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.

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.


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.

Honored Again! APS Wins Leadership Award for Operating Model

Five years ago, the state required every school district to choose an official model for how it operates and establish a new contract with the State of Georgia. After many, many months of intense research, community engagement and planning, the Atlanta Board of Education on July 1, 2016, voted to become a charter system operating model district.

With this new model, Atlanta Public Schools received approval for a new contract – or charter – with the state in 2016 that gave APS flexibility and autonomy along with increased accountability for student achievement. 

That new contract gave us the kickstart and the lift to make some significant design recommendations that seriously changed the narrative for our system to become one of flexibility, collaboration, innovation and engagement with a focus on students and schools.

It was hard work that evolved to include a Student Success Funding model that has pushed more dollars to where children learn and teachers teach. We have cluster planning that highlights instructional programming with a signature theme of IB, STEM or College and Career Prep across schools within a cluster. And, of course, we have our GO Teams with parents, educators and community members who really get on board to help with school-based decision-making.

Today, we were recognized for our leadership in developing this new operating model.

The Charter System Foundation, which gave APS the award along with a $10,000 check to do more, includes many Georgia school districts from the smallest rural district to larger districts like APS. Each district sought flexibility under state mandates with a commitment to meet higher performance goals. APS was also up for Charter System of the Year but lost to Dublin City Schools.

The work has been challenging, but we are seeing progress! Thank you, Executive Director Dan Weber and the Foundation’s Board of Directors for your support through this process of transformation! Many thanks for this group effort goes to the Board and my colleagues in Strategy and Change, Federal Programs, Schools and Academics, Budget Services and in our schools and across the district. Check out the video for more details about our charter system!

Part of the APS team that worked so hard for this award!

Achieving Equity and Access for Participation in SAT

Number of APS seniors taking SAT college entrance exam soars to 90% thanks to high school principals, counselors and Achieve Atlanta

When SAT scores for APS arrived from the College Board today, the most eye-popping statistic was this: 90% of the graduates from the Class of 2019 took the test, that’s a dramatic 33 percentage points higher than the 57% from the Class of 2018.

The reason: The APS class of 2019 was the first cohort to participate in SAT School Day, in which students had the opportunity to take the SAT in their own schools, on a school day, at no cost to them!

Thanks to our high school principals and counselors for taking advantage of this opportunity. We also have an amazing partner in Achieve Atlanta, which paid for all of the tests, thus removing funding and transportation barriers for many students. We know that something as simple as not being able to take the SAT can keep a student from going to college.

I cannot begin to say how awesome this is. This is a perfect example of equity and increased rigor for our most marginalized students, especially as it relates to college access. Without taking a gateway exam, like the SAT or ACT, college is not an option. We are living the mission of college and career readiness in this initiative and the results.

As anticipated, due to this massive increase – nearly 900 more students took the test than the year before – the average total SAT score dropped from 997 to 944. State and national trends showed slight declines. See Figure 1.

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

SAT chart2African-American students – the largest subgroup in APS – had an average total SAT score of 892 (down from 948 for 2018 graduates). Although this is lower than the national average of 921 and the state average of 952, note that in APS, African-American and Hispanic students saw the largest increases in number of students testing as a result of SAT School Day.  The number of African-American graduates taking the SAT increased by 59% – nearly 600 students – from 2018 to 2019. Wowza!

With this new baseline, it is difficult to make other comparisons, but we do have other good news when we look at school-by-school data.

Let’s give a shout out to Atlanta Classical Academy with a mean score of 1250; Grady High, 1094; Drew Charter, 1078; and North Atlanta, 1056.  All four schools exceeded the average total SAT score for the nation (1,039), and the average total score for Georgia (1,048).

Congratulations to our principals, Chris Knowles, Betsy Bockman, Kendrick Myers and Curtis Douglass and all of the teachers!

SAT chart

We expect to receive ACT scores for the district in mid-October; so I will report on those results when we get them.

Finally, I know this part of the work in transformation can be the hardest and scariest. Doing the right thing for all kids, especially students who have been disenfranchised from the complete school process, means APS must open gateways previously closed.

It can be a double-edged sword when the first round of results come in. But we had to get all kids to the door. Our next round of work is helping them walk through it to get the test results they need for the college of their choice.

I thank everyone for taking this risk to be transparent and true to our mission … that ALL students will be ready for college and career.

Honored to Receive Wellspring Living ‘Hope’ Award

With pride, we call Atlanta the Gateway of the Southeast, the Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, the architect of the New South, the home of the world’s busiest airport and even “The City Too Busy to Hate.”

Yet it is sobering – no, make that heart-breaking – to know that it is also one of the biggest hubs of sex trafficking in the United States. The trade generates hundreds of millions of dollars in Atlanta alone through the exploitation of thousands of girls – some are our own students.

Last year, working with some amazing colleagues – Dr. Evelyn Mobley, Dr. Katika Lovett, Dr. Jacqueline Anthony and Daryl Rice, among others – we mobilized the district in advance of Super Bowl LIII (such mega-events create a magnet for this trade) to educate and protect our students.


I dedicated my award to “The Merchant of Hope” herself – Dr. Evelyn Mobley, principal of Phoenix Academy

We didn’t do it alone. As a community, we began working the first step to stop these crimes: education. Everyone must know the potential indicators of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking so that we can protect our children.

One victim is one too many.

Unfortunately, there are victims. And so we are blessed to have Wellspring Living.

Wellspring Living is one of APS’ beautiful partners. Wellspring Living’s vision is to see a world where every victim of sexual exploitation has access to transformative care. The organization provides specialized recovery services through three residential programs and two community-based programs. The programs provide transformative care through therapeutic services, education, life skills, and personal and professional development.

The partnership represents more than 300 impacted lives.

This weekend, I was humbled to accept the 2019 HOPE award on behalf of Atlanta Public Schools during Wellspring’s annual gala held at the Cobb Galleria.

I dedicated the award to Dr. Mobley, principal of Phoenix Academy and our very own “Merchant of Hope,” who attended the gala and spoke on a panel about APS’ work with Wellspring Living.

Through the partnership at Forrest Hills Academy, the Women’s Academy provides comprehensive services enabling women to move toward a pathway to living wage employment.  At Phoenix Academy, a comprehensive model supports students by providing case management, therapy, access to food and clothing through our team. (The school has its own food pantry and clothing boutique!) Wellspring Living also hosts parent empowerment and healing circles in Dunbar Elementary.

It’s so clear that we don’t do the work for awards and recognition. We do it because not only are we charged with preparing students to live choice-filled lives, we must make sure they are safe along the way.

That’s why we work with Wellspring Living. That’s why I serve on the Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion, and Education (GRACE) Commission, which was launched by First Lady Marty Kemp this spring to fight human trafficking across the state. That’s why we are committed to working with the community to put an end to sex trafficking in our city!