and become better big people than we could ever be. They 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.

But I also have much joy in working work with some of the hardest-working educators, administrators and professional support staff in public education. Our district benefits from a community of educators and staff blessed with many gifts along with the hearts to share them with our students and their families and with each other.

Now is a time for sharing, but it is also a time of reflection and relaxation. So please take time for yourselves over the next two weeks to really enjoy the time off. Then come back in 2017 with a renewed spirit and energy!

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

Reflections of 2016

We in Atlanta Public Schools had an amazing 2016 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 Wednesday, January 4, 2017!

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CCRPI Results: Running the APS Transformation Race

On Sunday, October 23, I finished my first official marathon. Five hours and 40 minutes.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty.

But it was a respectable finish – running and not crawling to the finish line, beaming with pride (and not weeping) after I crossed it. I did it after nearly a full year of focused, dedicated training with the support of family, friends and many colleagues (affectionately known in social media as #SUPTSoleMatestennisshoe ) and students and beloved mentees of Atlanta Public Schools.

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One of my beloved mentees, Stigg, joined me in November of last year for my first half-marathon.

For me, running and completing a marathon is a highly personal achievement. Literally no one can train or run for a marathon but the person who will run it. I had not planned to publicize this accomplishment, certainly not on my blog. I didn’t even tweet about it!

Now that I’ve run one, I often reflect upon the marathon experience because the Atlanta Public Schools transformation often leads people to reference the adage “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” which suggests that when the journey is long, you need to take your time and pace yourself in order to finish.

Today, after I saw the results of the latest College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) scores, I wondered if whoever actually coined the “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” saying had ever actually run one.

Now I know that marathons are terrible for the body. They test human endurance almost to the breaking point. They create an almost unbearable and lengthy recovery period. (As evidence, I am still recovering physically almost seven weeks later with plantar fasciitis.face-with-thermometer)

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Whew! I made it!

Whatever health benefits are achieved from running a marathon pale in comparison to those achieved through a sprint regimen. In fact, many health experts agree that sprint training – run burst/recover/run burst – not only increases speed and power but it creates stamina for longer, more grueling activities. Marathons or long jogs only help if all you do are things that are long and slow. (This isn’t a fitness blog, so please go here for supporting evidence.)

So, here’s my point:

A long and slow marathon strategy for school turnaround is not one we can maintain in APS. Our teachers and staff cannot continue working like they are running a marathon. Even if they finish, they don’t have time to recover before they are asked to run another one. APS does not have the capacity for endlessly running back-to-back marathons; further, the urgency for the future of our children demands that we move fast but deliberate so that they can graduate ready for college, career and choice-filled lives.

We need a sprint regimen! We have to scale our capacity for transformation, with bursts of deep investment, supports and partnerships, and then time for smart recovery and implementation.

I want our transformation framework to be built around a sprint concept. This has involved the recent conversion to a charter system operating model, adoption of Standards-Based Units of Study for all grades, implementation of district-wide instructional practices, the launch of benchmark assessments, a focus on early literacy and turnaround for targeted schools.

Today, I am working with the Board on several key unfunded components for transformation designed for another healthy sprint. With additional public funding and/or partnership resources, we can make investments in:

  • Significantly expanding access to quality early childhood education, while also making investments in the primary grades to ensure all students are reading by the end of 3rd grade.
  • Focusing on whole-child development, including positive behavior supports, arts, and athletics.
  • Creating a comprehensive leadership development program.

With the CCRPI, we have one tool to check on our pace. Although just one measure, it provides a significant marker for the race, with measurements for achievement, progress and closing the achievement gap.

33schoolstweetAs a district, APS saw its average CCRPI score drop slightly to 65.2 points from 67.0 points overall compared to 2015 results. The results are consistent with the mixed results of the Georgia Milestones released last summer and similar to the decrease for the state, which dropped 1.9 points to a CCRPI score of 73.6 points.

On this race, we can already find things to celebrate. And so we will shout for those 33 schools in our district achieving gains on their CCRPI scores. Our Top 10 schools showing improvement include Carver Technology (13.5 points), Whitefoord Elementary (13.1 points), Perkerson Elementary (9.5 points), Atlanta Classical Academy (9.3 points), Dunbar Elementary (9.2 points), Cleveland Avenue Elementary (8.6 points), Miles Intermediate (7.2 points), Burgess-Peterson Academy (6.2 points), Mary Lin Elementary (5.7 points) and Venetian Hills Elementary (5.7 points).

We should also cheer on the following schools, which earned CCRPI scores of at least 80:

Mary Lin Elementary (98.9), Carver Early College (97.3), Brandon Elementary (97.0), Morningside Elementary (96.5), Springdale Park Elementary (95.6), Jackson Elementary (95.4), Inman Middle (91.6), Atlanta Neighborhood Charter Elementary (84.5), Sarah Smith Elementary (83.8), Drew Elementary (83.8), West Manor Elementary (82.1), Garden Hills Elementary (82.0), Cleveland Avenue Elementary (80.8) and Burgess-Peterson Academy (80.5).

In addition, the following schools are racing ahead by earning at least 37 out of 40 Progress Points for students meeting “typical or high growth” on the 2016 Georgia Milestones: Cleveland Avenue Elementary (40), Inman Middle (39.5), Mary Lin Elementary (39.5), KIPP WAYS Academy (38.5), Parkside Elementary (38), Brandon Elementary (38), Garden Hill Elementary (37.7), Maynard Jackson High (37.4), Carver Early College (37.2) and Burgess-Peterson Academy (37).

As this graph shows, APS maintained its Achievement scores for CCRPI between 2015 and 2016 for all grade bands but saw some decrease in Progress Points in all three grade bands.

APS CCRPI Scores by Grade Band, 2015/2016

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Our Data and Information Group takes a deeper run into the statistics, and their APS data summary is available here. To view detailed score reports for the state and every public school district in Georgia, visit GADOE CCRPI.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods said: “These results point to the need for continued intensive focus on the foundations in early grades. However, I don’t believe the CCRPI captures all the great work happening in our schools. We have seen improvements and, in some cases, record results on the ACT, SAT, and in graduation rates.”

I agree with Superintendent Woods. There is still work to be done. We still have much of the race to run.

Unlike my marathon, this race isn’t just a personal one for me, and I am not the only runner signed up. We have nearly 52,000 students and more than 6,000 teachers and staff in this race. We have tens of thousands of families and caregivers in this race. We have hundreds of partners and community groups in this race.

This APS transformation race can only be finished – in fact, it can only be run at all – with everyone training, conditioning, supporting, cheering, and, indeed, running it together.

Yes, I finished a marathon. But the race I want to RUN … the race I want to FINISH … the race I want to WIN … is the one for the children of Atlanta Public Schools. So, pick up your bibs and meet me at the starting line, so we can finish this together.

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APS Contributes to On-going Fight against AIDS, HIV

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For World AIDS Awareness Day, counselors from Atlanta Public Schools designed this beautiful panel as our district’s contribution to the 50-mile long Memorial Quilt.

 

Thirty-five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control first reported about the growing prevalence of a disease that soon would become known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. I can remember the early 1980s when reports of the disease or the presence of HIV – the virus that causes the disease – began climbing and reaaps_red_ribbon_logo-noplaceching epidemic proportions.

It was a tense moment in our nation as people did not know how to face this new disease or even how to comfort or address those who had become afflicted with it.

It took a lot of time, understanding and compassion along with the development of better medicines and a strong health care system, but we saw a huge reduction in the number of reported infections and deaths from AIDS over the last couple of decades.

fultoncountyIn general, AIDS has been thought of as a disease in retreat.

But the threat remains real … too real. We cannot be complacent. We in Atlanta Public Schools have been recognizing World AIDS Awareness Day in a big way today because we cannot stop the fight, especially here in Atlanta, where some of the statistics remain particularly frightening.

Right now, in Fulton County the number of new cases, especially in the age group of 13-24, has been reported to be in epidemic proportions. Some reports even say that the number of cases in our school district’s zip codes mirrors third world countries. That breaks my heart when we have the tools at hand to keep up the fight.

It breaks my heart because these people are not strangers. We know them, and we love them.

These people are our fathers, our mothers, our sisters and our brothers.

They are our friends, co-workers, our neighbors.

We go to school with them. We go to work with them. We go to church, synagogue and mosque with them. We play with them.

That is why Atlanta Public Schools has put such a compassionate, focused effort on recognizing World AIDS Awareness Day today by launching our own APS campaign, with the theme of “Knowledge Is Everyone’s Responsibility.” We have a special place in this fight. The CDC, based in Atlanta, is literally in our neighborhood and part of our community.

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Georgia ranks No. 3 in HIV risk! We need to change that!

So, today we aligned our goals with the Fulton County’s Strategy to End AIDS, first by recognizing World AIDS Awareness Day and then by educating our students and school communities about this treacherous, unforgiving disease.

Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University, a leading expert on the epidemic, presented some shocking facts when he joined our program today at the Center for Learning and Leadership:

  • About 3,000 persons in Atlanta and Fulton County have HIV, but do not know they have the virus
  • 68% of new HIV diagnoses are African American, and 69% of women diagnosed with HIV in the south are African American.
  • 47% of people with HIV who died in 2013 live in the South. Seven of the 11 jurisdictions with the highest incidence are in the South.
  • Georgia ranks third in terms of HIV risk and fifth with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses. Recent CDC studies have revealed that one in 51 Georgians will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.

piechartOur team created many opportunities for students, families, teachers, staff and other stakeholders to learn more about HIV/AIDS. At our elementary schools, staff members received AIDS awareness information. In our middle and high schools, counselors, nurses and psychologists conducted lunch-and-learn events. Throughout the district, many learned about the actual characteristics of HIV and AIDs and about prevention and the importance of HIV testing.  They learned how people contract HIV and that some people can have HIV for many years without looking or feeling sick.prep

We learned from Dr. del Rio that through education and treatment, HIV prevention can realistically reach 100 percent. He cited Dr. Carl Dieffenbach, director of the NIAID Division of AIDS, who said: “With full virologic suppression, the virus is not growing in your body. You not only have protection from your own HIV, you also are … not capable of transmitting HIV to … a sexual partner.” I learned that PrEP is a real option! #PrEPWORKS

So what is keeping us from ending AIDS forever, especially when HIV is 100% preventable?

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Dr. Carlos del Rio did not sugar coat the truth during his presentation.

Dr. del Rio explained that we are stifled by the lack of political commitment, the stigma about the disease and social determinants of health including poverty, lack of education and poor access to health care and employment. THROUGH A QUALITY EDUCATION IN ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS, WE CAN HAVE AN IMPACT ON THESE BARRIERS!!!

 

In fact, we can be as important as medication and drug research in fighting AIDS!

Knowledge is Power, and as our theme states directly: Knowledge Is Everyone’s Responsibility. Go to the official World AIDS Day site to learn more.

And follow me @ATLsuper and these other people and groups to stay in the know:

We wore red today in solidarity for our friends, family and neighbors who suffer. But I encourage everyone to take action: Get tested, #KnowYourStatus, be responsible for yourself and other people. That is so important in protecting yourselves, your family and your friends and ensuring that AIDS and HIV go into full retreat and become afflictions of the past.  #EndAIDSFulton

prevention