It’s Georgia Bus Driver Appreciation Day: Three Honks for Our Teachers on Wheels!

APS honors our beloved transportation team – bus drivers, monitors, mechanics and support squad – all charged with safely transporting our precious students to school, field trips, athletic events and co-curricular activities

Honk if you love our bus drivers today!

Every school day, nearly 400 buses Atlanta Public Schools take to the streets to transport more than 30,000 students over 21,000 miles to school. At the helm are our bus drivers and monitors. After a child’s parents or care givers, they are often the very first adults our students see at the start of each school day … and sometimes the last as they return home.

Their interaction with our students can often set the tone for the day and whether they are truly ready to learn. They are more than transportation professionals … they are our Teachers on Wheels! And I cannot thank them enough for keeping Students and Safety First and doing their part in our mission to graduate every child ready for college and career.

Today is Georgia Bus Driver Appreciation Day, which also kicks off National School Bus Safety Week. But I love our transportation team – bus drivers, monitors, mechanics and support squad – so much that I consider every day as Bus Driver Appreciation Day! Safety is so essential that every week MUST be School Bus Safety Week.

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, mechanics and transportation support personnel!

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. Check out this amazing video!

If you are not able to thank a bus driver, monitor or anyone else from our transportation department today or this week, there is one thing everyone can do to show their appreciation: Drive safely. Drive slower and safer, especially around the vehicles carrying our most precious cargo.

Nine APS Middle School Scholars Selected for REACH

Atlanta Public Schools has a specific mission to see every student graduate ready for college and career. And while we often think mostly about high school students when thinking about graduation and entering college, we fully live the mission when we think about students in all grades.

Today, we focused on middle school students; specifically nine eighth grade students selected as REACH scholars for the Class of 2024. As REACH scholars, these students along with their families participating in a signing ceremony at Phoenix Academy to commit to continuing excellence throughout their education to earn scholarships to colleges and universities in Georgia.

REACH Scholars from Atlanta Public Schools include:

  • Amir Robinson of B.E.S.T. Academy
  • Jameeya Woods of Brown Middle School
  • Calik Hill of Bunche Middle School
  • Shataira Hightower of Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy
  • Ajoni Douglas of John Lewis Invictus Academy
  • Laiylah Sheffield of Kindezi Old Fourth Ward
  • Alexis Hernandez-Tellez of King Middle School
  • Kelly Abigail Reyes-Cruz of Sutton Middle School
  • Leia Maduakalom of Wesley International Academy

REACH, which stands for Realizing Education Achievement Can Happen, was created in 2012 by former first lady, Sandra Deal, and former Governor Nathan Deal to encourage middle school students to continue excellence throughout their education. I am thankful that Governor Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp have continued the program that not only honors and recognizes student achievement but challenges them to go further … to not only graduate from high school, but to achieve success in college itself.

The program doesn’t stop there. It creates partnerships with families, the community and with Georgia’s institutes of higher learning to ensure the supports are there so our students achieve and find success in both college and career.

Each of these scholars – along with their parents and care-givers – sign a commitment to complete certain obligations and responsibilities in order to complete their work as REACH scholars and earn their $10,000 scholarships. These are:

  • Keep an overall 2.5 (“C”) grade point average
  • Have good attendance
  • Have good behavior and remain drug and crime free
  • Meet with your assigned mentor weekly
  • Meet with your assigned academic coach at least once each month
  • Attend REACH events, meetings and programs
  • Engage in activities to prepare for college
  • Graduate from high school with a diploma
  • Enroll in and graduate from Georgia HOPE-eligible post-secondary institution

The program requires a lot of hard work, but I believe in our REACH scholars. I cannot wait to see how they progress through middle school, high school and into college!

APS 2019 Graduates Achieve 19.1 Average Composite ACT Score, Slight Gain over 2018

About a month after the College Board released SAT data, the other leading college entrance exam has released its own data. According to figures released today by ACT, Atlanta Public Schools’ (APS) 2019 graduates achieved an average composite ACT score of 19.1, a slight increase of 0.4 points from the 2018 average of 18.7 and the highest in recent history.

However, the percentage of 2019 APS graduates taking the ACT decreased compared to 2018, from 72% to 52%. ACT participation among 2019 graduates also declined at the state and national levels, and the average composite scores were stable (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Average ACT score and participation – APS, Georgia, and nation

While we saw a decline in ACT participation, we have actually seen a dramatic increase in the total number of students taking college entrance exams. As I wrote earlier this month, the district engaged in a simple and targeted initiative with SAT School Day last year, which allowed all juniors to take the SAT exam at their home school during a normal school day, removing funding and transportation barriers for many students.

The APS class of 2019 was the first cohort to participate in SAT School Day: Students had the opportunity to take the SAT in their own schools, on a school day, at no cost to them. As a result of this initiative, 90% of 2019 APS graduates took the SAT – nearly 900 students more than the class of 2018.  As expected with such a dramatic increase in participation, the average total SAT score for the class of 2019 decreased 53 points compared to 2018, from 997 to 944. For the first time since the redesigned SAT in 2016, more graduates took the SAT than the ACT.

I really want to stress the importance of this as I did in my previous blog post. Without taking a gateway exam, like the SAT or ACT, college is not an option. But so many of our students in the past did not have the opportunity because of funding or transportation issues. This is a perfect example of APS removing barriers of the past, creating equity and increased rigor … in all, living the mission of college and career readiness.

We will continue to do more.

Returning to the test results themselves, three APS schools exceeded the average ACT score for the nation (20.7):  Grady High School (23.1); North Atlanta High School (22.2); and Drew Charter (21.1); Grady and North Atlanta also exceeded the state average ACT score (21.4).  See Table 1.

Table 1.  2019 ACT results by school

For more information, including more school level results, please visit APS Insights at https://apsinsights.org.  

Stirring the Pot: APS Nutrition Goes for Gold … Cooks Up Platinum Radish Award!

As we celebrate National School Lunch Week, so many reasons to showcase the APS Nutrition Department

As a school district, especially one in an urban setting, Atlanta Public Schools often must make a priority of not only feeding young minds with good academics but young bodies with good food. Three of every four APS students quality for free and reduced lunch, so it’s a great pressure on our Nutrition Department to ensure all of our children get the right meals for a productive school day … every day.

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I’ve had the opportunity to brag many times lately about our Nutrition Department, led by Dr. Marilyn Hughes, and our new food vendor, Southwest Foodservice Excellence, also known as SFE. They strive to include healthier options, more locally sourced foods and tastier selections for our students.

This is the perfect time to showcase APS Nutrition because this week is National School Lunch Week, when the district and school systems nationwide recognize the essential purpose of a school lunch.

APS serves 155,000 meals each and every week! With the theme of “APS School Lunch: What’s on Your Playlist?”, our Nutrition Department is spotlighting healthy menu items offered daily to all APS students.

On Thursday, Oct. 17, our school cafeterias will feature Chicken and Waffles and Turkey Ham and Cheese Quiche. On Friday, Oct. 18, the menu will include Chicken Gumbo.

I can be the biggest critic of school lunches as my Day One blog shows (amazing cole slaw and sides but thumbs down on turkey burger!)

And I was so excited that the District qualified this year for a national program that enabled us to provide free meals to all students! Through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), 77 of our schools provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge with no meal applications! That has equated to feeding an additional 2,100 to 2,700 students every day!

Here’s the latest reason to brag: APS was one of only 22 Georgia school districts to receive the Platinum Radish for its farm-to-school initiative. (FYI, there are 181 school districts in Georgia.)

The Golden Radish Awards are presented annually by the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Department of Public Health, the UGA Cooperative Extension, Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, and Georgia Organics, to local school districts doing extraordinary work in various aspects of the national farm-to-school program – which includes serving meals in schools using fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, incorporating school gardens throughout the school curriculum, and bringing real farmers into schools to talk about the fresh food industry.

Awardees are divided into four categories – honorary, bronze, silver, gold and platinum – depending on the quality of their programs. This year, 90 schools districts received a Golden Radish Award with 22, including APS, earning the highest level.

Most notable farm-to-school achievements from the past school year include:

  • APS students participated in Farm to School lessons 85,601 times through classroom and hands-on gardening activities. Whew!
  • APS partnered with the Wylde Center in Edgewood to complete 11 school-wide taste tests featuring local produce, including corn salad and mango avocado salsa.
  • In 2019, 52 kindergarten classes visited the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, which features an edible garden exhibit. The Wylde Center in the Edgewood Community Garden hosted 41 class field trips, which featured chickens, a pollinator garden, a rain garden, fruit trees, berry bushes, mushroom logs and compost bins. The Wylde Center also visited more than 500 classrooms and school gardens.
  • Lunch at APS includes a daily vegetarian entree and a daily salad bar, known as the APS Salad Bowl, which includes locally grown vegetables.

Dr. Hughes and her team accepted the honor during a special event earlier this month at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Thanks to Dr. Hughes, her team and everyone with SFE for such great work!

Meanwhile, I’ll keep bragging about our Nutrition Department – our chefs and cafeteria staffs – and I’ll keeping eating – and rating – our school food with our students all year long.

#APSNutritionNow

Creating ‘Llama Drama’ for Georgia Pre-K Week

In pre-kindergarten classes across the district this week, our youngest students reveled in the story of a totally turned up Baby Llama in red pajamas, waiting for his mama, coping with bedtime drama.

As part of Georgia Pre-K Week, a celebration of the lottery-funded Georgia Pre-K program, school officials, board members, parents, caregivers and community and business leaders came out in force to read to classes across the district. The state book this year is Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney, which offers multiple opportunities for funny faces and sounds.

My opportunity came at Perkerson Elementary School with Claire Dent’s class, who welcomed me with an enormous banner and a room full of enthusiasm. Her students loved the book and cheered, snored and even yelled (sorry, Principal Ford!) at all the right moments!

In its ninth year, Georgia Pre-K Week is a statewide effort held during the first week of every October to raise awareness of the benefits of quality Pre-K programs. The community is encouraged to visit and read to Pre-K students so they can experience first-hand the quality learning that takes place there. We want them to get their own validation about the numerous extensive studies that show that quality pre-kindergarten programs result in greater school success and an improved workforce.

Presently, the state reports that more than 80,000 children in Georgia are enrolled in pre-K programs. Since 2014, APS has increased Pre-K seats from 986 to 1336 across all schools, including traditional, partner and charter.

We’ve been focused on enhancing the quality of our early learning, as well as strengthing alignment and connection between the early grades. In addition, we’re building strong relationships with our early learning partners. We’ve had the opportunity to engage in innovative partnerships like the Whitefoord Early Learning Academy with Whitefoord Inc., and the Barack and Michelle Obama Academy and Dunbar Elementary School with Sheltering Arms, where we’re exploring new and creative ways of partnering to ensure that more children 0-3 are served across Atlanta.

We are especially focused on literacy as it serves as the primary tool that moves people out of poverty into careers which will enable them to be self-sufficient members of society. Literacy is not just a personal benefit; it’s an essential skill that everyone in our community regardless of age, race, gender, or background must have in order to coexist as effective citizens in the world.

Too often, these students cannot catch up, due to lack of engagement, challenging psycho-social hardships, and other factors. They end up struggling through elementary, middle and high school, never attaining the skills they need to get to and through college or a sustainable career.

Part of our strategic plan for Atlanta Public Schools involves closing the equity gap among our schools and students. Not surprisingly, the first step to decrease this gap begins with making sure that our children are able to read and write the words which will enable them to achieve greatness and have a shot at rewarding options after they leave us.

We’re encouraged by the work of the PAACT – the new Promise All Atlanta Children Thrive initiative – led by GEEARS: the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students – that is intended to serve as a guiding and galvanizing tool to enhance and align early learning in Atlanta.

This Early Education Leadership Council, on which I participated, delved into the challenges faced by Atlanta’s children and families, learned about the about existing effective solutions, and developed a set of recommendations. We developed a vision to transform the city of Atlanta with this PAACT.

While our children don’t to have to act like Baby Llamas and should turn down the drama at bedtime, we adults must really turn it up for early education and literacy!

In Remembrance of a Beloved Educator: Lorraine Reich

When I arrived in Atlanta in 2014, so many educators, families, students and neighbors embraced me as the new superintendent. They not only welcomed me but also offered to be my friendly guides so that I could understand the unique characteristics of each school and every community.

Dr. Lorraine Reich

Among the first people I got to know in APS was Dr. Lorraine Reich, principal of W.T. Jackson Elementary School and known affectionately in her community as the “Duchess of Buckhead.”

Dr. Reich was always dynamic, always forthright. She gave me tons and tons of advice on how to navigate the W.T. Jackson and Buckhead communities. I would not have made it through my first years in APS without her guidance and support.

Like many of you, I was saddened to learn that Dr. Reich passed away last month. A service to celebrate her life will be held at 5 p.m. today at Holy Spirit Catholic Church’s McDonough Hall, 4465 Northside Drive in Buckhead.

Dr. Reich was already a veteran educator when she came to Atlanta in the 1980s, having served as a teacher, curriculum specialist, assistant principal and principal in schools in Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. She joined Atlanta Public Schools in 1985 and was appointed principal of W.T. Jackson in 1998, proudly making it a strong education option for families in the Buckhead community.

During her tenure of nearly two decades, Jackson consistently stood among the top 10% of schools statewide on every testing measure and performance index. Three years after her retirement, it remains one of our highest performing schools.

Dr. Reich was one of those rare teachers who could truly be called “a teacher’s teacher.” Dozens of our own teachers and principals also benefitted from her wisdom. Her influence continues to be felt in other amazing and beautiful educators in APS and elsewhere.

Today, we mourn our beloved friend, mentor, colleague and principal. She left us a fantastic legacy.

APyeS! Applauding our 2019-2020 Excellence in Teaching Award Finalists

Mornings like today are the ones I cherish most as part of my work in Atlanta Public Schools – getting to celebrate excellence in teaching and learning! Today was especially special because – as is tradition in APS – we surprised three extraordinary teachers to give them the news: You are a finalist for the APS Excellence in Teaching Award!

The district’s teachers are “superheroes” because they have the power to nurture original thinkers and create life-long learners. As educators, teachers can completely change the trajectory of a child’s life with knowledge. What they do is truly ‘heart’ work, as much as it is hard work, and year after year, they return to our classrooms and engage our students with compassion and energy.

Consider our very own Tracey Pendley, fourth grade teacher at Burgess-Peterson Academy who is not only the reigning winner of the district’s Excellence in Teaching Award but is also the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year!

Today, we recognized three other APS teachers who are among the best of the best – our elementary, middle and high school Teachers of the Year – during special announcements at their schools!

As finalists, they will compete for the Excellence in Teaching Award (the official name of the district’s Teacher of the Year award.). They will be recognized during the APyeS! Awards ceremony on Tuesday, October 29, at the Delta Flight Museum.

The 2019-2020 District-wide Teacher of the Year finalists are:    

APS Elementary School Teacher of the Year – Amanda Larkin

An APS teacher for 12 years, Amanda Larkin teaches ESOL at Sarah Smith Elementary School. Each year, she writes and facilitates a Title III federal grant for an ESOL afterschool tutoring program. This year, she was selected as La Amistad’s School Partner Speaker for the collaboration with the after-school program. Principal Emily Boatright described Larkin as “a shining star” for Sarah Smith, who “strives to have each child develop intellectually, socially, and emotionally to achieve their highest potential.”

APS Middle School Teacher of the Year – Kamilah Rose Pettway

Kamilah Rose Pettway, an 8th grade language and literature teacher, has taught at King Middle School for 10 of her 20 years in APS. Principal Paul Brown said Pettway’s ultimate contribution is serving for more than four years as cooperating teacher with the CREATE Residency partnership with Georgia State University. In this role, she trains new teachers and serves as support in fostering equity-centered, collaborative and reflective professional learning.

APS High School Teacher of the Year – Krissi Davis

Krissi Davis has served as the Orchestra Director at Grady High School since Fall 2017 and has taught for 15 years. Before teaching at Grady, Davis taught at Sutton Middle School and served as the Lead Middle School Orchestra Teacher for APS. Under her direction, the Sutton Middle School Sinfonia Orchestra performed in the National Band and Orchestra Festival in Carnegie Hall in New York in Spring 2016. Her principal is Betsy Bockman.