Dispatches from the District, Day One

As part of Day One in Atlanta Public Schools, my team and I have boarded an APS bus to visit students, teachers, administrators, support staff and the community to report on Back-to-School happenings across the district. Here are my live reports:

Day One, 3:25 p.m., Martin Luther King Middle School (Jackson Cluster)

Last stop for Day One: The new Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.KINgms4

OMGosh! Do yourself a favor, and go take a tour of the building. The foyer is massive, and the big bold, bright colors on the walls reflect the fact that you are in a special place. Thanks to the Branded Environments Group at Perkins + Will, Inc., the new facility is befitting of its great namesake. It features a Freedom Hall with walls that are covered with portraits of great individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with famous quotations from them.

Katie Janson, a Brand Strategist and Graphic Designer on the Branded Environments Group at Perkins + Will, Inc., said she and her team did a lot of research before moving forward with their plan to transform the school.

“We looked at all aspects of what makes a school successful,” Janson said. “We found that kids need to feel that their school is a warm, safe environment, where they feel comfortable and they feel a sense of pride and take ownership.”

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A beautiful new school like King Middle demands a dynamic principal like Paul Brown and wonderful students, faculty and staff!

Parkins + Will, Inc., is now a partner with King Middle School and will participate in a number of school initiatives this year. I can’t wait to see the results! I had a great time talking to the eighth graders just before they took their class photo. Big things are in store for the Jaguars this year!

Well, Day One 2016 is in the books! Thanks to the great efforts across the district and at schools like King Middle, our hashtag, “APSFIRSTDAY,” was trending No. 2 on Twitter! Make sure to follow me tomorrow for Day Two.

Day One, 2:25 p.m., Alonzo A. Crim Open Campus High School

At about mid-afternoon, we arrive at Alonzo A. Crim Open Campus High School, a school named after the first African-American superintendent for APS. Crim has a lot of history, so it was humbling to meet custodian Rodney Jones, an APS veteran who has been assigned to this building for most of his 30-year career. He’s seen this school go through many changes.

He was there when the school became a learning center for students, ages 16 and older, in need of a second chance because of challenges they may have had in their home school. It’s a more flexible environment and requires a personalized approach to ensure that the 97 students who arrived here on Day One make it to graduation ready for college and career.

With our visit to Crim, we happened to visit at the intersection of two of the district’s most vital initiatives – social emotional learning (SEL) and our school resource officers. Officer Edwards and Louis greeted me at the door, where I could thank them for taking on a special role in which a new kind of police officer also strives to help teach and mentor, as well as police students. We have them in all of our middle and high schools.

By happenstance, our visit coincided with an SEL session led by Kori Sanchez-Smith, who leads the effort in APS. I’ve written extensively about the need for students to develop the skills to persevere, set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships. (Check here, here and here.)

Here I got to see some of the lessons in motion. For this lesson, Ms. Sanchez-Smith wanted the students on Day One to develop a message for teachers from a student perspective designed to inform them what learning techniques might help them best.

They split into smaller groups for discussion, where they talked about home environments and the effect on school work, the need for collaboration and cooperation and the necessity for teachers to understand what students bring emotionally to school each day.

Over time, lessons like this will give students a fighting chance and contribute to a transformed district!

We are fortunate to have administrators like Principal Dawn Parker and a teaching and support team like her Crim crew who see the value in the work. (And board members like Matt Westmoreland and Cynthia Briscoe Brown, whose districts represent Crim!)

Thanks for the lesson and support!

Day One, 1:46 p.m., Springdale Park Elementary School (Grady Cluster)

After lunch we rolled into Springdale Park Elementary, and what better way to burn off those calories than to challenge new Principal Terry Harness to a sit up contest in PE! After we made it to 20, we both called it a draw!

We stayed in PE and hit a couple of the other stations that had been set up by Coach Harrison and Coach Pirnstill:  dips, planks, jump rope, burpees and push ups. Whew!

Then it was on to Mindy Mailman’s second grade class, where we participated in an activity designed to help all 22 students in the class get to know each other: “Find A Friend.” Each student was given a sheet with 16 squares, and in each square was a description like “has a pet dog,” “likes to color,” “likes to swim,” and “can play an instrument.” Students then had to go around the room and find a different classmate who fit each description.

We headed out just before dismissal, so I and board members Matt Westmoreland and Cynthia Briscoe Brown stopped to thank some parents already in line to pick-up their children. Springdale Park is a gem! The building is clean and colorful, and there is a buzz of excitement in the air that you can feel. I can tell it’s going to be a great year at SPARK!

Day One, 12:49 a.m., Thomasville Heights Elementary School (South Atlanta Cluster)

While this was Day One for most of our schools, it’s already Day Six at Thomasville Heights, where Purpose Built Schools is helping us transform this school and the community as part of our Turnaround Strategy.

On the way in, I bumped into a parent who was extremely frustrated when we began our community meetings to explain Turnaround. But we shared a big laugh today and she told me “I’m on the team now!”

Change is hard. But it is necessary in many of our school communities, and Thomasville Heights is embracing change. You can already see it and feel it. The curriculum is changing and now features eight enrichment classes:  Dance, Robotics, Band/Orchestra, Choral Music, Spanish, Art, PE and Technology. Blake Zimmerman’s robotics class was outstanding and Jelani Jones’ dance class wore me out … and that was just the warm up!

But you can really feel the change in choral music class, where Letricia Henson and Calvin Brown are teaching all the little Cougars a new school song they co-wrote. The lyrics say it all (Huge shout out to Board Chair Courtney D. English and Board Members Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Eshe Collins, Jason Esteves and Matt Westmoreland for joining me in signing the school song):

Thomasville is our school, where we learn each day;

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The wonderful singers of Thomasville Heights!

Thomasville is a school, where everyone is loved each day;

We come to school to learn each day;

Dreams are possible in every way;

We are taught, we’re kings and queens;

Thomasville is our school!

Day One, 11:45 a.m., Dobbs Elementary School (South Atlanta Cluster)

As an urban superintendent, I truly believe that our neighborhood schools have a responsibility beyond simply educating children, especially when we have so many challenges with poverty, violence and other intergenerational issues. Schools serve as the center of the community, and as community centers, they must be a resource to everyone.

That’s what we are doing at John Wesley Dobbs Elementary School, where we arrived this morning. Just like this school’s namesake, who fought to overcoming segregation with education and empowerment, we are doing things at this school to empower the community.

I came in part today, along with board members like Chair Courtney English, to see progress on the new school-based health center here at Dobbs – one of three in the district that will open Aug. 15. We also opened one at Miles Elementary for the Mays Cluster and modeled both after the district’s highly successful clinic at Whitefoord Elementary School. These centers are federally qualified community health centers and accept Georgia Better Health Care, Medicaid, Peach Care and private insurance. Fees are determined on a sliding scale based on income.

These centers are staffed by highly trained and qualified physicians, nurses, dentists and staff who provide a wide range of medical and preventative care and diagnostic testing.

At Dobbs, I also gave away some backpacks, posed with an all-girl selfie with young ladies from Dr. Corlis Robertson’s second grade class and had fajitas for lunch. Liked them; loved the jalapenos (hot, spicy and kid-approved)!

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My favorite reporter on the APS Day One beat, Jamarion Thornton of JWD News

The news media has caught up with us on various stages of our tour today, and my favorite reporter by far has been JWD News anchor Jamarion Thornton. (He also happens to be a fifth grader at the school!) He asked me what it takes to be an awesome student, and I told him a successful student stays in school, focuses on school work and strives to be a responsible community member. And they should have fun, too, right?

Day One, 11:03 a.m., Humphries Elementary (South Atlanta Cluster)

Every day, I stress over whether our students are learning in safe, secure and COMFORTABLE environments. Our students have a right to learn, and our teachers have a right to teach in buildings conducive to their education and development. So I made it a point to stop by Humphries on Day One with my team and Board Member Eshe’ Collins to ensure that the major HVAC overhaul that happened over the summer was successful.

My assessment: Air … Super Cool! The old portables … not cool!

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Do you see anything? Me, neither! Portables are gone. Good riddance!

I am so pleased – and I know that principal Melanie Mitchell and her kids and staff – are definitely pleased that the horrible portables are history! These four double-classroom portables and restroom trailer served as the school for the past year, and I remember how my heart dropped when I saw them for the first time. Today, I walked through the parking lot where they once stood, and my heart lifted.

We spent this spring educating our community and stakeholders about the necessity of strong school infrastructure and the support of the E-SPLOST. This HVAC project was more evidence of good stewardship and smart use of taxpayer dollars in APS. Thanks, Atlanta, for getting these kids back in a comfortable, cool school!

At the school’s new playground, recess was over for the first grade, but teachers Angela Askew-Davis, Carla Humphreys and Tamelia Johnson, allowed me to have a few extra minutes with their wonderful kids. And we all cheered and played for a moment!

And get this: Humphries will celebrate its 100th anniversary this September with some cool recognition events! This school of Roadrunners remains visionary. Principal Mitchell and her team have plans to build the first greenhouse at an APS elementary school in the near future.

Hard to keep up with these Roadrunners!

#APSFIRSTDAY  #BeepBeep

Day One, 9:45 a.m., Brown Middle School (Washington Cluster)

We walked into the newly renovated Brown Middle School, which now holds 900 Dolphins instead of 600. One of the first faces I saw was Jamaree White, an eighth grader who transferred in from Phoenix. He looks like he could have been school board member Byron Amos 30 years ago! What a big, cute kid. Can’t wait to see him out on the new football field!

Principal Tianna Crooms led us to the new courtyard, which features park benches, trees and shrubs, and a cool mural of trees. It’s gorgeous! It also doubles as another entrance into the school in the morning. What a great way to start the school day!

Then we popped into the new media center to help Media Specialist Nikki Bivins file non-fiction books. Can you believe we still use the Dewey Decimal System, even with all the advances in technology?

On our way out we stopped by the refurbished auditorium, where registration was taking place. The new Brown is a fantastic learning facility. Isn’t the E-SPLOST great?!

Day One, 8:50 a.m., Morris Brandon Primary Elementary School (North Atlanta Cluster)

The Day One Tour moved on to Morris Brandon Primary, an International Baccalaureate World School that is traditionally one of the highest performing elementary schools in our district. And the building was “buzzing” on Day One as all the Brandon Bees – students, teachers and staff – moved into their brand new gorgeous learning facility. Once again, your SPLOST dollars are hard at work!

As Principal Kara Stimpson led our tour of the new Bee Hive, I had to take a quick detour and say “Hi” to Dr. Opal Knowlton’s first grade class. Those kids were just too cute to resist and they were already hard at work!

And, ahhhh, the new gym, and what better way to christen a new gym floor than to lie down on it a take a group selfie! Coach Cathy Brock and her second grade PE class indulged me, and then went back to their “Locomotor” lesson for the day – which is a fancy way of describing running, jumping and skipping!

The new Brandon Primary facility features a mini-soccer field with a new playground on one end – thanks to the hard work and generosity of Brandon parents – and a new music room, where Jennifer McCarren showed me and school board members Cynthia Briscoe-Brown and Matt Westmoreland, a fantastic second grade lesson. I just love her spirit!

Then we popped in on the gifted team before ending our visit in the kindergarten dual-language emersion Spanish class, co-taught by Lourdes Santiago and Betania Lopez. I never pass up a chance to brush up on my Spanish!

” Que tengan un buen día, Brandon!”

#APSFIRSTDAY

Day One, 7:15 a.m., Garden Hills Elementary School (North Atlanta Cluster)

For our first school visit, we arrive at Garden Hills, a school on the National Register of Historic Places that is nestled in the bustling suburbs of North Atlanta. With its diverse student body, Garden Hills truly represents the world, the impressive mix of student heritage symbolized by the dozens of international flags draped outside of the school’s auditorium.

Garden Hills lives up to its name in nurturing not only students but leaders. One of our new associate superintendents, Tommy Usher, was most recently principal of this beautiful school and joined us on the visit. We were welcomed by the school’s new dynamic leader, Stacey Abbott, a bilingual educator who truly understands the unique nature and needs of this neighborhood school.

As a dual-immersion school, Garden Hills kids are engaged in both English and Spanish. As I visited Isabel Marsh and Emma Meraz’s classroom, I had a fun talking with the kids in Spanish as they are only supposed to speak in that language for the first few weeks when in class.

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Posing with future Garden Hill student Pierce Walls, 11 months, whose sister Eloise started pre-K today

Also, as a World International Baccalaureate School, Garden Hills has for several years been using the curriculum that is part of the IB signature theme of the North Atlanta cluster. These programs aim to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help create a better and more peaceful world, so Garden Hills has a head start on the work!

 

We hadn’t had breakfast yet, so we enjoyed a nutritious meal of fish nuggets and grits … how unique and yummy. Glad I got my grits on, but needed my HOT sauce! Our nutrition department, led by Dr. Marilyn Hughes, strives to include more organic and farm-to-table offerings in our student meals to ensure that we are not only developing healthy minds in APS, but healthy bodies.

We finished the visit in the media center where the school’s PTA sponsors its traditional “Tears and Cheers,” where new kindergartners cope and bond as they drop their babies off for the first time. I thanked them for sticking with APS by supporting their neighborhood school and helping with the transformation that is going on across the district.

Thanks for the inspiring visit, Ms. Abbott and Garden Hills!

#Tears&Cheers #APSFIRSTDAY

Day One, 6:15 a.m., APS Metropolitan Bus Depot

Welcome back to school!

We start Day One in Atlanta Public Schools (as is appropriate for thousands of Atlanta’s children) at a bus, or rather by hundreds of buses. We are at the district’s Metropolitan Bus Depot. In only a few moments, nearly 300 buses will leave this site and from our other bus depot at Lakewood Stadium to traverse about 25,000 miles so that more than 26,000 of our beautiful students can get to school safely.

We came here to personally thank our bus drivers this morning for their critical role in providing safe to transport for our kids every school day. But they are more than drivers. After a student’s parent or caregiver, a bus driver is often the very first adult that greets students as they start their school day … and sometimes the last as they take them home from school.

They really are transportation educators, so we have begun providing them sessions in social emotional learning, so they can use the same skills as our teachers to build relationships with students, defuse tense moments and to enrich the experience for all of them.

Our bus drivers, mechanics, call center team members and transportation support staff are parents, too! And so several dozen of their children start their day at the depot and ride the full route to and from school.

We are here, too, because we are relying on APS transportation to get us to nearly three dozen APS learning sites over the next three days. Many thanks to John Franklin, director of APS Transportation, and his team for getting us through the next few days safely!

#YellowTogether  #APSFIRSTDAY

 

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