A Shared Struggle in the Crisis – Standing Up for Racial Justice and Equity

Statement from Dr. Meria Carstarphen
Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools

All of us in Atlanta Public Schools have been left saddened and heartbroken with the civil unrest and challenging times we are facing in our community and across this nation. Amid our efforts to cope with a global pandemic, we now must confront the hurt, pain, disappointment, and other emotions that have resurfaced about the racial injustice crisis following the alarming and tragic murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others.

Students at Booker T. Washington silently protest gun violence in March 2018

We are 52,000 students and  6,000 staff members strong. With caregivers and parents, the APS community stands as easily more than 100,000 good people who can make a difference. Let me be clear, we can all do something to dismantle systemic racism because #BlackLivesMatter.

In the past, our district has supported  peaceful demonstrations against gun violence and climate change. It has stood with students and staff, embracing their leadership and growth in civic engagement and the meaningful impact it can have on social change. We have encouraged activism that follows city and state directives and heeds the words of one of this community’s most cherished civil rights icons, Representative John Lewis: “Be constructive, not destructive. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way.”   

Grady students rallied for gun safety

As a district, we continue to support students and employees who exercise their First Amendment rights to engage in peaceful protest and to petition our government for redress of grievances. We have ensured  them that the District will not take adverse action against any employee arrested for engaging in peaceful protest. We have strongly encouraged them to follow the law and protocols if they decide to engage in protests or demonstrations outside of work hours or on personal time.

The Atlanta Board of Education stands in support as well as it wrote in its own statement that “the work of dismantling a racist and oppressive system that has an over 400-year legacy will not be easy and requires people of all communities coming together to address inequities.”

Such a position follows ongoing efforts in Atlanta Public Schools to do its part in effecting change and to putting an end to racial injustice and inequities.

Hundreds of North Atlanta High students walked out of school on Sept. 26, 2019, in protest about climate change

Through the development of the District’s new strategic plan and our work to implement a new equity policy, APS is committed to acknowledging and addressing the impacts of systemic racism on our education system. We are focused on creating a diverse and inclusive workplace that uplifts everyone’s unique voice and values the input and engagement of the community. We are taking a stand and implementing actions that uphold racial justice and equity.

These actions at the District level signal the need for each of us as individuals and as a community to become active participants in this change, ensuring every decision we make is in the best interest of our students and is sharpened through the lens of equity.

Although we are apart, we are in this together! We will find strength as we find our way through this as a school community!

Some APS students and recent graduates who are working with me on equity and unity projects: Allison Hunter and Tyrese Miller of South Atlanta High; Kaylee Spiver of North Atlanta High; Amadou Bah and Qwantayvious Stiggers of B.E.S.T. Academy; and Shaun Kleber of Grady High

In Times of Civil Unrest, Lead by Example, Honor the Legacy of Nonviolence

To my beloved APS students, families and colleagues,

I’m heartbroken, as are you, during these challenging times. This message is especially for our students:

We have supported you in silent and peaceful demonstrations against gun violence and climate change during this administration. Our district has stood with you and embraced your leadership and growth in civic engagement and the meaningful impact it can have on social change. If you are choosing to be involved, please continue to lead by example along with your caregiver/parents’ permission. Remember, even though school is out, you still have many supports, such as your principal, your counselors, your teachers, your bus drivers, your coaches, your Superintendent — and, don’t forget, your school resource officers who have protected and developed relationships of trust with you as police officers.

Please follow City and State directives. I encourage you to heed the words of one of this community’s most cherished civil rights icons, Representative John Lewis. “Be constructive, not destructive,” he said. “Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way.”   

As our community’s future leaders, and our students, you have led movements of national significance and we supported you during those silent and respectful protests. Continue to exhibit that kind of leadership. Follow that model for the change you seek. It’s a model for change deeply rooted in our legacy of nonviolence, and continue to make us proud.

Be safe. Be responsible. Be respectful. I love you!

My Deepest Thanks to APS Colleagues Before a Much Deserved Summer Break!

Dear Beloved Colleagues,

We made it!

Today, Wednesday, May 27, marks the official end of the 2019-2020 school year and the end of one of the most challenging semesters we have ever faced in our careers in education. For many of us, this moment could not have come any sooner as the past few months have tested every ounce and inch of our being and all that we know about educating our children in the 21st century.

We were tested in academics with virtual learning when COVID-19 forced us to adapt in mere days to teaching at a distance when such changes usually require months and years.

We were tested with instructional technology and learned quickly about an emerging civil right to quality devices and high-speed access.

We were tested in nutrition as our district emerged as a primary food distribution network for Metro Atlanta, providing more than 160,000 meals every week to Atlanta students and families.

We were tested in wraparound services as we continued to provide health services and social emotional learning support even as our schools were closed for teleschooling and teleworking.

We were tested as a system – teachers, administrators, and support staff – as we faced numerous uncertainties and consequences of a global pandemic.

But because we are Atlanta Public Schools, we not only faced each and every challenge head on, we did it with courage, determination, and resilience. Over the past three months, we experienced so much difficulty, heartache, and challenge that there was considerable pressure to just give up and call it a school year. But we didn’t give up, and that will make all of the difference to our students, especially the Class of 2020 that lost so much of their senior year and the pomp and circumstance of a traditional May graduation.

I will never be able to thank you enough for your dedication to Atlanta’s children.

As we close the school year today, I have also been facing the sad realization that our work together in Atlanta Public Schools is also coming to an end. When I joined the district six years ago, I pledged that together we would change a district once embroiled with adult-oriented agendas to one embracing child-focused ones.

Together, we embraced and lived a bold mission to create a caring culture of trust and collaboration so that every student would graduate ready for college and career. Thus, we embarked on this APS Journey of Transformation that sought to turn around underperforming schools so that no matter where our students and families lived they could benefit from a high-performing school district where students love to learn, educators inspire, families engage, and the community trusts the system.

Together, we have journeyed far and changed so much for the benefit of all – our students, their families, our teachers and staff, and our community.

Along the way, you changed a culture.

Across the district, you can see a higher level of dedication from teachers, administrators, and staff directly to the students themselves. You can feel that new energy at our schools, and I’ve seen it personally in the classrooms, in performance, and on our athletic tracks, fields, and courts.

What’s more, we can quantify it as you have been engaged like never before. Based on Gallup’s Q12 survey, APS employee engagement improved from the 5th percentile to the 64th percentile among K-12 organizations in fewer than six years.

You changed a focus.

We moved to a new operating model that allowed more decisions to be made by principals, educators, parents, and community members, all of whom are closer to students and school needs. We engaged more of you and others in cluster planning, GO Teams, and my Teacher Advisory Council as we directed even more money to our schools, changing the percentage of general fund dollars from 66% when we started to more than 73%.

You changed a look.

Over the past six years, we have improved the physical appearance and environment of every school in every cluster with more than a third of them getting brand new or significantly renovated school buildings. I challenge you to find a district anywhere with school buildings that generate more enthusiasm for learning than schools such as Hollis Innovation Academy, Tuskegee Global Airmen Academy, Gideons Elementary, or the new Howard Middle School set to open next school year.

You changed a mindset.

As a district, we embraced initiatives like our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative to address behavior, good decision-making and self-management for both students and staff.

You changed an impression.

As we evolved our culture and dispelled adult-oriented agenda, partners returned in droves to work with Atlanta Public Schools. We now boast more than 350 partnerships and more than $72 million in special revenue.

There is simply nothing like Achieve Atlanta, supported by the Woodruff and Whitehead foundations, which provides college advisement and scholarships for thousands of APS graduates. Atlanta Committee for Progress support made our College and Career Academy possible. Chick-Fil-A enabled hundreds of our elementary students to receive vital training with the Orton-Gillingham literacy approach. Delta Airlines provided reading specialists. The Westside Future Fund provides critical support in the west part of our district.

Most recently, the incredible support is represented by the Get Our Kids Connected initiative with Comcast, which puts quality devices and high-speed Internet access into the homes of families who need it most. Thanks to partners like the Intercontinental Exchange, Atlanta Tech Village, Trinity HealthShare, and United Way, we raised more than $2 million toward that effort.

Most importantly, you changed outcomes.

Over the past six years, we grew our graduation rate by an astounding 20.8 percentage points to reach an all-time graduation rate high of 79.9 with the Class of 2018. It’s unofficial, but we saw more than 2,580 graduates as part of our virtual celebrations for the Class of 2020, making it the highest overall number of graduates from Atlanta Public Schools in decades!

Across the district, our schools continually saw gains on Georgia Milestones assessments and the College and Career Ready Performance Index until they were disrupted this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In short, you have given thousands of MORE children a chance at choice-filled lives.

I could not be more proud of all of you and the work we have achieved in such a short time!

Looking back on it all, I can say that you have changed me.

As a superintendent, I have never been more energized, more driven, and more focused in my own vocation in public education as I have been working with you in Atlanta Public Schools. Because of you, it has become part of my very nature to visit as many classrooms as possible and join performances and athletic events at music rooms, theaters, athletic fields, courts, and even pools (where I even put on a bathing suit in public. UGH!) across the district. It’s why I find ways to showcase our talented students at our State of the District addresses, board meetings, and other events throughout the year. It’s why I run with teachers and staff. It’s why we created the APS Rocks and Runs 5K. It’s why I work every single day to support you!

With so much work focused toward this pandemic to get virtual learning and the end of the year as right as possible, I have tried not to think too much about not working in my beloved Atlanta Public Schools. I can tell you that I am grateful and humbled for having worked alongside such caring and dedicated people like yourself in service to our students. Thank you for your heart and for continuing your work to ensure every child has choices in college, career, and life.

Bless you all, every single one of you. I love you and will miss you so terribly. Best wishes!

Much love and air hugs,

Meria

Congratulations, Grad Nation APS Class of 2020! #WorthTheWait

As I reflect on the current — albeit unofficial count — of the 2,582 graduates of the Atlanta Public Schools’ Class of 2020 walking across the virtual stage, I cannot stop thinking about the fact that their final year wasn’t supposed to end like this. Without a prom. Without final senior year activities. Without all of the pomp and circumstance. Even though we plan to hold traditional ceremonies at a later safe date (because the Class of 2020 – as they themselves put it – are #WorthTheWait), it really isn’t the same. And I’m really sad for them.

But when I think on what I experienced watching and participating in the virtual celebrations, something emerged in them and all of us as we came to this culminating point. Something truly special was revealed through 14 virtual celebrations: resilience, passion, pride, grit, empathy, and love. That is the Class of 2020! 

I’ve said before that no one puts on a traditional high school graduation ceremony like APS. (Every year I’m a wreck rewriting my speeches a thousand times and teary over every word.) You only have to view our ceremonies held over the past years at both the Georgia World Congress Center and Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion to get choked up in seconds listening to our valedictorians and salutatorians speak. But we have now learned – through the resilience, determination, and energy of our students, our principals, our teachers, our staff, and our families – no one puts on a virtual celebration like APS either. Shazam! Get it, APS! 

(Thank you, Class of 2020 for a job well done! And thanks to our graduation team including Dr. Isaac Sparks, Dr. Dan Sims, our graduation coaches and senior advisers, the high school principals, and our communications/engagement teams!)

The videos below reveal that APS came up with a richer, deeper reflection of the Class of 2020 at each of our schools. Yes, a pandemic literally contaminated (naughty, naughty, annoying virus) all of our traditional graduation plans. But what materialized was a chance to know a class of amazing and beautiful students in ways we have never done before.

And we made connections like never before as well. While a traditional in-person ceremony might bring in an audience from 2,000 to 5,500, depending on the size of the graduating class, these virtual celebrations typically attracted even more viewers for each live premiere, with one school even reaching more than 11,000 viewers!!!  We expect that these viewership numbers will continue to rise over time as our reach extends around the globe! Over 115,000 viewers have celebrated with us over this past week! Wow! 

All of this makes me hopeful for our future, which I told these more than 2,500 graduates at length in my recent letter to them. And they are already proving themselves up to the challenge as shown by more evidence as they have already amassed more than $105 million (and counting) in scholarship dollars, which includes the more than $17 million earned by more than 1,000 Achieve Atlanta Scholars to qualify each of them for up to $20,000 for four years of college. (Yaaazzzzzz that’s a special scholarship program JUST for APS grads!)

But their work and their lives, have only begun. Some view “commencement” ceremonies as an end, but the word itself actually means “a beginning … a start.” And I would submit that the word has never had more meaning for a class of graduates than it does now. You got this, Class of 2020! 

Never have students been more eager for a new beginning and a different start than amid COVID-19. And after we get through this, many members of the Class of 2020 will continue their education in the military, at a college or technical school or on a job. I have no doubt they will excel there as they did in high school. Some students, with their high school diplomas in hand, are off to the workforce prepared to start their careers. Others have stepped up to the challenge of protecting our nation by joining the armed services, and we are so proud of their commitment to our country.  This is truly a beginning of the next chapter of the rest of their lives.

Whatever paths these graduates choose, I can only hope that they will take all of their lessons, experiences and friendships with them. But for now, I want them to take a moment to celebrate in the works and honors they have achieved.

Strength comes from struggle, and the strongest are those forged in the fight. They have already developed and demonstrated so much strength, as I’ve witnessed in our conversations, projects, football practices, water polo games, and everything else we’ve done together. They are already strong, and by the virtue of being the class forced to brave a pandemic through to graduation, they will indeed become the strongest, most resilient, most prepared students of their generation.

I am already starting to miss them, but I am so proud of each and every one of them. And I am bursting with pride because Operation Grad Nation #WorthTheWait, once again, was a huge success! #APSGrad20

For now, we can relive the spirit of the Class of 2020 through our virtual celebrations. I’ve collected each video along with a sampling of my favorite new memories and have shared them in the galleries below. Enjoy! 

Best wishes and congratulations to the Class of 2020! I love you and will miss you! 

BEST Academy

Carver Early College

Carver STEAM

Alonzo A. Crim High School

Frederick Douglass High School

Grady High School

Maynard H. Jackson High School

Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy

KIPP Atlanta Collegiate

Benjamin E. Mays High School

North Atlanta High School

South Atlanta High School

Therrell High School

Booker T. Washington High School

APS Continues Support of Families with Summer Food Distribution Plan

When we faced the possibility of closing schools for virtual learning last March, one of our immediate concerns involved feeding thousands of students and families who depended on school meals for nutrition day-in and day-out.

Our Nutrition Department led by Dr. Marilyn Hughes, our food vendor SFE, and numerous community partners created a massive new food distribution network that grew and grew to the point of involving more than 400 volunteers and help from the National Guard and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department as they distributed about 160,000 meals every Monday.

Today, we distributed the last meal of the current school year.

After a break for Memorial Day week, APS will extend its feeding program into the early part of the summer with the help of our generous partners. The program will resume for three Mondays in June (1st, 8th, and 15th) with five-day meal packs for children prepared by us and delivered by key partners.

Here’s how our new plan will work:

As part of the program, the district will provide a scaled-back service with spending authority approved through June 30. This is the best option for a cost-neutral effort for APS given the current budget pressures.

While the student meal distribution from our ESOL team also concluded today, our designated ESOL communities in the Grady and North Atlanta clusters with receive the student meals for three Mondays in June from La Amistad, one of our generous partners. Grocery distribution from the APS ESOL team to these families will end on Tuesday, May 19; however, plans are in the works with additional partners for summer groceries for approximately 1,000 ESOL families across the entire district.

Each Monday, SFE will produce 20,000 (10,000 breakfast/10,000 lunch) meals from a central school distribution site and deliver 500 five-day meal packs to various partners where APS students will be supported this summer. The food will be provided to Horizons, Breakthrough, and the Boys and Girls Club to be distributed to families enrolled in their feeding programs. The weekly grocery parcels from the Atlanta Community Food Bank will be delivered to other partners.

Families can contact the APS Office of Partnerships and Development, GOODR, and other partners or use the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Food Finder mobile app to find other food sources.

As always, full details are available at https://www.atlantapublicschools.us/fooddistribution.

Celebrations Continue with Virtual Recognition of Students District-wide

Every year at this time, it’s my pleasure to join with the Atlanta Board of Education to honor our outstanding students across the district for all of their achievements this year in academics, arts, athletics, service, and other areas.

For five years we have honored those students at the annual Special Called Board Meeting for Student Recognition. In years past, the auditorium of the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Learning and Leadership was filled with literally hundreds of students with their adoring families and our teachers and staff cheering them on.

But because of social distancing in light of COVID-19, we have not been able to reach out and hug, congratulate, and take pictures with our students. Our schools are closed for teleschooling and teleworking. We had to delay or cancel academic and art competitions, athletic events, and other activities. And the auditorium – for this traditional day of student recognition – was empty.

But the recognitions did go on! They still go on! We did not let COVID-19 stop the shine! We went virtual again at www.atlantapublicschools.us/studentrecognition. So I want everyone to know that we commend and celebrate the hard work of ALL of our students. We are celebrating our students in a very special way this year through our 2020 Student Recognition webpage.

I also want to thank and celebrate all our APS parents, caregivers and families who have worked to support our beautiful students this school year.

Now, please enjoy our celebration to honor our students!

Celebrating our 2020 Valedictorians, Salutatorians, and STAR Students at a time when ‘Everything Changed, Nothing Changed’

Despite a global pandemic, we have entered a time of celebration! Kicking off the #WorthTheWait graduation season, Atlanta Public Schools this week held a virtual Val/Sal/STAR breakfast ceremony.

In years past, we gathered at the Georgia Power building for a well-appointed breakfast ceremony to honor the best of the best of our beautiful students and some of our amazing teachers. It pained me that we continued to be apart when we should be celebrating in person today.

But we celebrated anyway as shown in the video below.

For the ceremony, I was privileged – for the sixth year – to present the challenge to the honorees of the 2020 Val/Sal/STAR Awards ceremony. In some ways, offering a challenge at this time – right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – seems anticlimactic and maybe a bit excessive.

Here’s what I told them:

Haven’t you already been challenged enough by finishing school in virtual classrooms? On top of that, you have been asked to wait. You have been asked to be patient. You have been told that it will be better or at least OK … on the other end.

Yes … that may all be true.

But I am here to tell you that you will be challenged again and again and that the patience and resilience you learn now will serve you a hundred fold in the years to come. But I’m not going to deceive you in saying that the world hasn’t changed. Yes, you still have to study hard, work hard, and play hard… that hasn’t changed. But you will have to study differently, work differently, and maybe even play differently.

But you can rise to any occasion. Yes, we are in a pandemic, and it has been difficult. But challenges and difficulties and heartbreaks … they have all happened long before self-isolation and social distancing. They happen every year, every week, every day, every minute.

One of those heartbreaks happened a little more than a month ago with the passing of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the dean of the civil rights movement. His work on the frontlines of equal rights for all certainly influenced me and my decision to go into education and to actually come to Atlanta. I was fortunate to meet with him a few times in person, where he always impressed upon me the importance of that personal mission. For him, it was civil rights; for me, education; for you, it’s in medicine, business, science, math, engineering, the arts, politics and more.

But there was something he said – when he offered the benediction during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 – that seems most appropriate for today. He was actually referencing a speech he had made a quarter of a century before that.

“Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

I thought about those words as I reviewed the hard work of the Class of 2020’s Valedictorians, Salutatorians and STAR students and saw your college and career plans. It made me think about all of the work that will you have to do differently, but then I realized that much of the work has not … and will not … change.

As I wrote to you a couple of weeks ago, what I see as the greatest challenge—and opportunity— for your generation is rebuilding the world on the other side of this pandemic and making it kinder, fairer, more just, and much better than it was before.

The disparities and inequities in our communities have always existed … they have not changed. However, they are exacerbated due to the virus and that is the world you will lead us through. We need you to remember that. I believe you are strong enough to persevere and rebuild our communities for the better.

To you – Cy’Riah, Lauren, Alexis, Joshua, Emily, Soleil, Efe, Mahlon, Miriam, Lucy, Kadija, and Jordan – as you go into careers in health and medicine, you must understand that the world will look to you as never before to keep them healthy, to keep them safe, to make them feel protected and loved. We are depending upon you to get us through this pandemic and be better prepared for the next one and the next one and the next one.

The pandemic has made it even more clear who among us is the most vulnerable. I’m talking about our poor, black, and brown brethren, who need our help more than ever, and your work must reflect that.

But you must always instill trust, care, and confidence with patients, clients, and colleagues. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Rashad, Jacauri, Solomon and Menelik – as you go into careers in business and marketing, you must come up with new sustainable models and innovations that can survive the next and all subsequent crises. And it involves teleworking and teleschooling, so you may have to be the ones to figure out how EVERYONE has technology and access in the future.

But you must always be true and ethical and fair and adhere to best practices. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Kacie, Amari, Edward, Shaniya, Charlotte, Gary, and Tabius – as you explore careers in the arts from design to fashion to music to literature to film, you must find new ways to symbolize the human condition, our triumphs, our sufferings, our failures. You must create new avenues for art, especially after a pandemic has shut down so many.

But you must always be honest, empathetic, and curious amidst your creativity. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Jordan, Wahhad, Daijah, Makilah, Selena, Kavi, Clarice, Ethan, Lauren, Jazmari, Ta’Destiny, and Blair – as you move into careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, you must create innovations the world has never seen for a future we have yet to comprehend. When we talk about a right to connectivity – the right to good devices and high speed Internet access – you have to be involved because you are the ones who will have to figure the technology out.

But you must study hard, understand past innovations, and strive to advance our knowledge and capabilities. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Ari and Joseph – who aspire to career in politics and diplomacy, you must strive for a better world, where voices are heard and respected, even amid disagreement.

But you must never lose hope or a sense of fair play. That hasn’t changed.

And to you – Ezra – who remains undecided about his college major or career. Yes, everything has changed. Everything has changed so much it is hard to decide now, just as you are finishing high school, to determine exactly what it is you want to do for the next five years, 10 years, 30 years. But you don’t have to … not right now. There remains the opportunity for you to explore your many options in life and to keep challenging yourself. That hasn’t changed.

Remember, Valedictorians, Salutatorians, and STAR students of the Class of 2020: “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

It was appropriate when the Rev. Lowery first gave that speech more than 35 years ago, it was appropriate with President Obama in 2009, and it is certainly appropriate now.

So much has changed, you will face numerous challenges that will demand greater innovations, much more work, and a higher level of patience. Bearing through these unprecedented times as a pandemic engulfed the globe has been just one of them.

What hasn’t changed is that Atlanta has a class of amazing students who will make us proud. You have already made us proud … very proud! Your parents, caregivers, teachers join me in allowing you to pause and enjoy this moment. You, too, should be proud of all you have done to be here at this critical benchmark in your life.

But more work for you lies ahead and challenges will come. And you will face them because you all have emerged stronger and smarter with the abilities, the maturity, and the determination to forge ahead despite any obstacles, challenges, or distractions.

On behalf of everyone at APS, blessings and best wishes to all of you!