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Multitude of Reasons to Be Thankful in APS

As we near big holiday seasons, we often spend time counting the days, then the hours and then the minutes until we can leave APS for a while and spend extended time elsewhere. Our teachers, staff and students have worked hard so far this semester, and they need this much-deserved break. But for a moment, I encourage all of us to count our blessings and the many reasons we should be thankful to be a part of Atlanta Public Schools.

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Students at Deerwood Academy celebrate Thanksgiving during a special lunch this week.

First of all, I am thankful for our many teachers, who serve at the frontlines of our schools. They have spent many days (and nights and, often, weekends) in service to our students. We have a specific mission to graduate every student ready for college and career, and they are dedicated to giving them the smarts … and the hearts … to be better people than we could ever be. I really do not think I could be thankful enough for them.

I am thankful for our parents, our caregivers, our grandparents, our families and friends who do everything they can to get our children to school each day ready to learn. I am thankful for them trying to find teachable in every day.

I am thankful to our school board members and the entire APS staff for doing the work in support of our teachers, families and students, especially as we do the difficult lifting required to create the kind of transformation that is so desperately needed in Atlanta Public Schools.apsnutrition

I’m thankful for the voters in Atlanta, who overwhelmingly reinvested in Atlanta’s kids with the renewal of the E-SPLOST, a penny sales tax that goes toward much-needed renovations of our schools, technology, buses, athletic facilities and school security enhancements. It will make a huge difference in every cluster and every school in the district.

I’m thankful for our new GO Teams, which empowers our school communities to become more engaged in the operations and budgets of their home schools.

I’m thankful for our new Safety and Security Department, which includes a new police department designed in alignment with a national TRIAD model where officers police, counsel and teach. Working with the support of Georgia State University and WestEd, these officers are trained in social emotional learning, positive behavior supports and restorative justice.

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Perkerson Elementary created a Wall of Gratitude in recognition of Thanksgiving.

I am thankful for our district priority of social emotional learning, where all students can be taught skills like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making, to reach their hopes and dreams. And I am thankful that Atlanta is at the forefront of this burgeoning national movement.

I am thankful for our many partners – nearly 200 of them! – who have found their way back to APS through donations, expertise or sweat equity and joined us for an amazing State of the District based on the popular Hamilton musical. I am especially thankful for Achieve Atlanta for the college advisement and last-dollar financial support that has enabled more than 700 seniors last year to go to college.

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Schools like Fickett used Thanksgiving to engage our families.

 

I am thankful for the expertise of our new operating partners for giving us the additional capacity, resources and culture to help even more kids have choice-filled lives. And I am thankful for the communities where we came together to create dynamic new learning environments that are the Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy, the Hollis Innovation Academy, Woodson Park Academy and Thomasville Heights Elementary School.

I am thankful for our new wraparound initiatives such as the new care centers at Dobbs and Miles elementary school and the new Ronald McDonald Care Mobile for schools in the Therrell Cluster.

But, most of all, I am thankful for the opportunity to work every day with our students. The best part of this job comes when I spend time with these beautiful children, from the classroom to the recital rooms to the theaters to the labs to the playing fields.

For that, I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart, and I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

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Honoring Our Heroes: Veterans, Military Service Men and Women … and the Tuskegee Airmen

Every day but on Veterans Day in particular, I stand in awe of our veterans and the men and women who actively serve in the U.S. armed services. Their job is to protect our nation, keeping it a free and safe place for our students as they grow into adulthood. They do so while making the great sacrifice of putting their lives at risk in the service of others.

Like many of our students in Atlanta Public Schools, I am a member of a family with veterans. My late Uncle Ralph – to whom I paid tribute in this space last year – was among those whose sacrifice and service to our country and to his family continues to make me proud.

But I wanted to pay special tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. Along with Board Member Steven Lee and Principal Lincoln Woods of the Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy, I got to spend some quality time with a few of them during an appreciation ceremony today at Prince Hall in Riverdale.

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Humbling to be in the presence of actual Tuskegee Airmen! Thank you for your service!

Each of them have distinct tales of resilience, grace under pressure and uncommon valor … tinged with a certain sense of irony.

As most of us know… at the time they were recruited for service to serve as bombing escorts for World War II – arguably the most dangerous of the dangerous aerial missions in that war – black men were deemed to be of significantly less intelligence than white men. There were actually “scientific” studies that stated that their brains were physically smaller. Army reports described black soldiers as “childlike,” “unmoral and untruthful” and “shiftless.” (It’s still unbelievable to me that our servicemen and women had to endure these conditions and belief systems!)

And yet, the Army itself was recruiting these very young men to operate extremely complicated machines and some of the most sophisticated technologies available during that part of the 20th century.

Now here’s where the irony comes in.

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Board Member Steven Lee and I with Deputy Grand Master Corey Shackleford Sr. of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, which sponsored the event

They trained this new squadron of pilots at Moton Field near Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. As they recruited these black men, not only did many of these raw recruits have college degrees already, some of them even had their pilot’s licenses! In many ways, they were the most qualified recruits for any branch of the service! In all, 992 pilots were trained from 1941 to 1946.

And after training, these pilots could do the seemingly impossible! Such as flying at hundreds of miles an hour in formation with their wings only inches apart.

Now as a private pilot myself, I salute these Airmen for that feat alone! But, there are even more war time accomplishments:

  • 1578 combat missions – 1,267 for the 12th Air Force; 311 for the 15th Air Force
  • 179 bomber escort missions
  • An excellent record of protection, losing bombers on only seven missions for a total of 27 bombers. That’s compared to an average of 46 among other 15th Air Force P-51 groups.

Again, impressive and humbling.

Now a sad irony. They would come home and still be subjected to the Jim Crow laws they had left behind. The country they protected bravely from the air would reject them and neglect them once they returned to the ground.

But many of these Airmen overcame the odds.

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Meeting with First Sgt. Frank Carter and his cadets from Booker T. Washington HS

By bravely stepping up and fighting for their country while fighting for their own rights and dignity at the same time, they paved the way for greater things. This includes inspiring the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement. They continue to inspire us today.

A Special Kind of Tribute

Over the years, I have been enormously proud when our students, educators, staff and school communities came together to recognize our veterans. We have had food drives, clothing drives, partnerships with the USO, special programs and presentations. We have brought veterans into our schools so they can tell us stories and impart some of their lessons and wisdom they have gathered over the years through turbulent times.

But I don’t know that we have ever honored our veterans in such a grand and appropriate fashion as we did recently with the opening of the Tuskegee Global Airman Academy this year.

When we made the hard but determined decision to merge Connally and Venetian Hills schools this year onto a single campus, we knew that we couldn’t do the work lightly, carelessly or thoughtlessly. We had to be deliberate in making the new school into something worthy of those communities and of the Airmen they sought to commemorate.

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Principal Lincoln Woods of Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy

And I am not just talking about the naming of a school, which is pretty fantastic in itself. I am talking about the whole spirit … the entire curriculum … the entire school inside and out. From the marquee outside of the school to what is going on in the classrooms themselves, the aura of the Tuskegee Airmen engulfs that school community.

We chose the STEM curriculum as the signature theme for this school with an additional emphasis on aeronautic science and engineering. With that kind of spirit, cooperation and collaboration, we can be certain that the young Eagles of Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy will soon soar much in the ways of Eagles and the Tuskegee Airmen themselves.

To the Tuskegee Airmen … actually … to all veterans in Atlanta … the Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy is your school, too, so I invite you to visit this school that was created in your honor.

Please take your experiences, dedication and passions from serving our country and direct those energies toward the services of our children, the future of our nation.

These kids need you. They really do.

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Some of the beautiful JROTC cadets from Mays and Washington high schools

They need your support. They need your guidance. They need your wisdom. They need your stories.

Most of all, they could use your time.

Come into our schools and volunteer. Relate your tales of challenges, bravery and service. Come and let our children love on you and show you the respect and kindness as only children can. Come into our schools so we can thank you for your sacrifices and service and for this beautiful new school for Atlanta.

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Living the Mission to Graduate ALL APS Students

As superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, I have the distinct honor every May to shake the hand of every newly minted APS graduate who walks the stage during graduation. And as I watch these new graduates return to their seats, I wonder what graduating from high school actually means to them … what choices they have in their lives now they have an actual diploma in hand.

When APS and the Atlanta Board of Education adopted the mission two years ago to graduate every student ready for college and career, we made it clear that one measurement of academic progress stood out above all else: graduation rates.

gradtweetMany benchmarks define the success of a school district, but this one measure succinctly tells us how much progress we are making on the APS mission. Based on data released today by the Georgia Department of Education, I learned that I shook the hands of 2,267 four-year graduates in 2016, 151 more than in 2015.

That warms my heart knowing that we are giving more and more students a chance at choice-filled lives. It means we are making progress on the transformational work that is necessary to turnaround Atlanta Public Schools.

But the mission is to graduate EVERY student. Again, looking at the data released today, we are 71.1 percent of the way there.

This year’s rate was a slight .4 percentage point decrease from last year’s recent high of 71.5 percent – a significant rise of 12.5 percentage points. Maintaining that boost proves that our progress in graduating more students in APS is significant, real and sustainable.apsgraduationrates

And we have other major bright spots from the graduation data. For example, five of our schools posted graduation rates above the state rate of 79.2 percent. These include:

  • Carver Early College, 98.7 percent
  • KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, 92.9 percent
  • Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, 89.7 percent
  • North Atlanta High, 88.3 percent
  • Grady High, 86.4 percent

I am especially pleased that four schools achieved significant increases in their graduation rates: B.E.S.T. Academy showed a 12.2 percentage point gain to reach a 78.8 percent graduation rate; followed by Douglass with a 10.1 percentage point gain and a 68.8 percent graduation rate; North Atlanta, with a 6.8 percentage point gain and an 88.3 percent rate; and Maynard H. Jackson with a 5.9 percentage point gain and a 76.9 percent rate.

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But not all of our students made it across the finish line in 2016, which means the work continues.bestrise

We put a lot of effort into tracking our students, ensuring they are on the path toward graduation and giving them credit-recovery and other opportunities to get back on track if they fall behind. For example, the district’s Schools and Academic Office has developed a district-wide transcript audit across grades 9 through 12 and credit accumulation balance sheets for high school students to be reviewed each term. They are training teams of professional school counselors, registrars and student information coordinators on transcript analysis and best practices for maintaining accurate student records. We’ve amended district policy to allow middle school students to earn high school credits.

carverecAnd we are increasing opportunities for high school students to enroll in post-secondary coursework and earn associate degrees upon high school graduation through the Move on When Ready program.

Additionally, the district has made social emotional learning or SEL a district priority. These skills are foundational to the academic success of our students. If students can persevere – set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships – they will be more successful in work and in life. Such increased levels of student engagement, over time, should also result in higher graduation rates.

cskywlaBut the work for us and for students doesn’t end with a high school diploma. As I told students at graduation last May, the diploma is but the first of many steps in their lives. It’s an important one because it opens doors and creates options for them.

Working with Achieve Atlanta, we want to make those options after high school more attainable and make the transition to them seamless, wherever possible.

kippAchieve Atlanta has already awarded more than 700 of our 2016 graduates with scholarships to college. In addition to the district’s own work in tracking students on their progress, Achieve Atlanta provides critical advisement to our students about college and assists with college entrance exams and the admissions process. They also continue to track our kids after graduation.

So the work continues, and I am hopeful that with the Class of 2017, I will shake the hands of more APS graduates than ever before!

 

 

Balancing Accountability with Fairness

With Atlanta Public Schools’ history of bad behavior, it’s natural for stakeholders to believe reports of more cheating happening in our school district. Given some of the unethical behavior I found when I first arrived in Atlanta, I, too, questioned whether every unethical person had been rooted out of our system. Which is why I have demanded that when accusations are made, we must investigate quickly, fairly, and thoroughly.scalesofjustice

Let me state this emphatically: Atlanta Public Schools takes allegations of misconduct seriously and remains committed to investigating any and all reports of unethical behavior. While our district has a past history of unethical practices, THIS administration has proven that it takes such allegations very seriously and has held several employees accountable for not demonstrating integrity in their actions.

So when a recent Carver High School graduate alleged last month that the principal of Carver Early College and the School of Technology, had pressured a teacher to complete his work for him so would graduate last May, we conducted an internal investigation.

After completion of a thorough investigation, we concluded that there is no credible evidence to support the student’s claims.

Unfortunately, the district is not at liberty to discuss the circumstances surrounding an individual student’s academic and disciplinary record, even though it would provide additional context around the validity of such a claim. However, we stand by the finding that this accusation is not credible.

We can report that the school provided extensive support to this student as he completed the online credit recovery course. The evidence further suggests that this student worked hard during the last few weeks of the semester to ensure that he graduated on time. It is common to see students become more motivated and push harder to complete online assignments up until the graduation ceremony.

I want our stakeholders to hold this district to the highest ethical standards; our students deserve nothing less. I hope that my administration’s actions to hold people accountable for cheating and unethical practices prove to our stakeholders that we are willing to do what is right. At the same time, I would ask our community to allow us to do what is right when adults have been falsely accused.

Taking Further Steps in School Event Security

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Over the last two school years, I have already seen more shooting incidents around our Atlanta school community involving children than the rest of my other two superintendency tenures combined. It’s so disheartening but it also means we have to be more proactive to protect our students, parents and staff.

As a school district, we responded last year with the “APS United We Play” education campaign, an enhanced game management for sporting events at both Grady and Lakewood stadiums. This campaign, which continues through this football season, was designed to improve safety as well as game day experiences for the participants and the fans.

Another shooting incident this past weekend in a school parking lot while innocent athletes, band students and parents were trying to make their way home after a game raised enough concern for the board and me that we are increasing our safety and security measures for the rest of the season.

Throughout the district, our kids and families should never worry about being safe at school or at a school-sponsored event … during the school day or at any time. Further, our children shouldn’t have to look over their shoulder when they are in their communities.

I cannot express enough my gratitude to the staff and parents who rallied around the kids at Mays to ensure that they were protected and safe. But these incidents show that we must be a school district that stretches harder to be leaders who will protect its children. Because of the world we live in, we must take even more precautions.

We only have so much in resources, so we have created a real-time, stop-gap approach for more security until we complete budgeting for Fiscal Year 2018. These are our additional steps:

  1. We will assign security to our teams and bands to and from games both at our own stadiums and outside of the district for away games.
  2. We will provide security coverage at school parking lots for when the teams and bands return. The officers will remain until everyone has left the property safely.
  3. We will provide coverage for parents and caregivers waiting for their children at the school parking lots.

We will find a way to manage the costs of the additional security to support the real-time adjustments necessary to cover the costs.

There are many community ills that extend beyond our school properties and spill onto our schools. As such, we could, indeed, work to prevent these incidents through proactive efforts. We may have the opportunity to be so when we have our budget conversations on unfunded components of transformation.

It’s something we must consider, and I look forward to identifying ways to ensure stronger safety and security investments as we prepare for FY18.

#APSUnitedWePlay

 

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Today (and Every Day), We Are #YellowTogether!

Today is Georgia School Bus Driver Appreciation Day, and we should all extend our deepest gratitude to our bus drivers for their commitment to our students during school and during their many after-school activities.

They aren’t just bus drivers. They are educators on wheels!busdayweek

After parents and care-givers, they are often the first adults our students see during a school day. As part of changing to a child-centered culture and our work in social emotional learning, our bus drivers have learned how they can set a positive tone for students’ education every day.

While their first priority is to drive the bus, each of our drivers strives to be another caring, trusting adult in our students’ school life with a genuine and vested interest in their education and success. They know their students’ names. They ask them about their day. And they are learning other ways to ensure they make a positive impact on students.

So please make the time to thank a bus driver! #YellowTogether

This week – Oct. 17 through 21 – is also National School Bus Safety Week, but we should be promoting bus safety all year long. Nothing is more important than safety any time we transport students to and from school or provide transportation for field trips, for school events or for athletic competitions.

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In Atlanta Public Schools, we are #YellowTogether!

Students are about 50 times more likely to arrive at school safely if they take the bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends.

This school year, Atlanta Public Schools has worked to do an even better job of getting our students to and from school safely and on time. Our Transportation Department has made significant improvements in on-time arrivals, which is not only due to our bus drivers but to the wonderful employees working in the brand new Transportation Call Center.

Bus safety is also about everyone else on the road respecting our school buses and drivers. So think about our children whenever you drive on Atlanta’s roads. We all need to drive slower and safer, especially when we are near the vehicles carrying our most precious cargo. Let’s all be mindful and respectful of our drivers every single day, not just during National School Bus Safety Week.

Our Atlanta Board of Education deserves a big thank you for giving us a real-time, $3 million investment so that we can have the safest buses on the road.  We have more new buses, a reorganized fleet and more Automotive Service Excellence-certified mechanics to maintain our fleet, ensuring the consistent, reliable operation of our buses.

So for APS, both Georgia School Bus Appreciation Day and National School Bus Safety Week go beyond transportation. It’s yet another child-focused effort to help prepare our children to graduate on time and ready for college and career.

Hat’s off to our wonderful and caring bus drivers! #YellowTogether

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America’s Urban School Superintendents Call for National #SELectLOVE Movement

On October 14, 1964, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  On that historic occasion, the Nobel Committee praised him for being ‘‘the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence.” For Dr. King, nonviolence was at the heart of the movement to challenge the government to correct centuries of racism and injustice resulting in a civil rights bill.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. receives Nobel Peace Prize from Gunhar Jahn, president of the Nobel Committee

Today, the struggle continues and in the same spirit as Dr. King, we, representatives of America’s school superintendents, call for a new nonviolent movement to persuade our nation’s leaders to prioritize the social and emotional development of students, especially in our urban centers, to end violence and create a safer, kinder world for us all.

We refuse to accept that students cannot reach their full potential when we know all students can be taught the skills, like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making, to reach their hopes and dreams.  When we arm them with these skills, we hope to ensure all students become knowledgeable, responsible, caring and contributing members of society. Once empowered with a toolbox that will help them cope with the volatility of the world, the next generation will be able to seize the opportunities inherent in it. Therefore, we need the leaders of this great country to empower schools and communities to be places that motivate students to discover and pursue their dreams for the future and above all #SELectLOVE.

We refuse to accept a new “civil rights” revolution focused on policy alone but instead call for an educational movement in public school districts across the country focused on reshaping school culture that will bring about long-lasting positive change. Coming from dozens of cities around the nation and representing almost two million children, we have begun to reshape the practice of teaching and learning in our districts to integrate the most powerful principles of social and emotional development with the traditional focus on academic learning to create schools that inspire children from the inside out.

As Collaborating Districts Initiative superintendents and partner superintendents with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), we refuse to accept the status quo and demand a national imperative to do things differently.

We need leaders at the top to support our work in a bold way.

We need a Presidential Executive Order to harness the power of the federal government and begin to channel a coordinated and comprehensive effort to support schools.

We need more powerful partnerships with business leaders who see the need for intrapersonal and interpersonal skills as the key to workforce development.

We need a national conversation that captures the creativity and unique experiences of our youth.

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Dr. King delivers his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1964, in Oslo, Norway.

We need a national effort to bring to life what Aristotle understood thousands of years ago when he said: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

We, the country’s urban school superintendents on the front lines of both possibility and despair, refuse to accept violence in urban centers and schools any longer, and call for our nation to unite to create educational mandates for peace just as Dr. King did 50 years ago.

Students in our schools are in dire need of support in developing critical life skills. While we are providing that support, we cannot do it alone and we need help. The science shows that social, emotional and academic learning together produce results. Economists have shown us that this approach is cost effective.  Teachers overwhelmingly endorse it. Kids respond to it.

The urgency for this movement reached a peak decades ago.  The time for action to create a better future for our children is now.

It is time to unite around a powerful new vision of what it means to teach and learn. It is time that every child benefits from the lasting impact of social and emotional learning. It is time to call our nation to action to create a powerful new paradigm that will help transform our schools.

We saw a good start with the recent launch of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development by the Aspen Institute. This commission will identify specific action steps in research, practice, and policy and includes prominent leaders from education, science, government and the private sector serving on the Commission. The diverse group includes two sitting Governors, a Google executive, a university chancellor and a retired four-star Air Force general.

The next step is to get everyone on board. Go to www.CASEL.org today, and join the movement with us and the many thousands around the country championing the work of SEL.

In accepting his Nobel Prize on December 10, 1964, Dr. King said in his remarks, “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

We choose to #SELectLove.

Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools

Mr. José Banda, Superintendent, Sacramento City Unified School District

Mr. Juan Cabrera, JD, Superintendent, El Paso Independent School District

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

Dr. Paul Cruz, Superintendent, Austin Independent School District

Ms. Traci Davis, Superintendent, Washoe County School District

Mr. Eric Gordon, CEO, Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Dr. Shawn Joseph, Director of Schools, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools

Dr. Deena Paramo, Superintendent, Anchorage School District

Mr. Antwan Wilson, Superintendent, Oakland Unified School District