DonorsChoose.org, APS Takes Crowdfunding Education to Next Level

Thank you … thank you … thank you!

If I were to even attempt to non-stop to thank everyone who donates to Atlanta Public Schools through DonorsChoose.org, it would take me – assuming that each heartfelt thank you would take at least 10 seconds – at least one day, 19 hours, eight minutes and 50 seconds to thank them all!

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During a spring event with Good Morning America, DonorsChoose.org donated $25,000 to Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy

Even then, I could not express enough gratitude for the many ways we have seen educator support through DonorsChoose.org, a dynamic crowdfunding platform designed to connect donors with teachers who need help with materials and experiences for their students and classrooms.

Since 2014, this partnership has generated $5.4 million for nearly 7,000 projects across our school district. This effort has touched all of our schools, connecting them with some 15,533 donors at last count! (An interesting fact: 63% of the donors come from outside of Georgia! Thank you, America!)

Today … it all goes another level!

As one of 10 inaugural members of the DonorsChoose.org District Partnership Program, our teachers and principals can tap deeper into the organization’s network of 3.5 million donors. Additionally, APS gets a more streamlined process to align the donations with the APS strategy and operations.

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DonorsChoose.org has helped fund more than 7,000 projects in APS.

That comes mostly through a dedicated page for our fundraising efforts. Potential donors can swiftly navigate through APS-specific projects to find the best match for their generosity and money.

For us, the new landing page enables our educators to easily monitor all projects and donated materials. Principals will be notified each time a project is funded and receive early notification when there are new “match” funding opportunities.

Please visit our new page at www.donorschoose.org/APS.

And if all of this wasn’t enough, DonorsChoose.org, as part of today’s announcement, plans to provide $250,000 in matching donations for their inaugural partners.

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Discussing the spirit of giving with beautiful students at Deerwood Academy.

We celebrated this new venture at Deerwood Academy in the Therrell Cluster, where 12 teachers currently have projects in need of funding. With Principal Camisha Perry, teachers and first and fourth grade students from Ms. King and Ms. Jones-Harris classrooms, we all discussed the spirit of giving and how to be a good person by helping people or a cause.

Before reading Winning by Giving by Nancy Kelly Allen, we talked about the feelings donors get when they give. The students said they feel thankful and happy, and as one our students said, “Donors might get a blessing!”

So get in the spirit of giving, click on www.donorschoose.org/APS and help our teachers! You will get an APS blessing along with a Deerwood Academy “choo choo” thank you!

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Here are some of the students and teachers at Deerwood Academy who need your donations!

APS 2019 Graduation Rate Remains High at 77.9 Percent

District reports highest number of graduates to date – 2,506 students! APS decreased by 2.0 percentage point from all-time high last year.

Whenever the day arrives when the Georgia Department of Education releases official graduation rates, I can always expect a mix of news. And as it happens every year, the news for Atlanta Public Schools comes with a mix of great news for some of our high schools and room for improvement on our overall district rate.

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Coretta Scott King reported a 100% graduation rate!

First, the news: Atlanta Public Schools (APS) reported a 77.9 percent graduation rate for the 2019 cohort, according to graduation data released today by the Georgia Department of Education. The rate represents an 18.8 percentage point increase over 2014, although 2.0 percentage points less than the district’s all-time high graduation rate of 79.9 percent posted in 2018.

And now the great news: More students – 2,506 of them – graduated on-time from APS in 2019 than any other year since 2012, when the state adopted the cohort graduation rate as required by federal law. This is an increase of 68 students from 2018. The 2019 cohort included 3,215 students, an increase of 165 compared to 2018 and the largest cohort since 2014.

More news: The 2019 results also show that the APS rate lags behind the state graduation rate of 82.0% by 4.1 percentage points.

Healthy growth comes with both gains and declines and ebbs and flows, but as long as progress moves overall in the right direction strongly and consistently, the work remains on target to reach the district’s graduation goals. That has been the case for Atlanta Public Schools. As Figure 1 shows, the district’s graduation rate remains 18.8 percentage points higher than the 59.1 percent rate for cohort 2014.

APS Graduation Rates (Graduate Counts/Cohort Sizes)

Figure 1:  APS Graduation Rates (Graduate Counts/Cohort Sizes)

 While our rate declined slightly from our all-time high in 2018, we are encouraged that our efforts are continuing to yield results for kids and producing much stronger outcomes than just five years ago. There is no question, however, that there is much more work to be done to ensure that all students are on the path to graduation.

But we have some great news to share about our graduation rates!

Five of our schools posted graduation rates greater than 90 percent. In fact, Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, led by Principal Eulonda Washington, had a 100% graduation rate for cohort 2019. The other schools include: Drew Secondary (96.6%) – Principal Kendrick Myers; Carver Early College (92.6%) – Principal Marcene Thornton; North Atlanta High School (91.1%) – Principal Curtis Douglass; and Grady High School (90.4%) – Principal Betsy Bockman. 

Eight schools achieved percentage point gains compared to 2018: Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy (+6.5) – Principal Eulonda Washington; Forrest Hill (+4.7) – Principal Zawadaski Robinson; Carver STEAM (+3.1) – Principal Yusuf Muhammad; South Atlanta High (+3.0) – Principal Patricia Ford; B.E.S.T. Academy (+2.4) – Tim Jones; Crim High (+2.3), Carver Early College (+0.9) – Principal Marcene Thornton; and Therrell High (+0.6) – Principal Shelly Powell. See Figure 2.

2019 APS Graduation Rates and Changes from 2018

Figure 2:  2019 APS Graduation Rates and Changes from 2018

I want to give a huge shout out and a congratulations to all teachers and staff at these schools and a big shout out to all of our principals. I also want to thank Evelyn Mobley, principal of Crim and Phoenix Academy, for addressing the needs of our at-risk and credit-deficient 11th and 12th grade students and helping them get back on the path to graduation.percentage gains

Across the district, I want to thank our teachers, school leaders, graduation coaches, counselors, administration teams, and support staff for everything they’ve done to help our students succeed. When you visit our schools, please be sure to thank them as well, as they are at the front lines of our mission. These graduation rates reflect not only student achievement but their unrelenting efforts to prepare them for choice-filled lives!

I also want to recognize Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan and Associate Superintendent Dan Sims, and his team in our Office of High Schools, Chief Accountability and Information Officer Bill Caritj, Executive Director Michael LaMont and his Data and Information Group, especially Elise Lenthe, for creating the dashboards and tracking tools we needed.

I’ll provide a full report on graduation rates and other performance indicators for the district at the 2019 State of the District on Thursday, November 7, at the newly renovated Harper-Archer Elementary at 3399 Collier Dr. NW, Atlanta 30331. Heroic students, educators and APS staff will join me to narrate “The Epic of APS,” which highlights the victories, struggles and stalemates from the APS Journey of Transformation and our quest for excellence to ensure all students graduate ready for college and career. I’d love to see you there! RSVP here.

Until then, my APS colleagues and I are working to increase graduation rates once again. Thanks to all in Atlanta for the ongoing support of our educators and students!

For more information and charts on our 2019 graduation rate, go to https://apsinsights.org/blog.

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Surprising Finalists for Principal and Assistant Principal of the Year with a BIG ‘APyeS!’

The part of my job as superintendent that I love more than anything is when I get to visit our schools and classrooms and see our educators and students in action. And as superintendent, I fully understand that my work is wholly dependent on our team leading where they work in our district. There are few people that I rely more upon than our school administrators.

621A8804I am so proud of our school leadership. I truly think we have the best team of principals and assistant principals in the state! I was thrilled to go out to our schools last week to surprise several of them as finalists for Principal of the Year and Assistant Principal of the Year.

We will name the winners at the APyeS awards program on Tuesday, October 29, at the Delta Flight Museum.

Before I reveal the finalists, I want our community to understand how much responsibility we have directed to our school-based leadership in recent years. I really depend on this amazing educators for their work on the frontlines of education as we prepare our children for college and career.

621A8604And so as part of our operating model and agreement with the state, we have directed more decisions to be made at the school level by these principals and their teachers, parents and community members, all of whom are closer to students and their school needs. This freedom and flexibility comes with increased accountability for student achievement.

We also have designed an Aspiring Leaders program for internal leaders who wish to pursue a position as assistant principal or principal in our district within the next 1-2 years. We created the program as it was essential that we provide leadership development for team members already committed to the APS mission and vision.

These changes are paying off! We are seeing evidence of more engagement, better outcomes and higher achievement. Additionally, we are also seeing more stability at the school. Principal turnover has decreased significantly from 30%, when I had to hire 24 new principals in 2014, to 5% for this year, when I only had to hire four!

I’m so proud of all of them … drum roll, please. The finalists for APS Principal of the Year are:

  • Robin Christian of Barack and Michelle Obama Academy
  • Audrey Sofianos of Morningside Elementary School
  • Eulonda Washington of Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy

The finalists for APS Assistant Principal of the Year are:

  • Joy Antone of Inman Middle School
  • Sharonda Murrell of Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy
  • Robert Stewart of Miles Elementary School

Congratulations to all of you! And good luck at the APyeS Awards!

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Report from the Superintendent Quarterly Media Roundtable

At least four times each year, I engage with local reporters from print, broadcast and even our high schools journalists to talk about what’s happening in Atlanta Public Schools. I convened the latest Superintendent Quarterly Media Roundtable on Wednesday afternoon at the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Learning and Leadership.

As part of the formal agenda, we talked about our work on the next five-year Strategic Plan; the district’s work on a Facilities Master Plan; the inaugural Great Atlanta Bash football extravaganza at Georgia State’s football stadium on Saturday, Sept. 21; the APyeS awards, which will be presented on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at the Delta Flight Museum; and the upcoming “Epic of APS” State of the District, on Thursday, Nov. 7, at a newly renovated Harper-Archer Elementary School.

The discussion moved to other topics, including media questions about the superintendent contract extension.

Check full video below.

A Note to My Beloved APS Community – Update on Our Journey Together

I am proud, honored and humbled to be your superintendent, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. Over the past five years, I have used this blog to inform you – the APS community – in a direct and transparent way about our work on behalf of Atlanta’s children.

This morning, the Atlanta Board of Education decided to launch a search for a new superintendent. Serving the children of Atlanta Public Schools in this role – and working alongside our educators, caregivers and partners – has been the greatest honor of my professional life.

As I have expressed throughout the community for the past few months, I had a sincere desire for a contract extension so that our team and I could complete the vision and charge I was hired to achieve for the benefit of Atlanta’s children: Rebuild trust and restore pride in Atlanta Public Schools and position it for the future, especially after the largest cheating scandal in the history of public education.

I’ve always been committed to working diligently and collaboratively to achieve the District’s goals and our mission to prepare every student for college and career. I feel we are well on that path. In fact, APS has made great progress from rising graduation rates to higher test scores to increased autonomy and resources for our schools.

I love hard. I work passionately. And when necessary, I fight for APS and Atlanta’s children. I have always done what I believed to be right. I’ve always worked conscientiously to execute our mission and vision. And I have always had the belief that, despite challenges we have faced, we have always been able to come together and take actions in the best interests of children. For that, I am really proud of everyone in APS.

The disparity in educational outcomes for Atlanta’s children has been intergenerational and systemic. The solutions are not easy, which is why I so passionately wanted to stay and finish the job I was hired to do.

The Atlanta community entrusts its children and its hard-earned tax dollars to us. We in APS owe it to our community to continue to get up each day and show up for our children. I am incredibly humbled by the support and grateful for our community of students, caregivers, principals, teachers, staff, alumni and partners who have been so supportive of the work we have done.

I’ve said many times: I love Atlanta … I believe in Atlanta. I believe in everyone in APS, and I believe everyone on our team will continue to get the job done for children. Despite progress and gains, this work is not done.

As hard as it is sometimes, given the challenges inside and outside of the system, I do love my job and want to work to ensure that Atlanta has a homegrown educated workforce. I’ve made Atlanta my home, and there is still so much more work to be done. We have come a long way since the dark days of scandal, and I hope we can continue the progress.

Our children need all of us — the Board and Superintendent, along with the entire APS community — to fight for them and to be their voice to have the best chance at choice-filled lives.

Five Years of Progress in Atlanta Public Schools and Counting

On Monday, August 12, more than 50,000 students and 7,000 educators and staff will return to school, marking our sixth Day One together! I am still as proud, honored, excited and committed to serve our children and families of the City of Atlanta as I was on my first Day One!

I have given my heart and soul to Atlanta Public Schools, and I am truly proud of everything our district is starting to become. As superintendents, we do our jobs in dog years, so I’ve been here for about 35 years (hahaha!), but the strain and the stress – and the joys – have been worth it!

Thanks to the hard work of a lot of people inside and outside of APS, over the past five years, APS is, indeed, making gains and progress. I could not be more grateful to the Board of Education, my team, our teachers and staff, our students and families, and the Atlanta community for the progress so far. We have more work ahead, but let’s review some highlights of the past five years.

Over that time, we have fixed a few things, stabilized others and refocused on our core purpose – to prepare kids for college and career. We have a clear mission and vision for APS, a five-year strategic plan with the four pillars of Academic Programs, Talent Management, Systems and Resources and Culture and have embarked on the next evolution of our work together.

We have a new contract with the state allowing more decisions to be made at the school level by principals, educators, parents and community members, all of whom are closer to students and their school needs. This freedom and flexibility comes with increased accountability for student achievement, but the change is paying off! We are seeing evidence of more engagement, better outcomes and higher achievement.

Aligned with this operating model, APS created and funded signature theme plans for each cluster around programs such as International Baccalaureate, STEM and College and Career Prep. Also, that led to school governance bodies – we call them GO Teams – comprised of parents, educators and community members to assist with school-based decision-making.

I truly believe I put in place one of the strongest teams in education today. We started with establishing a strong senior leadership team and supporting and stabilizing our school-based teams.

Principal turnover has decreased significantly from 30%, when I had to hire 24 new principals in 2014, to 5% for this year, when I only had to hire four. Our Day One teacher vacancies dropped from 243 in 2013 to ONLY SEVEN this year. This is the sixth year in a row where we had fewer than 10 teacher vacancies when schools opened at the start of the year.

Last year, we made the last payment on a $30 million pay parity correction plan that began in 2015 to create a more equitable pay schedule for our employees. For this fiscal year, we secured enough revenue to fully fund pay raises at the level recommended by our new Governor. Across our whole workforce, that’s an average raise of about 5% per teacher.

We also have some of the best educators in the nation: Tracey Pendley, 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year, first district winner in 40 years!; Dr. Terrilyn Rivers-Cannon, National School Social Worker of the Year, and Principal Andrew Lovett of Benteen and music teacher Ashleigh Spatz at Burgess-Peterson Academy, 2019 recipients of Atlanta Families’ Awards for Excellence. We haven’t ever seen a year of recognition like this!

And in truth, you continue to have a devoted, energized, committed superintendent, who pledges to you that she is willing to continue to do the hard work and make the necessary changes to see this all the way through to a more stable, higher achieving district for all children so that Atlanta has a home-grown quality workforce. We have to finish this work and cannot become complacent or give in to political agendas.

Stable, quality leadership matters. I’m concerned when I see so many superintendent turnovers around the country in urban centers and in Metro Atlanta. Someone recently told me that in the world of Atlanta politics, it’s not about children. While that may be true for some, it cannot be an acceptable standard in our region. In THIS role, you to have someone who educates the babies, balances the books, blocks the bullies and cuts out the bull so that Atlanta can have a quality workforce and an educated citizenry.

We made a commitment to change the APS Culture so we have made social emotional learning – the ability to set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships – a district priority. We’ve seen lower suspension and arrest rates partly because of this and also because we have a new police force under the leadership of Chief Ron Applin focused on SEL and restorative practices. For the past four years, APS and all of its schools have earned the No Place for Hate designation from the Anti-Defamation League.

We have also seen a positive increase in employee engagement, which has improved over five years from the 5th national percentile to the 57th according to Gallup, putting us above the national average among other organizations taking the survey.

Other signs of progress can be seen in Systems & Resources.

Thanks to Atlanta taxpayers, we have the benefit of another five-year 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.

With our new Student Success Funding model, APS has worked to make sure larger shares of our expenditures go directly to schools. Over the past five years, the amount of general fund dollars accounted for at specific school sites has increased from 66% of the total budget to 73% in the FY2020 Board-approved General Fund Budget of $854.2 million. 

And APS has either established or re-established more than 350 partners and raised more than $72 million.

We have seen meaningful progress with Academics. Looking at the bookends of a K-12 education from early childhood to graduation, the District offers 1,336 pre-K seats, a 35% increase over the past five years. Our graduation rate increased from 59.1% to 79.9%, which is 20.8 percentage-point growth. I hope to have good news about graduation rates next month for our most recent graduating class.

Atlanta Public Schools graduation rates from 2014 to 2018

Also, APS’ college-going rate has increased to 62%, climbing 11 percentage points.

As we recently reported, APS has achieved its highest gains to date in percentage of students who scored proficient and above across all subjects on the 2019 Georgia Milestones End-of-Grade and End-of-Course Assessments. Specifically, APS posted year-over-year gains in the percentage of students scoring proficient and above on 21 of 24 assessments. That’s 88%, up from 52% when we started.

Percentage of APS Milestones Assessments with Year-Over-Year Growth

But while we can celebrate gains, many, many more of our students must be proficient and distinguished learners before we can say we are preparing them for college and career. On all 24 assessments of the Milestones tests, about a third of our students scored proficient or better. But flip that, and it means that two-thirds of our students are NOT proficient.

Illustrating with our End-of-Course ELA, where 36.9% of our third through eighth graders achieve proficiency and above, a gain of 4.6 percentage points over the past four years.

But flip it, and that means that 63.1% of those our students are not reading on grade level!

When we drill deeper and consider socio-economics, the results are absolutely sobering. Let’s look at ELA results by race.

While our white students show 84.1% proficiency and above on average on ELA, only 25.3% of our black students show similar achievement.

That’s a whopping 58.8 percentage point gap! AAARRRRGGGHHHH!

THIS is why I know our work is not done. This is not the time to take a victory lap.

As we continue the work, we must understand the most unfair truth about Atlanta: It is the most unequal city in the United States when it comes to income disparity. In my work, it sometimes feels that we are light years away from lifting the barriers of intergenerational poverty for our children, especially when Stanford University research found that a child born in poverty in Atlanta has only a 4.5% chance to rise to the top quarter of earners. About 75 percent of our children live in poverty!

That poverty is at the heart of nearly every issue facing our students and schools. Three of the poorest schools in the entire state of Georgia are in our district – Boyd Elementary, Thomasville Heights and Fain Elementary.

According to the most current census data, the median household income within our school district is $167,087 for white students and $23,803 for black students. Closely associated with this inequity gap is the academic achievement gap I’ve already mentioned. As this chart illustrates, white students are nearly 4.5 grade levels ahead of their black peers within Atlanta Public Schools.

 We are seeing gains – more proficiency, higher graduation rates, more stable and high quality leadership and educators, and even high poverty schools like Hope Hill and West Manor elementary beating the odds. But you cannot be fair to all concerned when too many of our families deal with unstable housing, food deserts, lower economic opportunities and a lack of transportation year after year which amounts to intergenerational poverty.

Atlanta has the money. APS can help, but one of the biggest challenges for the district is the erosion of the tax digest, which is outside of our control. It’s especially hard to do the two things we want to do the most: One, keep pace with rising healthcare costs, pensions and the competitive salary market while attempting to invest deeply in strategies to turnaround our schools with the most needs while supporting and expanding excellence in successful schools. And, two, reduce the burden on our homeowners, while a soft third is supporting economic development in our city.

If a world-class city like Atlanta really wants a world-class school system, it has to fairly allocate tax dollars, balancing the interest of economic development with the District’s educational mission and responsibilities to our 52,000 students, 6,000 employees and 158,000 taxpayers.

We took two specific actions as part of our commitment to help homeowners with tax relief. First, we supported Senate Bill 485’s homestead exemption, and second, we rolled back our millage rate during Fiscal Year 2019. This one mill rollback returned 80% of the increase to homeowners, and when added to the SB 485 homestead exemption, we anticipate that APS will return approximately $200 million over the next four years to homeowners.

We would like to do more, but without having checks and balances on the largest portion of the tax bill, our hands are tied to do much more. We support economic growth in the city but that growth must also serve the students and the families our district serves.

We have many opportunities to take the next steps necessary to address equity. We have to keep that in mind especially as we continue implementing the Transformation Strategy to position more students for choice-filled lives.

We must continue working both sides of the aisles and maintain relationships with our state lawmakers and improve our relationship with the city. We had a good run with Governor Deal; we worked well with legislators. We got off to a good start with Governor Kemp, who chose an Atlanta school to make a recent budget announcement. And I serve on the First Lady’s Grace Commission to combat human trafficking.

We all know that our district and our students face some unbelievable odds. Intergenerational poverty especially has stacked the deck significantly against our city and our families, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on any of OUR kids.

But we are nearing the end of that part of the APS journey.

We must continue the investment. We must finish the work. And I am committed to do that.

I invite the entire APS community to be a part of and step into our mission: With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.

At our central office, we step into huge, stunning images of our beautiful students every day. They are on our elevator doors! (See photos of the elevator and more of the Bash and Day One below!) It’s a daily … hourly … almost minute-by-minute reminder that every time you walk into the elevator you are walking into a child’s life.

Join me and enter those doors. Let’s take the elevator all the way to the top for every Atlanta child to have a choice-filled life.

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!