Dispatches across the District! Welcome to Day One 2019-2020 in Atlanta Public Schools!

Our bus driver, Phara Norman!

As part of Day One in Atlanta Public Schools, my team and I board a school bus (shout out to our own bus operator, Ms. Norman!) just like thousands of APS students. We are full of excitement and anticipation and prepared for a long but wonderful day in the District!

As part of our DAY ONE tradition, we will visit students, teachers, administrators, support staff and the community to report on Back-to-School happenings across the District. Throughout Day One, we will share our journey in real time on this blog and on twitter (@CarstarphenMJ and @APSUpdate). Follow along with the #APSFIRSTDAY hashtag.

3:45 p.m. – Therrell High (Therrell Cluster)

We close Day One at Therrell High – our most recent IB World School and home of state champion athletes. Today, I join our football players participating in after-school tutoring and academics before they begin training today.

Matthew Hazel, video production teacher and Play It Smart coaches, explains the vital need for each student to maintain their grades and to take advantage of all academic opportunities. Principal Shelly Powell steps in and simply states: “School first … grades first … or helmet is in my office.” (Yikes!!! Even I’m terrified!)

As anyone who follows APS knows, I love my APS football, but PREACH, sister!

Great athletics requires great academics.

Following the session, we head to the practice gym and the weight room where I start to do warm ups with our volleyball team. Those warm ups were too hard, so I joined the football players for their routines and then hit the weight room before Gregory Sullivan, athletic director, ran us through some intense cardio exercises.

What a great workout to close out Day One and set the tone for the rest of the school year.

#PowertothePanthers #APSFIRSTDAY

2:50 p.m. – King Middle (Jackson Cluster)

For our penultimate stop on our Day One visits, we visited a school that has a special place in my heart for many reasons. First, it’s named after civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Next, we fashioned the APS State of the District event in 2016 after my favorite musical Hamilton and performed it here. Finally, the school after extensive renovation, almost resembles a museum with inspirational quotes and graphic portraits throughout the building.

Principal Paul Brown led the artistic redesign of the school. I cannot help but walk through the halls, especially Freedom Hall, and get inspired and get my batteries recharged. It really is a beautiful school building, which even has its own swimming pool where we offer our students lessons!

During my visits on Day One, I not only want to see our educators in action, but the work of our hard-working operations and facilities teams.

Over the summer, we spent a lot of time and money on various upgrades to HVAC, plumbing, flooring and other major maintenance work so ALL of our buildings last longer and longer. With the previous SPLOST, we spent $38.9 million on HVAC upgrades and repairs. To date, we have spent $12.5 million of the $28 million budgeted for the current five-year round of SPLOST, a portion of it at King.

We completed a renovation at King more than three years ago, but we needed to do more to keep kids cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather. I know I felt much better being inside King than out in the afternoon heat!

#KeepingItCoolLikeKing #APSFIRSTDAY

2 p.m. – Cleveland Avenue Elementary (South Atlanta Cluster)

Time to go home for more of our elementary school babies! This time, it’s Cleveland Avenue Elementary, where it was just about the end of Day One!

But before dismissal we were able to see just how immersed in STEM education – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – they are at Cleveland Avenue, part of the South Atlanta Cluster, which has adopted this signature theme for all of its schools. STEM focuses on problem-solving, discovery and exploratory project/problem learning. Under the leadership of Principal Anyee Payne, Cleveland Avenue is the only elementary school in APS to have an international STEM certification from AdvancED. We visited STEM labs and saw teachers teaching and students learning, right up to the bell for dismissal! (LOVE that!)

Reading and writing is also a focus at Cleveland Avenue, as illustrated by the StarBooks Room (no, not Starbucks … StarBooks! Get it? That’s sooo 3-cute!) which is the school’s reading and writing lab for students in Kindergarten through fifth grade. The media center, with its comfy couches and neat gazebo, is the sort of place where you can sit and get lost in a good book!

It was another great visit on our Day One tour! And like their t-shirt says, Cleveland Avenue is ready to “STEM Up and Deliver” in 2019-2020!

#STEMupandDeliver #APSFIRSTDAY

1 p.m. – Gideons Elementary (Carver Cluster)

When we get back on the road, we set a course for another renovated school – Gideons Elementary – which had been residing in the former Parks Middle School building as they awaited renovations. When I visited the school on Day Two in 2016, the building was among our schools most in need of repair – both structurally and educationally.

What a renovation and building transformation! The old front (where we had pulled up three years ago) is the now new back with a playground and bus drop-off zone. The school inside looks polished and brand spanking new, signs of a school of the 21st-century and not one from years and years ago. And the new front is a stunning invitation for learning.

I could see why Principal Danielle Washington and Matt Underwood, our executive director of innovation, were so eager to show off this beautiful school.

Today, the Kindezi Schools operates the school in partnership with the District, and they will now enjoy a more conducive school environment, geared more to the smaller class sizes that is a hallmark of Kindezi.

I saw evidence of their style of team teaching as teachers Ms. Lambert, Ms. Tingle and Ms. Ishman worked with fifth graders on a classroom assignment to set a proper tone of respect and etiquette for the rest of the school year.

Visitors to the school will see that our school building is an oasis in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta, and I was both saddened and angry to drive along Hobson Drive the back of the school (where kids get dropped off and picked up and where they play on the playground) and see the city’s and property owners’ lack of attention to keeping the immediate area around the school clean. Old tires and dead branches piled up on one side and mattresses stacked on the right and garbage of beer cans, kitchen waste and everything else was all over the place.

It’s distressing to think that our beautiful kids see this whenever they go to school or leave for the day or when they are playing on the playground!

I think all the immediate areas around our City’s schools should be kept clean and safe by our property owners, and our City should hold them accountable. We will send our Operations department to clean up so that kids don’t see all that when they leave school today but this shouldn’t be the norm in our high need communities. All schools deserve to be in a clean and safe neighborhood environment, and we need help making that possible for our all our children and staff.

#CleanAndSafe #APSFIRSTDAY

Noon – Inman Middle (Grady Cluster)

When we pull up to Inman Middle, I immediately became inspired by a sense of legacy because we are preparing to transition the school into the new Howard Middle School for Fall 2020. Principal Kevin Maxwell is already branding the move #Inman2Howard.

We have invested significant money – about $52 million – into Howard because it once educated a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among other Atlanta dignitaries. The building has been left vacant for more than a decade, and we felt it was our responsibility to Atlanta’s legacy to get this school back online especially in a cluster that needs more space!

I told sixth graders at the school, who will enter Howard as seventh graders that Atlanta voters approved the SPLOST money that funded the new school because the too love Inman’s kids and they love our Atlanta civil rights legacy.

But we are still in the 2019-2020 school year, and Inman is taking steps to making it a great one. I was impressed with one idea from Shanda Beadles, the school’s business manager, to complete locker assignments online so it would take a burden off teachers on the first day.

I also wanted to review some of our latest safety initiatives. We took our first giant step toward safety three years ago when we created the APS Police Department. Led by Chief Ron Applin, this department was designed in alignment with a national “triad” model where our school resource officers counsel, police and teach.

But they need good equipment, so they now wear cameras on their uniforms to enhance school safety, promote accountability, create more transparency, increase public trust and boost the efficiency and technical capability of our investigations. School Resource Officer Meredith Littles showed me some of the details of the camera, noting that its battery can get the uniform a bit hot over the course of the day. A note to improve.

We have also adopted the Sandy Hook Say Something Anonymous Reporting System and other efforts. Tucked among some of our most walkable neighborhoods, we worked with the City of Atlanta to significantly improve the safety of walkable routes to schools with crosswalk lighting.

Finally, I was pleased to see my running buddy – Sarrita Allen – who is now an assistant principal at Inman. We place a high priority on professional and leadership development, so I am always heartened when I see our own educators finding challenges and greater opportunities within the APS.

#Inman2Howard #APSFIRSTDAY

10:40 a.m. – Sarah Smith Intermediate (North Atlanta Cluster)

And now we move from one arts-rich school (Harper-Archer) to another (Sarah Smith), sort of symbolic of our path to become an arts-centered district with arts-rich schools. As part of a five-year plan, we are developing cross-curricular tools to support arts integration. Some of the key performance indicators include ensuring that all teachers are using arts integration regularly and that we have facilities that have quality equipment in sufficient numbers as recommended by national arts education organizations.

I was pleased when Principal Emily Boatright told me that she worked with her GO Team so she could fund with her school budget two full-time arts teacher to work between the two Sarah Smith campuses.

Lunch time! Time to eat and sample foods from our new vendor.

As anyone who follows Atlanta Public Schools and me know, I place a high priority on hot, nutritious meals for our students. Although more than three of every four APS student qualify for free and reduced lunch, the District recently qualified for a national program that enabled us to provide free meals to all students, so it’s imperative that our food contracts include healthier options, more locally sourced foods and tastier selections.

I usually survey students about our food all year long, but I am especially curious today about their thoughts now that we have entered into a new contract with Southwest Foodservice Excellence, also known as SFE.

On the elementary lunch menu today: Loaded potato with BBQ Chicken or turkey burger, baked beans, cole slaw, fries, corn on the cob, biscuits and salad.

My review (not to throw shade): The turkey burger – dry and unappetizing; didn’t even look like a burger. What’s with bubbles in public school meat patties? The fries were soft and needed more seasoning. The vegetables were fresh, not soggy, so I salvaged my turkey burger by making it into a tomato sandwich. The beans, biscuits and corn were very good, and the cole slaw, with a hint of cilantro, was fabulous!

Surveying five students, I found that one loved the turkey burger lunch, three liked it and one did not like…I agree with that last vote.

In talking with Chef Harod of SFE, I learned that the turkey burger is a federal government commodity product, so it’s not their fault. But, I think the federal government should provide schools with better quality food to work with. Just sayin’! On to the most important side serving…the French fries. While our middle and high schools have advance air fryers that get our fries more crisp, our elementary schools cook with old fryers. These fries were a little too soggy for my taste. I will speak to the Food and Nutrition department to find out if we can get some air fryers for the elementary schools. As for taste, I was dying for some salt but it’s not allowed under the new federal regulations! UGH! But, Chef Harod said they have a crab fry-type seasoning option that is delicious with less sodium that they will try to use soon on a few days a week. So, I’m coming back to taste that!

I was amazed to learn that the beans were vegetarian – say what?!?! – and the corn was roasted, not boiled! Natural sweet tastes to both that I loved! Yum!

Overall, the lunch made the grade. I’ll keep sampling the food until we get it right!

#LunchAndLearn #APSFIRSTDAY

9:35 a.m. – Harper-Archer Elementary (Douglass Cluster)

Since 2014, Atlanta Public Schools has completed major projects at 17 of our schools, totaling $307 million. We essentially built four new school buildings at E. Rivers Elementary, Bunche and Sylvan Hills middle schools and Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy. Four schools – Boyd, Kimberly and Harper-Archer elementary schools and Hollis Innovation Academy – saw major renovations. Nine more – Brandon Primary, Beecher Hills, Gideons, Mary Lin, Springdale Park, Brown Middle, King Middle and Young Middle – had renovations and additions.

For athletics, the district built the Walden Athletic Complex; installed synthetic turf at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Carver, Douglass and South Atlanta high schools;  and replaced turf at Grady High and Sutton Middle schools. Those projects totaled $14 million.

Presently, the district is constructing and renovating schools for Hutchinson and Humphries elementary school, Howard Middle and the Atlanta College and Career Academy at an additional investment of $83 million.

We stop at one of those projects – Harper-Archer Elementary. But with this renovation of the new home of the Trailblazers, we merged two elementary schools – Fain and Towns – and placed a former Principal of the Year – Dione Taylor – as its dynamic leader.

It’s fascinating to see how the former Harper High and then Harper-Archer Middle has now become an elementary school. Our youngest students have their specific needs in elementary school, so it’s important that a school is designed specifically for them with stackable chairs, desks, tables, digital bulletin boards, restrooms and more. What was once an open classroom design of the past is now designed for 21st-century learning!

Along with the essential classroom aspects, this school – adopting an arts-rich curriculum – also has amazing studios for music and dance. The gymnasium converts into an auditorium as a stage – like a Murphy bed – lowers out of the wall and sets on the floor! As part of the Douglass Cluster, Harper-Archer has adopted the STEAM curriculum, and we were already seeing students working on lessons in science, technology, engineering and math … along with the arts!

But just like other aspects of APS, we cannot take a victory lap yet. Work remains. The eastern part of the building includes an auditorium, a former planetarium and some old tennis courts that were not part of the renovations. We need help in finishing the work!

#Ready2Blaze! #APSFIRSTDAY

8:30 a.m. – Beecher Hills Elementary (Mays Cluster)

As we leave TAG and roll on over to Beecher Hills Elementary, I cannot help but feel gratitude toward Atlanta taxpayers and homeowners. You see, we benefit greatly from SPLOST, a one-penny sales tax that pays for buildings, buses and bonds. Without raising the millage, we have constructed new buildings or completed major renovations or substantial additions to 17 schools, which is about 20% of our infrastructure, with more coming online next year.

Our Beecher Hills bees just moved into a totally renovated building after spending months at the former Bethune Elementary school near the Georgia World Congress Center.

I walked into the building with a WOW! The new cafeteria with large windows and an additional restroom up front, the gorgeous new gymnasium, the honey comb accents throughout the building while keeping the traditional stone and brick of the original building. And the teachers are so excited about the kidney-shaped classroom tables – golden honey for an elementary classroom! It feels so good to be back home again!

We have a lot going on both inside and outside of Beecher Hills, which really paints a picture of all of the elements that must go into a great school. First, they have a state-of-the-art school house, of course.

Second, they have built a strong program. Beecher Hills, as part of the Mays Cluster, adopted the International Baccalaureate (IB) program which aims to develop inquisitive, knowledgeable and compassionate young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

In classrooms, I heard students reach Day One agreements to listen, to avoid distractions and to show good classroom etiquette on their path to learning – lessons even adults need to learn. In the halls, I was already seeing students in lab coats ready to learn science lessons!

Most importantly, Beecher Hills has a dedicated team of educators and support staff, led by Principal Crystal Jones. It’s no coincidence that Beecher Queen Bee Jones, a former Beecher Hills student and teacher herself and a daughter of a former APS principal, is also the reigning Principal of the Year for our district.

No wonder the Beecher Hills community is buzzing!

#BuzzingBeecherBees #APSFIRSTDAY

7:30 a.m. – Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy (Washington Cluster)

For the first leg of today’s journey, we land on the runway of the new state-of-the-art Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy, affectionately known simply as TAG. 

An aviation theme permeates the TAG campus from the striped runway (constructed to scale based on images from World War II-era airfields) at the front of the school to the U.S. Air Force emblem in the courtyard to the hangar look of classroom bays designed for music, arts and the sciences.

To further the look of the school, we are working very hard with partners to acquire scale models of the very aircraft flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. My own personal dream for this school is to have an interactive model of a plane that our students can actually climb over and get into to have tangible experience of being a Tuskegee Airman and a squadron of planes flying in the Airmen’s distinctive Red Tail formation.

In addition to me being thrilled about the new campus, Principal Yolanda Weems, our beautiful students, teachers and staff at TAG are simply ecstatic. Coming into a new building on the first day of school is exhilarating enough but to come into one specifically designed in tribute to brave WWII jet fighters and to stoke a new generation of dreamers … well, that is another level of excitement!

To fuel up, I ate a quick breakfast (Cheerios, my favorite cereal!) with Juvetta Lindsay’s fourth graders, who gave breakfast and the building, the A-OK!

Time for take-off, TAG!

#SOARRedTails! #APSFIRSTDAY

5:30 a.m. – APS Metropolitan Bus Depot

One, two… ten, a dozen. At first a trickle and then a flood as hundreds of Atlanta Public Schools bus operators and monitors pour into the Metropolitan Bus Depot for Day One – the start of the 2019-2020 school year. I’m there with John Franklin, executive director of transportation, to greet every single one of them and their children as they prepare to board nearly 400 buses that will transport more than 30,000 students over 21,000 miles to school.

John Franklin, Executive Director of Transportation

They will be the first to tell most of our students: Welcome back to Atlanta Public Schools!

Every school year for the past six years, I have started my day at our main bus depot. Just as these wonderful people are often the first adults to greet students as they begin each school day, I wanted to be among the first to greet them on the first day of a new school year … to tell them personally how much I support their work.

I consider them all educators – teachers on wheels, if you will – because they play such a critical role in our mission to prepare every child for college, career and choice-filled lives.

Research studies from the Brookings Institute and others tell us that there are great benefits associated with students riding the bus – including the following:

  • Students who ride the bus have fewer absences.
  • Students are 50 times more likely to arrive at school safely on a school bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends.
  • Students who ride the bus are more confident and have higher self-esteem and social skills.
  • Students who take the bus are contributing to cleaner air by doing their part to reduce pollution.
  • And students who take the bus are benefiting the community! Fewer cars means less Atlanta traffic, lower emissions, and safer roads!

Who makes this possible for APS students each day? Teachers on wheels! Our bus operators and monitors!

That’s why we support them with specialized training, including social emotional learning techniques that focus on the ability to set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships. Earlier this summer, we celebrated our APS Elite Bus Drivers – drivers who have perfect attendance and remain accident-free. This morning, we gave them a fond Bon Voyage!, sending them off with good wishes, healthy snacks and Chick-Fil-A biscuits and coffee.

What a way to start the first school of the day! Time for me to hit the road!

#YellowTogether #APSFIRSTDAY

Two days ago – Atlanta Public Schools Back-to-School Bash, Georgia World Congress Center

This past weekend, we helped APS families get prepared for the first day of school – Day One – which is today! Our exciting Back-to-School Bash at the Georgia World Congress Center about 48 hours ago provided final support in making sure our students are Day One-ready! It showed that no one opens schools like APS as we held this bash for the fifth year in a row!

About 10,000 APS students and family members came to the free event to learn about everything and anything they needed in preparation for Day One. We provided educational and afterschool resources, live entertainment, fun activities for children, free backpacks stuffed with school supplies, and a raffle featuring several new bicycles as prizes!

Once again, it came together because of outstanding support from our sponsors like WVEE-FM/V-103, WAGA-TV/FOX5, Mercedes-Benz, Newell Brands, Delta AirLines and CareSource. More than 100 vendors participated this year. So many thanks to them! Thank you to our elected officials, including our supportive Atlanta Board of Education members, who attended and met with our students and families! And also thanks to my APS colleagues – especially Rachel Sprecher, executive director of partnerships and development, and our resident logistics expert James Carter – who did all of the heavy lifting!

But nothing says welcome back to school like hugs and love from civil rights giant and Congressman John Lewis! My colleagues, students and I all gushed as Rep. Lewis made the rounds at Back to School BASH to wish us a happy new school year! He told our beautiful kids: “Never, never, never, never give up!”

What a way to start the year!

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