Aligning Every Penny Toward APS Journey of Transformation

As the Atlanta Board of Education prepares to consider a tentative 2018 General Fund Budget at its May 1 meeting, we have a responsibility to show our stakeholders where their tax dollars are going and how we are striving to push more of those dollars directly to the classrooms where education happens!

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Last week, I wrote about the year-long process APS employs to develop its operating budget with a focus on quality and attention on efficiency all without needing a tax millage increase! I also provided a brief overview of the 2018 General Fund Budget, which currently stands at about $777 million, $15 million more than the current budget. The Board plans to vote on a final budget at its June 5 meeting.

With this blog post, I want to dig deeper into the operating budget to give you a greater sense of where our dollars go and how we strive to adhere to the very first tenet of our core values: Put Students and Schools First!

(A note: The General Fund Budget represents just a portion of the nearly $1 billion of resources APS manages. The district also maintains budgets for Special Revenue, comprised mostly of federal sources such as Title I and Title II; Capital Outlay, funded primarily from SPLOST allocations; and Debt Service.)

The General Fund Budget generally comes from local and state taxes and other sources, such as facility rental fees, selling of assets and other payments to the district. For the tentative FY2018 budget:

  • $544.9 million (70%) comes from the local tax digest
  • $197.5 million (25%) comes from the state
  • $34.4 million (5%) comes from other sources

With this budget, we have been hard at work to drive more and more of those dollars to our schools. As I have stated before, we have also found ways to slim down our costs, including about $8 million in cuts from our Central Office budgets.

APS_InmanMiddle__CCC0787Because of that we have been able to create more investments. This includes:

  • $35.8 million in our long-term, over-arching Turnaround Strategy to improve our lowest-performing schools. This includes supplemental and critical support and partnerships with educational organizations with expertise in turnaround strategies
  • $10.8 million for school-based flexible spending dollars that allows our principals to address the unique needs of their schools. Principals will have even more flexibility and autonomy as APS participates in a pilot program called Fund 150 that allows them to combine federal Title I dollars with their general fund school allotment
  • $10.5 million (a $3.5 million increase over this year’s budget) for signature programming such as STEM, International Baccalaureate and College and Career Prep
  • $6.2 million for whole-child development programs and initiatives like athletics, arts and social emotional learning
  • $580,000 for our new Family Engagement Strategy

After this rigorous budget development process, we are also prepared to allocate $6 million for a salary increase of 1.5% for nearly all employees in this proposed FY18 budget.

Specifically for teachers, it should be noted that the state has funded a 2% increase to the state teacher salary schedule effective for the 2017-2018 school year. The increased dollars on the state teacher salary schedule have been added to increase the APS teacher salary schedule for 2017-2018. Because the APS teacher salary schedule is significantly higher than the state salary schedule, the dollars generated from the state’s 2% contribution – coupled with our local investment – will result in a minimum increase of 1.5% for APS teachers.

The 2018-17 salary schedules will be published on the HR Compensation site after the Board’s final approval. I want to thank all of our colleagues, especially members of our Teacher Advisory Council, who worked multiple times with us in the fall to scrub this budget and to land on these recommendations.

In the meantime, the district continues to have budget constraints that challenge us to balance several competing priorities. These constraints include mandatory costs related to unfunded pension and healthcare, the continued investment in our charter schools that have been approved to add grades, an aggressive turnaround strategy, funding our new operating model with fidelity, and right sizing our central office for increased savings, efficiency, and redirection to programs and schools.

Therefore, as part of the ongoing effort to right size the district with the appropriate number of schools to serve 52,000 students, the budget reflects a series of downsizing measures that further enable APS to consolidate some schools, remove more layers from the central office to allow for more school-based solutions and approaches, and transition some of the schools to our turnaround partners.

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APS employees engaging in a staff budget work session last fall

On Monday, the Board will also consider a staff reduction plan that would remove 487 positions (438 school-based, 49 in central Office) and create another 152 positions (128 school-based, 24 in central office) to better meet the needs of our students. Given attrition in our district, APS typically rehires about 50 percent of our teachers.

These reductions fall within three primary categories:

  • Reductions related to the downsizing of central office to ensure that we maximizing the resources provided directly to schools
  • Reductions related to our continued right sizing of infrastructure and school-based staffing allocations
  • Reductions related to the phased transition of schools to turnaround partners as part of our larger turnaround strategy

Downsizing of Central Office

Over the past three years, we have been working diligently to push additional resources out to our schools, which has been made possible largely because of reductions to our central office budget.  The FY 2018 budget calls for additional cuts to the central office budget, many of which fall within our Schools & Academics Team. These changes, however, are in alignment with our district strategy, and I am confident will ultimately position our schools for greater success.

For example, as part of the budget, we will:

  • Reallocate resources from the Title I Family Academic Engagement Specialist position to push more resources out to schools to begin implementing their school-based vision for family engagement in alignment with our new Family & Alumni Engagement Strategy.
  • Phase out the role of Core Content Specialists while extending support for content coordinators to ensure we have sufficient capacity to continue to refine the units of study and to build the capacity of our school leadership teams to own the implementation.
  • More strongly align our Social Emotional Learning strategy with the rest of our teaching and learning work by phasing out the current SEL Coach position and creating three new SEL coordinator positions within teaching and learning.
  • Push more responsibilities to our Title I office, including Title II, to ensure that we maximize these shrinking federal dollars and minimize the central office costs associated with administering our federal programs.

These actions are intended to remove layers at the Central Office to allow for more school-based solutions and approaches, the goal being to further empower schools to make more decisions to meet the unique needs of their teachers and students.

Right Sizing Infrastructure and School-Based Staffing Allocations

As I have shared many times before, our school system was built for close to 100,000 students – an enrollment we have not seen since the 1970s. With about 52,000 students now, we cannot sustain such an infrastructure, which is why we have been forced to right size our school infrastructure and school-based allocations in order to become a more efficient, and therefore more effective, school system for our students.

Employees impacted by these consolidations and other school changes come from Adamsville Primary, B.E.S.T. Academy, Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Crim High, Harper-Archer Middle School, Miles Intermediate, West End Academy and Whitefoord Elementary School. Fortunately, many of our employees at these schools have already identified opportunities within our district including some of the newly created schools and, therefore, have been rehired in other positions.

Based upon feedback from principals, we are also eliminating the SST Intervention Specialist position that has historically been provided to schools from central office; however, many principals have chosen to use their school-based flexible dollars to retain these positions in their budgets.

Turnaround Partner Schools

The phase-in of our district turnaround strategy also impacted APS employees. Just as Thomasville Heights Elementary transitioned to Purpose Built Schools this school year, Slater Elementary and Price Middle will transition to Purpose Built and Gideons Elementary to Kindezi next school year. While many of our employees will remain in their schools, they will do so as employees of the partner organization. Others, have chosen to transition to other schools within the district.

As we have always done, the district will support all affected employees with interview priority status as we aggressively work to find them other opportunities within APS.

As a result of this strategic and balanced FY 2018 budget, Atlanta Public Schools moves even closer to a more efficient, quality-driven school district. Again, I must thank Jason Esteves (At-Large, Seat 9 Board Member and Budget Commission Chair), the Board and our finance team for the great work so far.

Looking Ahead

Monday’s meeting won’t mean the conclusion of the process.

As I wrote in the previous blog, we have been holding regional public meetings. The remaining meetings are from:

  • 6 to 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 2, at Burgess-Peterson Academy
  • 6 to 7 p.m., Thursday, May 11, at Long Middle School
  • 6 to 7 p.m., Thursday, May 18, at the main Sutton Middle School campus

The first official public hearing will be held at noon, Monday, May 22, at the Center for Learning and Leadership following a Budget Commission meeting. A final public hearing will be held on Monday, June 5, before the budget is put before the board during its regular meeting.

And if local collections exceed our expectations, the Board and I will consider the unfunded components of transformation, which include reading/literacy, whole child development, an APS talent development program and a district early learning program.

Changes are never easy, and we did not make these decisions without a great deal of deliberation and engagement from our teachers, our staff, our students and families and other stakeholders. Please continue to be involved, and give us your thoughts on the work so far!

Making ‘Cents’ of the Dollars APS Spends for FY2018

For a school district, a return from Spring Break not only highlights the final sprint toward graduation ceremonies and summer break, it means delving deep into the dollars and cents to carve out budgets for the next school year ahead.

APS_CCC1007Sure, the Atlanta Board of Education, my colleagues and I have more and more numbers swirling in our head these days. But the truth in Atlanta Public Schools is that they are swirling because we are changing our fiduciary mindset, and we now emphasize smarter, multi-year budgeting practices all year long while putting kids and support for schools first. Almost as soon as the Board approved the FY2017 General Fund Budget in June 2016, we were already looking ahead to FY2018 budgets.

To do this, we had to start right away!

For example, not long after Day One 2016, the Board began laying out a Budget Calendar and developing Budget Parameters during retreats and board meetings. After the Board formally approved those documents at its December 2016 meeting, my team and I used the Board’s timeline and strategic priorities as guidance when we began developing the budget itself.

IMG_0747Over the past few months under the leadership of Jason Esteves (At-Large, Seat 9 Board Member and Budget Commission Chair), our finance team has reviewed revenue projections for FY2018. Over that time, we have been very transparent with about 20 commission, advisory and board meetings about budgets, so there are no surprises.

Presently, we expect a budget of about $777 million, which is $15 million more than the current year’s budget. While we expect this modest increase in revenue, we cannot be complacent when so much of that money goes to mandatory and ever-increasing expenses in health costs, pensions and the scaling of board-approved charter schools.

Therefore, the administration has been hard at work to slim down our costs by finding efficiencies and redundancies, particularly within Central Office budgets, and without needing a tax increase! Over the past three years, we have reduced our Central Office expenditures by more than $20 million and more than 100 FTEs.  Additionally, we have reinvested within our Central Office to fund budget parameters, such as cutting deeply in our finance department to reallocate dollars to academics to support schools.

BudgetProposalFunding will continue for the signature programming such as STEM, International Baccalaureate and College and Career Prep with an increase by $3.5 million from FY2017! (YAY!). Signature themes are key components of the district’s cluster model and our effort to improve student achievement. Principals will have more autonomy over their budgets through a state/federal pilot program that grants them the ability to combine their school allotment (state/local funds) with their Title I allotment (federal funds).

The theme this year was about doing more with less and getting creative in how we are using our existing funds for quality and efficiency throughout the district. Some examples include the creation of:

  • New Office of Family Engagement with funds allocated in FY2017.
  • Early Learning Department through the reorganization of positions and non-personnel funds from existing departments.
  • Program to track all those transportation costs in support of academic functions, including field trips, athletic travel, and after-school initiatives.

One of the most exciting realignments involves changes to reporting structures to show school-based expenditures at the individual school locations instead of within the Central Office.  This provides us a better measure of the true cost of running each of our schools.

As with this current year, the budget work for FY2018 only begins with board adoption of a general fund budget. We are establishing a task force which will begin meeting in June to review the school allotment formulas for FY2019. This Student Success Funding task force, comprised of principals, finance officers and Central Office staff, will be reviewing how APS pushes resources out to schools and making recommendations about how APS could move towards a student-weighted funding formula. This new formula will further solidify our commitment to ensuring that resources are distributed equitably, transparently, and in such a way that allows flexibility and autonomy where it most counts – closest to the students of APS.

We will make our first formal presentation of a tentative budget at the Board’s May 1 meeting, where we will also hold our first public hearing on the budget. Throughout May, we will hold regional public meetings from:

  • 6 to 7 p.m., Thursday, April 27, at Mays High School
  • 6 to 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 2, at Burgess-Peterson Academy
  • 6 to 7 p.m., Thursday, May 11, at Long Middle School
  • 6 to 7 p.m., Thursday, May 18, at the main Sutton Middle School campus

A final public hearing will be held on Monday, June 5, before the budget is put before the board during its regular meeting.

We have been fortunate in APS in that we have a not-so-secret weapon handling district finances – our Finance Department led by CFO Robert Morales and Lisa Bracken, Executive Director of Budgeting Services. This is not just me praising them. This comes from such respected groups as the Government Finance Officers Association, which honored them with its Distinguished Budget Presentation Award, and the Association of School Business Officials International, which gave them a Meritorious Budget Award for excellence in budget presentation.

Want to know what an organization really believes? Follow the money! I firmly believe how a district spends its money speaks volumes about what it values. This proposed budget says:

  1. We are striving for improved quality while increasing efficiency.
  2. We are working hard to put more and more money and autonomy at the school level where education happens.
  3. We put students and our schools first!

And if we get an uptick in local collections above our revenue assumptions, the Board and I will keep pushing on any additional revenues to further pay for unfunded components of transformation, which include reading/literacy, whole child development, an APS talent development program and a district early learning program.

UnfundedComponentsTransformational change is hard; it’s not always popular; it’s never comfortable. Unfortunately, it can be hard on staff, especially those whose jobs are directly affected. Between reductions in Central Office staff and the implementation of new school changes, some staff members will need to reapply for positions throughout the district. For any employees worried about their circumstances, I encourage them to contact Pam Hall, our Chief Human Resource Officer, at prhall@atlanta.k12.ga.us or at 404.802.2322 or visit the HR contact page.

This kind of focus really encourages me throughout the budget process and positions the district to really get the most out of its dollars to provide our kids a quality education that gives them real choices in college, career and life.

APS Updates Transportation Plan in Wake of I-85 Closure

IMG_9717As most of the Atlanta Public Schools community enjoyed a much-welcomed Spring Break, quite a number of our district team members, especially operations and transportation crews, worked through the vacation break to prepare for the traffic congestion expected after the closure of I-85. That was the kind of spirit and dedication we saw (and I wrote about here) immediately after a portion of the interstate collapsed on Thursday, March 30, that enabled us to have a successful school day the following day.

But we still needed a longer term plan for when students return on Monday, April 10.

In order to minimize the impact of increased traffic on schools and students, we are requesting that all bus riders from Morningside Elementary School and throughout the North Atlanta cluster (including Bolton Academy, Brandon, Garden Hills, Jackson, E. Rivers and Smith elementary schools; Sutton Middle School and North Atlanta High School) report to their bus stops 15 minutes early beginning Monday so that buses have additional time to ensure an on-time drop-off.

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School arrives at Garden Hills Elementary for first day of this school year!

For parents who drop off their children in the mornings within the North Atlanta cluster and at Morningside Elementary School, we will be opening the school doors 15 minutes earlier than normal in hopes of reducing congestion around schools.

For the remainder of the 2016-2017 school year:

  • Elementary school doors will open at 7:15 a.m. with a start time of 8 a.m.
  • North Atlanta High School doors will open at 8 a.m. with a start time of 8:45 a.m.
  • Sutton Middle School doors will open at 8:30 a.m. with a start time of 9:15 a.m.

The district will also make the following adjustments:

  • Atlanta Public Schools is creating a temporary bus compound at North Atlanta High School in order to park buses serving neighborhoods on the north side of the city.
  • Atlanta Public Schools Police Department is working in partnership with the Atlanta Police Department to provide increased traffic support around schools and neighborhoods with anticipated traffic concerns.
  • In an abundance of caution, the district is stocking all of the impacted buses with bottled water in the event that students are stuck in traffic for extended periods of time.

The district will be closely monitoring the situation next week and will make adjustments to the plan as required. We do expect that bus routes will likely be delayed, and we appreciate the patience from our students, families, staff and other stakeholders as we work diligently to respond to the traffic pressures associated with this unforeseen interstate closure.

Many thanks to Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan, Chief Operating Officer Larry Hoskins, Transportation Executive Director John Franklin and other committed colleagues and teams who worked all week to test and shape the strategy.

Please enjoy the rest of Spring Break. We look forward to seeing our beautiful students, teachers and staff on Monday!

APS Keeping Focus on Children amid Crisis, Impending Spring Break

Whenever a long break approaches, we all have a tendency to want to take it easy and coast through the last few days of school. But at Atlanta Public Schools, we have been gradually changing that mindset so that we keep focused on the education of children every single school day … even with everyone eager for the Spring Break.

That became evident over the past 24 hours as we were challenged to consider closing schools following the fire that caused the collapse of a portion of I-85 near Buckhead on Thursday night.

Upon hearing the news, our crisis team – comprised of staff from academics, operations, safety and security, communications and transportation – immediately assembled to determine the safest and most prudent response in Atlanta Public Schools. As you know, we determined we had the team in place and the ability to open schools on time this morning.

The Transportation Department, led by John Franklin and his team of mechanics and bus drivers, worked through the night to ensure buses were ready and in place. For example, 23 buses assigned for the North Atlanta Cluster were moved to the high school campus late in the night, and bus drivers arrived early to handle their routes.

Our Safety and Security Department, led by Dr. Marquenta Sands Hall and Police Chief Ron Applin, had their officers ready to assist with traffic and other issues.

As a result, Atlanta Public Schools completed a full school day in as normal fashion as possible considering the circumstances. In fact, the on-time percentage for our morning bus routes generally compare with the percentages on any other school day as this chart shows.

Spring Break blogWhile buses for some clusters like North Atlanta arrived a bit later than normal, that was expected.

So I really want to praise Mr. Franklin, Dr. Hall and Chief Applin and all of their crews and officers for stepping up on the last day before Spring Break. A big thank you to Board Member Nancy Meister, who represents North Atlanta, not only for her guidance and support but also for working with me all night to ensure we were coordinated. Another thank you to Mayor Reed and Governor Deal for working closely with us to keep students and staff safe. And a final thank you to all of the teachers, staff, students and families for making the day a full school day.

But the work continues, especially since the collapsed portion of I-85 complicates routes along the interstate for some weeks.

We have asked the city to provide assistance with traffic control at Northside Drive near Mount Paran as buses leave North Atlanta High around 1:45 p.m.; at Peachtree Battle near E. Rivers Elementary at 2:30 pm..; Northside Drive near Sutton Middle at 3:30 p.m. and areas around Jackson, Brandon and Smith elementary schools as they dismiss at 2:30 p.m. The city has agreed to help with those routes we’ve identified.

Although Spring Break is ahead, our Transportation Department will be handling bus routes for our second annual Spring Break Academy, which starts Monday, April 3, and then consider route revisions for the regular school days starting Monday, April 10, and for field trips for the rest of the year.

With a crisis averted, I actually have a renewed sense of hope as we move into Spring Break. A hope that we have made significant progress with the operations of Atlanta Public Schools that we could deal with an issue like a collapsed interstate and move forward without looking back.

Enjoy the Break!

APS Advances School Changes for Improved Quality and Efficiency

Over the last three years, Atlanta Public Schools has done a great deal of work in right-sizing the district to more effectively direct resources toward our students. As part of this effort to improve quality while increasing efficiency, we consolidated small schools in the Carver, Therrell and Washington clusters and single-gender schools in the first year. We made changes that led to the creation of Hollis Innovation Academy and Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy and the launch of partnership schools in the Carver Cluster in the second year.

As we entered a third year down the path for transformation, several key data points clearly emphasized the need for more work:

  • APS is a school district that was built to accommodate more than 100,000 students, but in truth, we now only have about 52,000 students in about 87 schools.
  • One of our neighbors, Fulton County Schools, educates just short of 100,000 students, and it has 106 schools. That’s nearly twice as many students in only 20 more schools.
  • Another neighbor to the south, Henry County Schools, educates 40,000 students and has only 51 schools.

Tonight, the Board, with a 7-2 vote, approved school changes in alignment with the district’s Transformation Strategy that take continued strong steps toward improved quality and efficiency. The Board approved the following closures, consolidations and program changes:

  • Jackson Cluster: At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, close Whitefoord Elementary School, redistricting students to Toomer Elementary and Burgess-Peterson Academy.
  • Mays Cluster: At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, close Adamsville Primary, restructuring Miles Intermediate as a PreK-5 school and redistricting some Adamsville and Miles students to West Manor Elementary.
  • Douglass Cluster: At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, relocate the Business, Engineering, Science and Technology Academy at the Benjamin S. Carson Educational Complex (BEST) to the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy (CSK) with two 6-12 single gender academies on the CSK campus. Phase out the closure of Harper-Archer Middle School by serving only 7th and 8th grade at Harper-Archer next school year. Phase in and create a new middle school at the BEST facility, serving 6th grade only in 2017-2018. At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, close Fain Elementary School and Towns Elementary School and open a new elementary school at the renovated Harper-Archer campus. For the 2019-2020 school year, launch a new PreK-8 partnership school with KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools to serve all students at Woodson Park Academy. (This will not be a start-up charter school.) For the 2020-2021 school year, we would close the current Woodson Park building and open a new campus at the former Woodson Primary site to include a new school building, a YMCA, an early childhood center and a health clinic.
  • Citywide: Relocate West End Academy to Crim Open Campus High School starting in the 2017-2018 school year.

More details of the mergers, closings and partnership are available in the official plan available here. I wanted to stress in this blog that at no point did we take any of these changes lightly. Closing and merging schools is always hard, never easy or comfortable and always comes with criticism and hope, mourning of the past but celebrating the possibility of improvements for the future.

That is why this district involved itself in an extensive communication and public engagement process over the past three months before I ever took my final recommendations to the board. These have included but are not limited to:

  • Community meetings – this included official meetings such as four (4) cluster meetings in the Douglass, Jackson and Mays clusters; six (6) public hearings in those clusters; and no fewer than a dozen formal meetings with community leaders, staff and parents in those clusters.
  • Informal meetings – there were numerous informal gatherings which my senior staff, board members and I attended to engage with the community and answer questions.
  • Open houses – KIPP Metro Atlanta and Purpose Built opened their doors to provide parents and community leaders with on-site visits of their schools, including our first partnership school at Thomasville Heights Elementary School.
  • Countless individual conversations – these ranged from phone conversations, email exchanges and direct one-on-one meetings. The team and I rode buses and ran with parents as we explored the neighborhood on wheels and on foot to engage the community and verify concerns about proposed solutions.
  • We kept track of the work, plans and calendar at www.atlantapublicschools.us/schoolchanges. It was regularly updated with presentations and FAQs and other information relevant to the school changes being proposed.

And it informed the draft scenarios and superintendent recommendations.

The feedback across all three clusters (Douglass, Jackson and Mays) helped shape the plan significantly and reflects the importance and effectiveness of our community engagement efforts. We spent a lot of time talking with students, staff, families and community members, and we really saw how much those communities connected with their schools.

We listened. And I only have to note that the proposals literally changed with every interaction as evidence of that. When we started in the Douglass cluster, every scenario involved the closing of our single-gender academies. The community spoke, and so we landed on a recommendation that finds a way to strengthen the single-gender schools on a single campus.

Likewise, I learned through interactions with the Benteen community how critical the community supports are to its vulnerable families and student population. It has created a network of wraparound supports with the school as its anchor, a situation that APS does not have the capacity or wherewithal to re-create for this community at another school at this time. So, I ultimately decided not to recommend closure of Benteen.

I will note that I have given a specific charge to both the single-gender academies and the Benteen community that they must continue to support their schools. If we see these schools decline – especially in enrollment – we may have to revisit these decisions in the future.

BenteenRunFinally, community input informed our decisions for future use of both the Adamsville and Whitefoord buildings. Thanks to feedback in the Jackson Cluster, we were able to solidify plans for the Whitefoord building to remain open to provide early childhood education and health care. Likewise, I am optimistic that we are close to finalizing a plan that ensures the Adamsville building will continue to be used for educational purposes moving forward.

I appreciate all of the students, parents, staff, community members, partners and all of the stakeholders for coming out and contributing to these critical conversations. I hope the work we’ve seen reveals signs of the engagement and interaction to come because it gives me great hope and inspiration for the APS Journey of Transformation.

If we were able to tackle something as difficult as these consolidations, closures and new partnerships, then we will be able to do more to put quality and efficient measures in place so that more and more students can graduate ready for college and career.

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

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.