Yesterday was the Big 10—our 10-year anniversary for our annual State of the Schools address. Almost every year since 2004, the citizens of Atlanta have come together for a public conversation about the state and fate of our schools. We held two events, one in the morning at North Atlanta High School and the other last night at Douglass High School. This was my first state of the schools in Atlanta, (it also happens to be my 10th week on the job), and I want to say thank you to everyone who came out to hear the address in person, those of you who caught the highlights on my Twitter feed and those who watched via livestream.
I especially want to thank our student participants from both State of the Schools events. Jose Rodriguez Lopez introduced me at North Atlanta High. Mr. Lopez has dreams of becoming a Tony Award winning actor – and judging from his command of the stage, I believe he could easily realize that dream. Another talented student, Bethany Bell, gave the best rendition of the national anthem ever, (trust me – I’ve heard many, many school district renditions of the national anthem and this one was phenomenal).
Over at Douglass High School, Lamarius Minor helped me warm up the crowd! Lamarius is a young actor who plans to attend Full Sail University and pursue a career in entertainment. We were able to get a glimpse of his improvisational skills as he led the entire audience in “the wave” to celebrate 10 Douglass High School seniors who have qualified for the Move on When Ready Program, which means they will be starting college this January. Yes…I said college!
I was also excited to honor another great group of students last night – those who have had perfect attendance since the first day of school. We randomly selected 80 students with perfect attendance and asked them to join us for our State of the Schools event. We heard our first lady, Michelle Obama, say Monday at Washington High School: Attendance matters. In APS, we have students—especially at the high school level—who miss one day every two weeks. That adds up to one month of missed instruction every year. Over five years, it adds up to about half a school year of missed instruction. If students miss school, they can’t learn. If students miss school, they will not be ready for the new Georgia Milestones test, a much harder test that is replacing the CRCT and EOCT this year.
To help our students get to school, we launched an attendance campaign called Day One: Be There. Our preliminary numbers show that approximately 1,650 more students showed up to school on the first day this year compared to last year.
Thank you to Chick-fil-A, Dollar General, the Georgia Aquarium, Macy’s, Six Flags and Stone Mountain Park, The Zeist Foundation and The Buckhead Church donating treats to kids this school year for their perfect attendance. I can’t say it enough…attendance matters.
The State of the Schools wasn’t the only great idea born 10 years ago. We are also celebrating our 10th anniversary of the Cultural Experience Project, a wonderful partnership with the city of Atlanta and dozens of cultural and arts venues, which provides every APS student with at least one free field trip to a local arts venue every year.
And no one should forget that almost 10 years ago, the New Schools at Carver reopened its doors as a college-prep campus with a new academic attitude to transform from being one of the lowest performing high schools in Georgia to a campus today of four small schools, one of which—Carver Early College—is the highest performing high school in Atlanta and was named this week by Newsweek Magazine as one of the highest performing in the NATION!
Our students– from the members of the school orchestra who performed as I entered the building, to the student chefs on duty at our food stations and JROTC members who opened each event– inspire me even more. They remind me that in order to have a much longer list of accomplishments 10 years from now, we will need to have a good and gritty—determined, brave, courageous and realistic—conversation about our children, our charge and our changes. Real change doesn’t happen by accident; it will happen because we apologetically plan for it, and we accelerate our work tenfold.
I want a district filled with people who love being around children and will encourage their talents.
So who are our children? For every child we are fortunate to serve in our school system…
- One in 10 is classified as gifted and talented.
- One in 10 has special needs.
- Nearly eight in 10 qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
- 5 out of 10 attend our community schools while 1.5 out of 10 attend our charter schools.
But our children are more than statistics. They have their own hopes and dreams. They are planning for their futures. As a former teacher, I came prepared for class last night with an important assignment for everyone. I asked each audience member to summon their inner child. I asked them to think back to the tender age of 10 when their very survival depended on the adults around them—at home, at school, in their neighborhoods.
It was important for everyone to take a moment to remember that we serve approximately 50,000 children across 106 learning sites and programs. Our children have hopes and dreams, and they depend on us for protection, support, motivation and inspiration. We have a collective responsibility to serve each of them.
So what is the state of our schools? There is enough institutional knowledge and there is enough evidence to conclude that a lot of good and growth has occurred in our school system over the past 10 years. At the same time, it’s no secret that we’ve suffered some setback.
During the past decade, we’ve declared everything in our the state of our schools events. From we are growing every day, and making steady, incremental progress—to the state of APS is solid, the mountain top is in sight, and APS is becoming a model urban school district. We’ve also said that APS is poised to succeed, and the system is moving in the right direction.
Instead of making another declaration about the state of APS, I just want all of us to get to work. In some ways, our vital signs are excellent. In other ways, we’re in recovery mode. I’ve met good people, great people, who have been here and are coming here because they want to see the system recover. With all that is in the past, I remain very hopeful. We’re going to work long and hard to be a bunch of big people working with little people to make them the best big people we could ever imagine becoming.
Yesterday I gave a big shout-out to the members of the Atlanta Board of Education. Serving on this current board are six newly-elected members and three re-elected members. We’ve participated in two board retreats together. In the first retreat in April, I hadn’t officially started the job, but I could feel the pressure under which board members served.
Board members had concerns – from making sure parents had bus schedules and the buses would be running on time by the first day of school to addressing the needs of student groups and families who feel completely disenfranchised from the school process. The bottom line message I heard was, “You’re in transition, but you need to get fixin’!”
Fast forward to the board’s second retreat, which happened in August. By that time, we were able to catch our breath because we had a more successful Day One—not perfect but much better than in previous years. Therefore, we could switch our attention toward long-range planning and developing the charge for the district—that is, our mission and vision. The mission is what we do every day. The vision is our aspirational view of where we want to go as an organization.
Using input from various stakeholders, we developed the draft charge for APS:
- Mission: Through a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every APS student will be ready for college and career.
- Vision: A high-performing school district where students love to learn, educators work to inspire, parents are engaged, and the community has trust in the district.
In addition, we maintained the “4Es” as the principles and core values that will guide our actions:
- Excellence … in everything we do
- Equity … in the distribution of district resources
- Ethics … to protect our integrity
- Engagement … with our community
Together we’ve created a strategy logic map or, more simply, a change strategy that identifies the four big buckets of our work: academic program, talent strategy, systems work and culture.
In the area of academics, math keeps me up at night, and I know I’m not alone. On July 23, 2014, The New York Times published an article entitled “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” Writer Elizabeth Green says we stink because our country has been math reform happy without any good system for helping teachers learn to teach the new reforms. Like other states, Georgia has implemented different math curricula over the years. Therefore, our strategy for attacking math—and all content areas in APS—begins with implementing standards-based learning in every classroom and ends with ensuring our teachers are consistent in the methods they use to deliver instruction. Some of the best teaching I’ve ever seen in my life has been right here in APS. To be honest, the reverse is also true, and we’re going to fix that. This year, we’re going to do more to implement best practices from exemplary APS schools and classrooms with high-quality teachers.
When it comes to our employees, we need to set a new standard for how we recruit, attract, retain, promote and support the very best talent at every single level of Atlanta Public Schools. Our families deserve the best bus drivers, custodians, nutrition team, principals, administrative assistants, teachers – everyone. We need to hire people who not only can do their jobs well, but also love children. As part of our talent strategy, we’re investing in something called strengths-based professional development, a national, proven training program that helps develop employees’ strengths so that they can develop the strengths in those they serve, who for all of us, ultimately, are our students.
We still have a great deal of work to do at APS around our systems and processes. From our HR systems to our student information management systems, our teachers, our principals, and our central office staff are not positioned today to make good decisions that are grounded in accurate data. We must fix this. We also must implement the discipline to allocate resources in a way that is aligned to our strategic direction to ensure that our students’ needs are appropriately prioritized.
The fourth and final category in our change strategy is culture. Changing our culture is the most important area of our work. A caring culture of trust and collaboration in the workplace prevents our best talent from leaving the district. A caring culture of trust and collaboration in the classroom prevents a child from dropping out. It’s all connected. Our aim is for APS to be a system where every school builds on each student’s strengths and every teacher make each student excited about the future. This is the core of our change strategy.
As we align the strategic priorities moving forward, we have a critical decision ahead of us. We need to select a new school system operating model and flexibility option. Will Atlanta Public Schools be an IE2 system (Investing in Educational Excellence System), a charter system, or a status-quo/non-waiver system? It depends on the level of flexibility or exemptions we want from state law, the kind of innovation we want to undertake, and the additional accountability measures we want to meet. It depends on how much we as a community decide to shift decision making from the central office to the schools. It depends on the direction in which we want to go based on our mission and vision and hopes and dreams, and which option will help us get there for our children.
Contrary to suspicions, I have not settled on any one option. I’m still learning and listening. This Saturday, Sept.13, we are hosting a School System Flexibility Options Workshop at Maynard Jackson High School. There are two sessions – the first is from 9am until 11am and the second is from 1pm until 3pm. Please make plans to attend. We’re all in this together.
Our children are depending on all of us to keep pulling together to make sure we as a city invest in them. From building more quality early childhood learning opportunities and providing stronger wraparound services to making college more affordable by creating more scholarships programs, we need to do what it takes to work together to put the needs of children first. Our children must be our #1 focus … every day and always.
Again, thank you, everyone, for coming out, tuning in to our livestream or following us on social media last night, and for supporting our children, our charge and our changes in Atlanta Public Schools.
Missed the address? Watch here: http://new.livestream.com/k12aps/events/3374824