During my final few weeks and days leading Atlanta Public Schools, the rigors of educating children amid a global pandemic and civic unrest hasn’t afforded me too many opportunities to simply sit and reflect upon the last six years. But upon reflection, I believe that my APS (best) life is the jam, and the source of these overwhelming emotions springs directly from my experiences with my colleagues and our amazing, loving, and talented students.
From the first day to the last day, I swore that my work in APS would always be about putting students first. When I began my APS journey, I made a pledge that we would emerge from the district’s beleaguered history and redirect our work away from adult-driven agendas to refocus a school system and a city toward a child-centered culture.
We made it our mission to create a culture of trust and collaboration so that every student would graduate ready for college and career. Therefore, I became more energized, more driven, and more focused with each school year when it became clear that our culture was becoming more and more focused on educating children.
I certainly cannot forget that I never did this work alone. I gave a lot of love and air hugs to my colleagues in a previous blog. We worked best and got the most joy when we worked together directly with students. And, in truth, I could not have been as engaged directly with students if it wasn’t for highly engaged teachers, parapros, principals, support staff, SROs, and others!
As I look back, I visited classrooms, music rooms, theaters, athletic fields, courts, and even pools – wherever our students were learning or displaying their talents. My greatest satisfaction always came when I could showcase them at our State of the District addresses, board meetings, and other events throughout the year.
Having to manage data and statistics, I can quickly rattle off budget numbers, achievement percentages, graduation rates, and test scores. But I have completely lost count of the hundreds of schools and classroom visits, the athletic events and art performances, and the time spent with thousands of our beautiful children. There are just too many, so it became a way of my APS (best) life.
I remember the quality of each experience and how each affected me. My time with students has truly been the most satisfying, most rewarding, and most worthwhile part of my entire APS journey. No one has touched me, changed me, moved me as much as our children.
They have imparted love, wisdom, wonder, and joy.
They have surprised and inspired me with their forthrightness, their activism, and their spirit.
They have endeared me with their empathy, giving and support.
As a superintendent, there was never a better day than when I could be with the students, and there was never a bad day when it involved children. Simply said, there is nothing better in Atlanta Public Schools than being with students engaged in learning and their lives.
Another part of my APS (best) life was having the opportunity to hit the courts, run the fields, cheer and even get into the pool with them. I played football (#4evaNumber11), softball, and basketball with them. I cheered with them, performed with them, debated with them, and danced with them.
Our students, who don’t even care about Twitter, begrudgingly indulged me in this form of social media. Always out of touch with the next cool app (sigh!), I managed, however, to get pretty good with selfies and stuck with it. The evidence bears true as I managed to hold a selfie stick in one hand while serving as placeholder for a North Atlanta Warrior kicker. Also, I literally wore out seven selfie sticks.
The best part of my Twitterverse was that it helped me put an enormous spotlight on our kids.
There are some surprises among my APS (best) life. Some students became part of my personal life as well as the life of my extended family. We explored the world together (“We’re going to Hamilton on Broadway, Stigg!”), sharing clothes together (“Get out of my closet, Sydney!”) and watching them grow up and graduate from college (“I’m so proud of you at Stanford, Amadou!”)
You have met these mentees many times through my social media accounts over the years, but I wanted to highlight some of them here as I love and cherish them all so much. Their life journey became part of my APS (best) life journey.
Amadou Bah #DouBah
Amadou Bah, the son of immigrant parents from Guinea who had no formal education, became my first mentee. A rising senior at B.E.S.T. Academy, he displayed a longstanding, relentless pursuit for education.
Because of his well-articulated struggles with APS despite his and his family’s strong work ethic, Amadou was the first student to actually make me cry because he made such a compelling case for change in our schools. He always remained at the top of his class, graduating as valedictorian of the Class of 2015.
He never ceased to amaze me with his drive and motivation even after he moved to California to attend Stanford University. We had the greatest conversations when he studied abroad in Ghana, where he worked at a hospital for a summer and actually delivered a baby! He’s an investment analyst now, but with his heart and spirit, he is one of those students who will change the world.
Qwantayvious “Stigg” Stiggers #Homies4eva
Qwantayvious Stiggers was one of the first students I met as superintendent and over his last two years in APS – my first two – Stigg became my mentee. More than any student, he was, in many ways, MY mentor. He really showed me what the headlines and the research meant in an Atlanta child’s life.
With the support of family, teachers, and mentors, Stigg also navigated his way through B.E.S.T. to become its valedictorian for the Class of 2016. His journey took him to the University of Michigan, where he majors in gender and health toward a path of pediatrics and urban studies to help children like him find their way out of intergenerational poverty.
He also became my biggest cheerleader when I began improving my own physical well-being by becoming a runner. He ran alongside me for my first 5Ks and 10Ks, and I have run many more and even several marathons since then. When I ran my first half marathon, I beat his best time (and he was a star football player) by 30 minutes. (Yes, Stigg that’s a highlight of my APS (best) life!)
Oh, I’m a sucker for his valedictorian speech. I cry every time.
Shaun Kleber #theOGintern
I actually came to know Shaun, an honors graduate of Grady High School, in 2016 several years after his time in APS through an internship of his own making. Shaun contacted me to let me know that he had two days available each week during his final semester at the University of Georgia. He wished to offer his time – for free – so he could experience the work in the administration of an urban school district because he wants to be a superintendent himself.
Shaun not only became an invaluable intern but has since become a valuable resource of support, energy, and ideas even though he went on to work for McKinsey and eventually at City Year, a non-profit that serves children in Boston. It touches me that the whole Kleber family has essentially adopted me as one of their own. I run with his mom, and I join them for holidays when Shaun is in town.
Good luck, Shaun, at Harvard Law School!
Sydney Stepney #SydneyBaby
I met Sydney Stepney on Day One 2016 when she gave me a personal lesson in hydroponics and urban agriculture. She also became the first recipient of the Governor’s Honors Scholarship for Mays High in the core area of agriculture science. As part of her leadership with BEWARE (Benjamin Elijah Women Articulating Real Empowerment), she led a clothing drive to provide business attire for homeless women’s job interviews and even raided my closet for clothes! (“I see you kept my jacket, Sydney!”)
She continues to impress me endlessly with her heart, her charity, and her drive! Now a rising senior at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, she embarks this summer on an incredible virtual eight-week internship with Upkey that will allow her to interact with medical and health professionals around the world.
She’s beautiful. She’s brilliant. She will always be my #SydneyBaby.
Nori Moore #MissMays
I fell in love with Nori Moore because of her angelic voice, her infectious spirit, and her ever-present smile! (Just look at her at graduation photo!) This young lady exudes positivity, and I could not wait whenever we had planned to spend time together. There was a reason her classmates at Benjamin E. Mays High School selected her as their Miss Mays! And I just had to have her group “Cascade” as part of the 2018 State of the District: APS Rocks! Check her and the Freeman Sisters – Moya and Nora – at about the 27:30 mark! (Start music … Go! Go! Go! Mays Raiders … ooooohh!
The Last Interns #WorkFam
Every year in Atlanta Public Schools, I have had interns over the summer who take their own initiative to reach out and work with me for job and leadership experience. It’s been a fun mix of students over the years. They often come back year after to year to volunteer, support, and check in on the district and me. This summer I had the pleasure of working with a small team of current APS students who wanted opportunities to work with me on equity and unity projects.
Thank you, Allison Hunter and Tyrese Miller of South Atlanta High and Kaylee Spivey of North Atlanta High for joining this intern legacy! Best wishes to all of you during the 2020-2021 school year! I’m proud of you and will miss you!
To ensure we all could see their beautiful faces, for our final #WorkFam photo, we held our breaths, smiled and posed, and ran to put our masks back on.
The Class of 2020 #WorthTheWait
With all of the challenges we faced in the second semester of the school year, I felt especially heartbroken for the Class of 2020 – a class of more than 2,500 graduates – that had to finish a senior year in unprecedented fashion. Despite losing prom, spring sports, and the pomp and circumstance of a traditional May graduation, these students didn’t give up … and we definitely didn’t give up on them!
Amid all of the chaos and crazy surrounding a global pandemic, I feel a special connection to these students because we are both transitioning, but we didn’t get closure. We didn’t get to say our goodbyes!
By the virtue of being the class forced to brave a pandemic through to graduation, I believe they will become the strongest, most resilient, most prepared students of their generation. As I expressed in my Letter to the Class of 2020, I implored them to take that strength forward, persevere, and continue making us proud.
I could already see it in them as they led demonstrations and movements garnering national attention, such as silent and respectful protests against gun violence as well as the Global Climate Initiative that originated from North Atlanta by Cole Bickerstaff and Emily D’Achiardi. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced our schools to close for teleschooling, many of them openly let me know what they thought! Chris Whitaker of Douglass High initiated an online petition that generated more than 6,000 signatures and had a lot of sway in pushing for closure for the health and safety of our students and staff.
Although we were apart, we did celebrate all of them virtually in 14 distinctive graduation celebrations online. I encourage everyone to go back and re-live the beautiful virtual celebrations as prepared by the Office of High Schools, the communications team, and each of our schools and their senior classes.
As the Class of 2020 commences on the next part of their personal journey and the rest of students prepare this summer for an unprecedented and uncertain new school year, we must always work for them so that all of them have choice-filled lives.
I, too, face an unprecedented journey ahead. But as a I move forward, I can point to these moments and proudly and affirmatively say that my APS (best) life leaves me heartened and stronger for the future. Sometimes students are the best teachers, and I have been schooled by the best in Atlanta Public Schools. For that tutelage, I am forever grateful because they have prepared me for my next best life to come.