Atlanta Has Always Embraced Peaceful Civic Engagement (and so will APS)

On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 14, 2018, our country watched in shock (again) as we learned the horrifying details of a mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — part of the Broward County Public School District — where, tragically, 17 students and staff lost their lives, and more than a dozen were seriously injured at the hands of a lone gunman. This day marked yet another senseless and devastating act of violence in our schools, sparking national outrage and debate about school safety and gun violence.

For us at Atlanta Public Schools and for so many other school districts around the country, this tragedy hits home and strikes at the core of everything about which we care. We believe our schools should be safe places for students to learn, explore, and engage in the world around them and for educators to teach and inspire. The safety and security of our students and staff is our top priority and it’s something we take very seriously.

As many of you may know, on March 14, 2018, one month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, organizers around the country are calling for a National School Walkout at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes to protest government inaction on violence in schools and neighborhoods. You may have seen information on social media and on websites encouraging students, teachers, and their allies around the country to organize on that day, preferably a walkout, and demand that Congress take legislative action on keeping schools safe.

As the birthplace and school district of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Atlanta Public Schools takes seriously our responsibility to prepare our students to succeed beyond high school and to help them become well-rounded individuals equipped with the knowledge and tools necessary for actively engaging in society. And, as someone who was born and raised in Selma, Alabama, I have a personal appreciation and respect for the impact civic engagement can have on social change.

To support student engagement around a national dialogue on National School Walkout Day, our schools will work with our students on these issues and work with student leaders to develop a structured plan that will be implemented during that 17-minute timeframe. Some schools are already getting prepared for the learning experience!

I’m excited that our Teaching & Learning team is preparing age-appropriate, recommended instructional activities to support teachers’ efforts in facilitating this conversation around civic engagement and social responsibility.

It’s important that I emphasize here that any participation in any student-led protests or demonstration on March 14th at 10 a.m. is optional and we’re limiting the grade level to secondary schools. More information will be provided to our families closer to the date.

We are proactively communicating with students about the guidelines that will be in place around their participation in the non-disruptive activities (e.g. once the 17-minute activity is complete, instruction must resume and students who choose to go outside those expectations will be considered in violation of our discipline code).  It is also important for students to remember that disruptive “walkouts” are against district policy, and any student led demonstrations that have not received prior approval will result in disciplinary consequences.  Said simply, while we support peaceful organized protesting that is school sanctioned (with prior approval), we do not support disruption of school or obstruction of the school district’s mission, process or function as explained in board policy.

APS is focused on graduating every student ready for college and career. But, at the same time, we know that for our students to succeed, they must also be able to engage in the world around them. We believe that by creating opportunities for safe, structured, student-led civic engagement around a national dialogue such as this one, we are ultimately helping our students develop social and emotional learning skills and be informed residents in our democracy.

 

APS Wants Your Thoughts on Make Up Days

ColdWeatherKids

 

(UPDATE):  Due to inclement weather, Atlanta Public Schools has cancelled classes and all school activities on Friday, January 19. The district will resume normal operations on Monday, January 22.

Here we are again! Another snow day (grimace emoji!).

As you know, we had to cancel classes and all school activities again on Friday, January 19, due to inclement weather. The sun may be out, but it is still brutally cold outside and ice is everywhere. We can’t have our students, teachers and staff members on the roads going to and from school and school activities. It’s just not safe yet.

Friday (January 19) is the seventh school day that we will have missed due to the weather since the start of the school year in August. I know many people are now starting to ask the inevitable question:  Do we have to make up these days, and if so, when and how will we do it?

First, allow me to clarify something about how many days we are required to make up. The Atlanta Public Schools charter with the Georgia Department of Education DOES NOT require us to make up days. BUT, I am concerned about the significant loss of instructional time we have suffered. So, we are looking at ways we can make up the equivalent of approximately 3 instructional days before the end of the school year.

One of the complicating factors I must consider when exploring make up days is that we have historically paid our employees even when the district is closed for inclement weather.   Many of our employees depend upon a consistent paycheck to pay their bills, which is why we do not reduce their pay when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.  However, if we make up days during a time that was otherwise scheduled to be a paid holiday, we will have to ask employees to come in to “make up” these days in order to ensure that the make-up options are cost-neutral.  That may seem like a logical request of our employees, but it is not something we have had to do in recent history. We haven’t been in the position of making up days for quite some time, so asking employees to “make up” paid holidays will undoubtedly cause confusion.

Having said all of that, we would like some assistance from you to help us make the best decision for everyone in APS. We have created a survey (click here) with six options for making up the time. We chose these options based on the following factors:

  • We do not want to extend the school year past Memorial Day Weekend, so as not to conflict with summer travel/vacation plans;
  • We do not want to require students and staff to come to school on Saturdays to ensure maximum attendance; and,
  • We do not want to conflict with Spring Break so as not to interfere with travel/vacation plans.

Here are the options:

Option 1 – Make up the days on February 19 – 21 during Winter Break

  • Pros: consolidates make-up days; teachers are already scheduled to work February 19
  • Cons: families and staff may have already scheduled travel for the President’s Day Weekend and/or Winter Break; will require employees who are paid when school is closed for inclement weather to “make up” the days without additional pay to ensure the plan is cost neutral

Option 2 – Make up the days on February 21 – 23 during Winter Break

  • Pros: consolidates make-up days; does not conflict with potential travel plans for President’s Day Weekend
  • Cons: families and staff may have already scheduled travel for Winter Break; will require employees who are paid when school is closed for inclement weather to “make up” the days without additional pay to ensure the plan is cost neutral

Option 3 – Make up the days on February 19-20 during Winter Break and March 19 professional learning day

  • Pros: spreads out make-up days to minimize impact on Winter Break; teachers are already scheduled to work on February 19 and March 19
  • Cons: families and staff may have already scheduled travel for President’s Day Weekend and/or Winter Break; takes away 2 critical professional learning days for staff; will require employees who are paid when school is closed for inclement weather to “make up” the days without additional pay to ensure the plan is cost neutral

Option 4 – Make up the days on February 22 -23 during Winter Break and March 19 professional learning day

  • Pros: spreads out make-up days to minimize impact on Winter Break; does not conflict with potential travel plans for President’s Day Weekend; teachers are already scheduled to work on March 19
  • Cons: families and staff may have already scheduled travel for Winter Break; takes away a critical professional learning day for staff; will require employees who are paid when school is closed for inclement weather to “make up” the days without additional pay to ensure the plan is cost neutral

Option 5 – Add 30 minutes to end of the day from January 29 to March 30

  • Pros: does not conflict with potential travel plans for families and staff; does not interfere with critical professional learning days for staff; likely to have the better attendance than Options 1 – 4 as students will already be in school; will not require employees to “make up” days without additional pay
  • Cons: will require flexibility with start times for athletics and other extracurricular events after school; will require schools to implement plans to ensure instructional time is maximized and not wasted as “extra time” added on to schedule; will require strategies to ensurethe plan is cost neutral

Option 6 – Add 15 minutes to start of the day and 15 minutes to end of the day from January 29 to March 30

  • Pros: does not conflict with potential travel plans for families and staff; does not interfere with critical professional learning days for staff; likely to have better attendance than Options 1 – 4 as students will already be in school; minimizes impact on after school activities; will not require employees to “make up” days without additional pay
  • Cons: will require some flexibility (though less than option 5) with start times for athletics and other extracurricular events after school; may result in more students being tardy to school; will require schools to implement plans to ensure instructional time is maximized and not wasted as “extra time” added on to schedule; will require strategies to ensure the plan is cost neutral

Please, take a minute to complete the survey (click here). We want to hear from everyone – students, parents and staff. The survey will be taken down at 11:45 p.m., Sunday, January 21, and keep in mind that you will only be able to vote one time.

I can assure you that the results will play a significant role in the decision we make. Also, we plan to do some informal polling of our principals and other administrators. Once we have all the facts and opinions, we will be sure to announce our decision in a timely manner.

So, that’s where we are. We will also begin exploring contingency plans for any future closings due to bad weather, as we are at a point where we will need to explore options for employee pay on inclement weather closing dates. We fully expect to be back open for business, bright and early on Friday, January 19. Until then, take the survey (click here), keep warm and stay safe. See you Friday!

We Honor MLK by Continuing Our Journey of Transformation

MLK - Selma to Montgomery, 1965 (2018)

As a native of Selma, Alabama, most of you know about my roots in and respect for the Civil Rights Movement and all of the icons – both famous and unsung – who participated in it.

Today’s 32nd celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday has an even more special meaning for our nation, as this year we also commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Though he has been gone for half a century, it is even more important today that we continue to honor his name by fighting to keep his dream of respect, dignity and prosperity for all alive. And at its core, that is what our journey of transforming Atlanta Public Schools is about – treating our students with respect and dignity, and preparing them to lead productive, prosperous lives.

I am back in Selma this weekend to celebrate the legacy of my own father’s life and look forward to returning again in two months to celebrate the legacy of leaders in the Voting Rights Movement. On Saturday, March 24, I will be running in the Inaugural Selma to Montgomery 51-Mile Dr. C - Edmund Pettus Bridge Picture (2018)Relay (read more about it here), held to commemorate the historic Voting Rights March of 1965 – organized and led by Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, a transformational journey that was met with great resistance. But Dr. King and countless other heroes and heroines of the Movement persisted, and we must do the same even as our transformational journey encounters its share of obstacles. I am always reminded of what Dr. King once said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” 

APS Day 1 of school.

And we all know that Dr. King did not lead the Movement alone. A short list of those who fought with him includes legends like Congressman John Lewis, the Honorable Andrew Young, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Rev. C.T. Vivian, as well as late, great leaders such as Rosa Parks, Hosea Williams, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Dorothy Height, Beyard Rustin, Maynard Jackson and the Jackson Family, and of course, the ever-graceful Coretta Scott King.

Likewise, we are not alone in our quest to make APS a consistently high-performing school system, as illustrated by several of our great partners who will be honoring the King Holiday by completing service projects at a number of our schools:  State Farm (Brown Middle School); Salesforce (Bunche Middle School); Target (Crim Open Campus); Alston & Bird (Dunbar Elementary School); Slalom (Fickett Elementary School); ADP and Leadership Atlanta (King Middle School); and Newell Brands (M. Agnes Jones Elementary School).

I am deeply humbled by the commitment of Dr. King and countless other freedom fighters who marched and paved the way toward making this a better world filled with limitless opportunities for all of us. We should reflect on that truth today and every day, and honor their efforts, struggles and sacrifices by doing our best to keep Dr. King’s dream alive. I can think of no better way to do that than continuing our transformation of Atlanta Public Schools and brightening the futures of our students by preparing them for college and career, so that they may live fruitful lives of boundless possibilities.

Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

#MLKday #JohnLewisFreedomRunners #Selma

Taking Further Steps in School Event Security

dr-c-with-grady-football

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

 

Call to Action for a Kinder, Braver, Safer World

embassyblogphoto1Dear President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education John King,

It started with the first rally cry:

Je suis Charlie.

And, sadly, then there were more.

Paris. San Bernardino. Brussels. Orlando. Istanbul. Bangladesh. Dallas.

As the United States is still reeling from weeks of tragic events, it came full circle for France last night.

Je suis Nice.

photo2jesuis

Among the 84 killed, two are Americans (from my beloved Austin, Texas) and 10 children. Ten children! #PrayForNice

My heart and condolences go out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in this senseless attack on humanity. We should all be outraged at this random and irrational act of violence! I am a teacher at heart, and I believe there is a sober lesson for all of us to learn and internalize as a country: The terrorist in last night’s attack in the South of France was, according to media reports, from within his own community and described as a Frenchman who lived in Nice and was a resident in the city. He was a “depressed” and a “very weird loner” who was only 31 years old with a history of being “regularly in trouble with the law.”

Think about that.

This could be a person anywhere – including here in the United States.

Right now in one of America’s capital cities, Atlanta Public Schools is in the fight of its life, working to end the cycle of poverty, cycle of bigotry, cycle of ignorance and cycle of violence. We have our hands full just trying to fix our local injustices of the past, which were thrust upon unknowing and innocent black children in the aftermath of the nation’s largest cheating scandal in public education.

Our Turnaround Strategy is based on a straight forward child-centered agenda that is about whole child development where Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the district priority. At the same time, we are working tirelessly to provide additional mental health supports through expanded provider partnerships and school based health clinics. And, while I’m proud of what we are doing here in Atlanta – fighting with a team of people who are equally committed to this effort – I know that more needs to be done in order to bring about real lasting change.

Just this week, Mr. Secretary, in your interview with Politco, you asked America a genuine and legitimate question: “I worry each day…are we doing enough to make it better for young people in schools?”

My answer: No, we are not.

We definitely know that we aren’t doing enough for our children especially black, brown and poor children in our urban centers.

At the live nationwide “town hall” meeting broadcast last night, there were many people asking what could be done to combat hatred and senseless violence. Participants, including you, Mr. President, talked about the challenges of moving from words to action: “We expect police to solve a whole range of societal problems that we ourselves have neglected,” you said calling prominent incidents sometimes “the catalyst for all the other stuff that may not even have to do with policing coming out.”

I believe there must be a national agenda led and invested in by leaders of our country. I believe we have to get beyond the talk and get to action. I believe we need a plan to teach these foundational skills for the long-term academic and psycho-social success of all students while at the same time providing adequate mental health intervention for those students who need the additional support. It takes both!

It’s time we start addressing these problems starting at the youngest age both in our communities and in our schools. It’s time we start shifting from reaction to prevention which means a shift in the conversation and the strategy: If we can teach students to persevere, be empathetic, set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships, what can our country do to support it? There are many good folks on the frontline who have helped shape my thinking and this proposed solution:

  1. Invest in a national agenda in at least 60 of the largest urban school systems for social emotional learning implementation and funding for early intervention in early childhood education and mental health supports.
  2. Launch and support key states with state policy agendas that support these efforts.
  3. Support more research, instructional framework development and assessment mechanisms so that every school system has a working design to get started in their school communities with quality guidance from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
  4. Replicate best practice school resource officer “triad model” for safe and supportive schools through National Institute of Justice.

To ramp this up quickly and with fidelity, I recommend that the U.S. Department of Education consider an SEL zone-type designation similar to a Promise Zone (HUD) or Promise Neighborhood (DOE) that highlights a community for additional direct and indirect benefits. This would be followed by an executive order from the president with a call for emergency federal funding to support the order.

We need an America and a world where people don’t have to live in fear that our public celebrations might turn into bloody massacres.

We need all citizens, especially our children, to live with the aspiration of random acts of kindness instead of the fear of random violence.

We need the leaders of our country to immediately accept this proposal as a significant part of the solution for our nation’s youth.

#StopTheViolence

#SELMatters

#SupportOurSchools

We need action and investment now for the hope of a kinder, braver, safer future for our children. Our country must do its part to make this world a better place for the generations to come.

loveisphoto3

 

We ‘made up our mind’ to celebrate literacy and Dr. Seuss’ birthday!

Seuss.Burgess3

Burgess-Peterson students were eager to sing Happy Birthday to Dr. Seuss.

I hugged a cuddly Lorax who wore slippers, not boots. Took selfies with Things that were tiny and cute. I grappled with friends over a fish, dog or yent. All in all, I can say, my day was well spent.

OK, OK, so I’m not Dr. Seuss or a writer anywhere near the genius that is Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss’s real name), but I did have a blast celebrating the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day today by reading Seuss’ newest book, What Pet Should I Get? to early learners at Burgess-Peterson Academy, Wesley International and KIPP Strive Primary! Read Across America Day is an annual, nationwide event that promotes literacy while celebrating Dr. Seuss’ birthday.

Seuss.WIA2

A warm welcome from Wesley International students!

What Pet Should I Get? tells the story of a brother and sister (the same kids featured in the beloved One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish), who are having a tough time deciding on a new pet while visiting a pet store. The manuscript was only discovered in the last few years and published in 2015, 50 years after it was originally written (that is so cool).  True to form, there is a deeper message embedded in the story that goes beyond choosing a pet. The story reminds readers that choices are powerful, and when given the opportunity, they should make wise decisions. All of the kids agreed that their favorite line in the book was, “Make up your mind!”

A big Seussical shout-out to principal David White at Burgess; Lakeesha Ramdhanie, lower school dean at KIPP Strive Primary Academy; and teacher (and friend), Tracy Trammell at Wesley International, for giving me the opportunity to be spontaneous and silly with their students. Today was our day!

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way!” –Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Seuss.KIPPStrive

KIPP Strive Primary students asked great questions today.

Seuss2

IMG_9469

Seuss3

 

 

 

APS Advances Strategy for Transformation

When I unveiled the APS Turnaround Strategy during the State of the District last October, I explained that because of the longstanding, multi-generational educational needs of our students and a looming, high-stakes potential takeover Opportunity School District, we did not have time to waste. I also expressed that we would move with deliberate speed in a way that would not always be popular or comfortable, but always essential or even critical.

We’ve been working on transforming APS for months: the Day One: Be There attendance campaign, our remediation and enrichment initiative for students affected by CRCT cheating, the launch of a college-access and scholarship partnership with Achieve Atlanta, and the establishment of a College and Career Academy with Atlanta Technical College to name a few. We have embraced a Charter System District model and cluster planning that will mean investments in signature programs for each cluster that creates pathways from kindergarten to graduation.

But we have to do more … because we are a district performing far below the potential of our kids.

Being only weeks into the implementation of our Turnaround Strategy (I invite you to go here to learn more about it), I already have much to report. In addition to the acceleration of the roll-out of social and emotional learning in schools, we have made progress in recruiting turnaround principals and teachers, and providing targeted professional learning for teachers. We are also launching high-impact tutoring in targeted schools immediately as well as a Spring Break Academy this April.

Last semester, we announced a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to solicit interested and qualified education partners who can provide turnaround services, intervention, and supports to dramatically improve student achievement in the short and long term.

At the Feb. 1 meeting of the Atlanta Board of Education, we will present three potential education partners who emerged as finalists to support turnaround work. The Rensselaerville Institute’s School Turnaround program, a nonprofit leadership development initiative designed to assist principals to achieve rapid improvement at low-achieving schools, submitted a proposal to support schools and leaders across the district. The other partners are non-profit organizations with track records of strong student achievement and have submitted proposals to work with schools in the Carver Cluster.

Purpose Built Schools, an arm of Purpose Built Communities and a partner organization with Charles R. Drew Charter School, has proposed to operate Thomasville Heights and Slater elementary schools, Price Middle School and Carver High School. The Kindezi Schools, which runs two successful charter schools in Atlanta, has offered to operate Gideons Elementary School. While both organizations are current charter operators, APS, through this RFQ process, is only considering partnerships that would involve Kindezi and/or Purpose Built Schools serving neighborhood schools with traditional attendance boundaries, not charter schools.

We will spend the next five weeks exploring the big ideas proposed by these partners, and we will do so through community meetings and open houses.

But there are other changes that must occur in the near future and this involves the operating models of some schools in our district. Let me stress first: We do not take the matter of operating model changes lightly. Therefore, we conducted a thorough analysis that considered:

We filtered all considerations through the guiding principles of our Turnaround Strategy. And as a result, I will recommend the following plan to the Atlanta Board of Education on Monday, Feb. 1, for action at its March 7 meeting:

  • Merge Grove Park Intermediate with Woodson Primary in the Douglass Cluster

During the 2012 redistricting process, Woodson Primary School was created as a K-2 site, serving the same attendance zone as Grove Park Intermediate School, which has 3rd through 5th grades. Grove Park’s three-year CCRPI average is 46.5, the third lowest in the district, while Woodson’s 2014 CCRPI is 83.2. Both schools are significantly under-enrolled and need renovations. To ensure stronger alignment between the primary and intermediate program, the schools will consolidate on the Grove Park campus at the start of the 2016-17 school year.

I am pleased to announce that I plan to recommend Dr. Susan Crim McClendon, a veteran APS administrator with a strong track record of performance including her work at Woodson Primary, as the principal of the new merged school.

A proposed Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) could provide as much as $18.5 million for renovations at Grove Park. The vacated Woodson site will be considered for a possible early childhood center.

  • Close Bethune Elementary and open a new innovative K-8 STEM academy at Kennedy Middle in the Washington Cluster

Ever since Kennedy Middle closed during a 2012 redistricting process, the community has asked APS to find ways to repurpose the building and leverage the asset as part of the community’s redevelopment efforts. We hope to use as much as $2 million from current SPLOST funds for facility improvements to the Kennedy building this summer and then – contingent upon SPLOST 2017 funding – another $10 million for a larger scale renovation. The community will be encouraged to participate in a planning process for the new academy including setting the vision for the school, identifying potential STEM partners and ultimately naming the new academy.

I will be recommending Dr. Diamond Jack as the new principal for this STEM school. She has built a strong foundation for STEM as principal of Venetian Hills Elementary and has experience as a middle school math and science teacher as well.

Reopening the school – under the guidance of a turnaround leader with STEM experience – will address Bethune’s three-year CCRPI average of 42.1, the second lowest in the district. Additionally, a new school – starting as a K-5 and adding a middle grade a year in subsequent years – would meet current academic needs and the anticipated growth of the Westside.

  • Merge Connally Elementary with Venetian Hills Elementary in the Washington Cluster

For the new school year, students from both schools would attend classes at Connally, following building improvements this summer. Connally has the third lowest three-year CCRPI average (46.5) in the district; Venetian Hills’ 2014 CCRPI is 76.8. Both schools have very low enrollment numbers and require significant renovations.

I recently appointed Lincoln Woods, an APS veteran and southwest Atlanta native, as principal of Connally, and he has made great strides in rebuilding the culture of the school and building strong partnerships. I’m confident that he will continue his success in a merged school.

About $23.5 million in SPLOST 2017 has been budgeted for a full-scale Connally renovation to serve the merged student population. The Venetian Hills site is also being considered for an early childhood center.

We remain committed to including families, communities and staff in the operating model changes and the education partnership selection process, and we will implement this work in an open, transparent manner. We have scheduled a series of conversations with our stakeholders over the next several weeks to share more about the Turnaround Strategy, proposed school changes and education partners. You can learn more about those sessions here; and I encourage all of you to attend and participate.

Change is never easy. But we must do what is best for students and our mission to prepare each and every one of them for graduation and college/career.

Time to “Max the Vote” for Toomer Elementary School!

Kindergarten students are incredibly curious. Whenever I visit kinder classrooms you notice two things – they love to ask questions and they love to move!

Toomer Elementary School kindergarten teacher Emily Max is a finalist in the $100K Farmers Insurance Dream Big Teacher Challenge grant contest.

Toomer Elementary School kindergarten teacher Emily Max is a finalist in the $100K Farmers Insurance Dream Big Teacher Challenge grant contest.

Emily Max and her kindergarten students at Toomer Elementary School are no different. When Emily decided to apply for a $100,000 grant through the Farmers Insurance Dream Big Teacher Challenge contest, it was no surprise that her entry would involve – what else – movement. But Emily takes it a step further. She wants EVERYBODY, not just her kindergarten students, moving. That includes those students who have mobility issues that may keep them from joining in on all the fun activities inside and outside of the school.

Emily’s entry into the contest calls for a total remake of the playground at Toomer, located in the historic Kirkwood community. It would include a rubberized floor, ramps, lower stairs, more equipment – both large and small – and a much larger play area, all to make the playground more inclusive for not only Toomer students, but for the every child in the Kirkwood community.

She says replacing mulch with a rubberized floor and adding ramps and lower stairs will allow children in wheelchairs or who use walkers greatly improved access to the playground. Also, adding smaller equipment will give the little kids more options, as most of the current equipment is for the bigger kids. And of course, an overall larger play area means more room for more kids! Check out these video features on Emily’s dream:

http://www.fox5atlanta.com/good-day/33784148-story

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yL1bJArwO8

Emily Max is interviewed by FOX5 Atlanta reporter/anchor Ron Gant for a story that aired on "Good Day Atlanta."

Emily Max is interviewed by FOX5 Atlanta reporter/anchor Ron Gant for a story that aired on “Good Day Atlanta.”

Last month, Emily was notified that her entry was selected as one of 15 nationwide finalists – out of more than 3,500 applicants – for the grant. Now that she has done the hard part, it’s time for us to do ours!

Emily needs us to vote for her entry – once a day, every day – by going to this link, http://tinyurl.com/q7fwkmf, and following the instructions at the top of the page. As you will see, you have to be logged in to Facebook in order to vote. When voting ends on Oct. 31, the entry with the most votes will win the $100,000 grant. Emily expects the winning entry to be announced sometime in November.

Emily Max  needs us to vote for her grant proposal to expand and enhance the playground at Toomer Elementary School, so that it is more accessible and fun for all children in the community,.

Emily Max needs us to vote for her grant proposal to expand and enhance the playground at Toomer Elementary School, so that it is more accessible and fun for all children in the community.

So let’s make sure Emily, Toomer Elementary, the Kirkwood community and APS come out winners! Remember, vote once a day, every day! Let’s all #MaxtheVote!

Emily Max - Farmers Insurance banner

Day and Night at North Atlanta High School

IMG_2549

Enjoying the NAHS nightlife with BOE members Cynthia Briscoe Brown and Nancy Meister who represent the North Atlanta cluster.

Whenever I find a school, program, or any place where things seem to be working well in APS, I want to immerse myself in their process so that I can glean how we can apply that lift and success to other schools in our district.

As a part of my back-to-school tour, I decided to spend a little time in the North Atlanta High School (NAHS) cluster this month. Parents always come up to me and gush about their NAHS cluster experience. They talk about their time at one of the cluster elementary schools such as historic E. Rivers or Garden Hills, then their experience at the cluster’s sole middle school—Sutton, and the pride that comes with becoming an NAHS Warrior. Often times, parents have attended the same schools that their kids now attend. This cluster is a place where thoughtful planning around the priorities of a cluster is working – and has been working for some time – so I was excited to learn more as we enter into APS’ second year of cluster planning in the district.

The property contains a small lake - stunning views!

The property contains a small lake – stunning views!

NAHS is a vibrant, diverse, Title I school with equally diverse feeder schools, all coming together ultimately for their International Baccalaureate high school experience. The school’s renovation was still a big conversation when I arrived a year ago and since Atlanta is a city that values sustainability, I was not surprised that our schools and buildings also reflect a desire to re-use, recycle and renovate with a purpose.

For instance, Beecher Hills Elementary in southwest Atlanta recently saw the addition of the city’s Beltline Southwest Connector Trail, which is a part of a 33-mile network of Atlanta Beltline trails. And over at Springdale Park Elementary, which feeds into the Grady cluster, great effort was taken during renovations to preserve the historical elements of two homes – merging them with new school buildings and obtaining the coveted LEED Gold certification, making them one of Georgia’s first green schools.

But still, one of the most unique school buildings here in APS, and in the nation, was once a corporate office complex housing 5,000 IBM employees – and that would be North Atlanta High.

What a view!

What a view!

A few years ago, after extensive renovations, North Atlanta High School students began attending classes in what was once an old office building, originally built in 1977 and this month students started their third school year in the re-purposed building.

When I arrived on campus, it was a Friday night and everyone was preparing for the first football game of the school year, NAHS vs. Lovett School. Board of Education member Nancy Meister gave me a cool, night-time tour of NAHS and wow, was it a beautiful sight. Check out our ‘reflection’ selfie photo below.

IMG_2559

Cool shot, right?

This school is 11 stories tall with a small lake (double wow). Appropriately, the school’s newspaper is called “11 Stories” and I had the opportunity to be interviewed by budding NAHS journalists (insert video link if available).

IMG_2560

Good luck Anna! I can’t wait to hear about your Hong Kong University studies.

Oh – and a quick shout-out to a former NAHS journalist! I hope to continue to follow the academic career of recent graduate and NAHS STAR student Anna Gustafson who is headed to the University of Hong Kong this fall to study journalism. You may remember her photo from my blog about our Georgia Scholars earlier this spring. Anna, who was born in London, speaks both French and Chinese and is a really well rounded student with plenty of talents. The intensity of the school’s film/tv and writing programs, coupled with the International Baccalaureate focus (NAHS was the first school in the southeast to receive the IB designation over 20 years ago), prepared her for this unique post-high school experience. Anna represents so many of our students who are thinking globally about their futures – with that in mind, it is important that we continue to develop clusters that support students in a way that will allow them, even encourage them, to take both traditional and non-traditional pathways for college and career after graduation.

IMG_2550Board member Meister took me down to the field and the school was buzzing as parents launched a ‘Football and Food Trucks’ tailgating event leading up to the game. I had a chance to meet more students, teachers and parents on the sidelines until the game ended in a 14-14 tie.

The following evening I volunteered at “Black Silver & Red Hot Jazz.” This event is organized by the North Atlanta High School Foundation and supports the North Atlanta High School community.  The night’s theme was set in the Roaring 1920s and part of my volunteer prep involved studying up on the time-period and participating in character. So cool. It was a well thought out event and a great way to interact with parents in the cluster and hear their wishes and desires as well as stories of success in APS.

Jazz

Black Silver & Red Hot Jazz was a big hit with supporters of NAHS! Thanks Ms. Meister!

The following Monday I returned to the campus to visit with principal Curtis Douglass and hear more of his vision around the future of the school. One thing that stood out to me is that I saw art everywhere. Principal Douglass is not only focusing on the school from an operational and academic view, but also using aesthetics to build an entire experience for students.

20150817_083256

Principal Douglass told me about last year’s senior prank. I asked if I could participate this school year!

It was so exciting to see the infusion of student-created art into all of the spaces in the school. From the stairwells to the hallways and even over the water fountains, Principal Douglass has done a great job of utilizing what could have been drab, blank walls and giving them color and life. On all 11 stories, he wants to tell…a story, using original art, historical photographs and other unique pieces. He says that when students walk down the hallway, he wants them to learn something about the school – and in turn something about themselves and their classmates.

20150817_090735

Art is everywhere at NAHS.

20150817_090332

The student created artwork is stellar at NAHS.

A big thank you to the students and staff who were patient with me as I popped up at various events. I see what you’re doing over in the NAHS cluster – and I like what I see.

20150817_085921

I paid a visit to a film and tv class. NAHS offers IB level flim and video classes through the CTAE program.

IMG_2552

Meister, me and NAHS PTSA co-president, Dawnitra Quigley. Great job with the football and foodtrucks event!

IMG_2561

Principal Robin Robbins of D.H. Stanton has a daughter here at NAHS! Look closely, you can see her cheering in the background…right between our heads 🙂

20150817_090439

Ms. Irving strikes a pose in the NAHS dance studio.


20150817_090306 20150817_090350 20150817_090645 20150817_090730 20150817_090745 20150817_090830 20150817_084834 20150817_083601

I See You: Social-Emotional Learning at Fain ES, Boyd ES, West End Academy and Crim Open Campus HS

Checking in on the progress of our schools doesn’t stop after Day One or even week one. I love visiting schools as often as possible and seeing first-hand how the decisions we make as leaders impact the day-to-day learning of students. It was great to see the beginnings of our social-emotional learning (SEL) work taking root in schools as early as the first week of the school year. In my opinion, social-emotional learning skills are the foundation of the academic success of our students.

New Fain Elementary School principal Mr. Rasheen Booker works with students on a writing assignment during my visit.

New Fain Elementary School principal Mr. Rasheen Booker works with students on a writing assignment during my visit.

You may remember that this spring the district entered into a partnership with The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to administer its social-emotional learning program within Atlanta Public Schools. Our belief is that if students can develop healthy relationships with their peers and the adults in their lives, we know they will be more successful in school, work and in life.

~1440162490~WESTend-AUG2015-011

I heard lots of great stories at West End Academy.

Over at Crim Open Campus High School, one of the first things Principal Parker did was to introduce me to her students and encourage them to tell their stories of success. Each student led me through their journey to this non-traditional high school and spoke enthusiastically about their futures.

20150812_131429_001

Beautiful message over at Boyd Elementary School!

When Dr. Alonzo A. Crim, the school’s namesake held my job back in 1973 as the first African American to become schools superintendent in the South, he sought to build a system “where students would know that we care about them.”

And I really do care about our students at Crim. This is a non-traditional high school where students must interview to be accepted. Students here have chosen to attend this high school that values individuality, provides alternative scheduling and courses and offers innovative delivery to obtain class credits that can be used towards graduation.

Crim Open Campus students are SO awesome.

Crim Open Campus students are SO awesome.

Principal Parker leads a diverse group of students and had great accomplishments with her recently graduated class of 2015, of which 36 fully completed Career, Technical and Agricultural Education or CTAE program requirements in graphic arts, culinary arts, engineering and technology, early childhood education, small business and construction.

And this is a very vocal group of students with plenty on their mind! I ran into a young lady who emailed me earlier this year with concerns about her education. We were able to get her issues resolved and it was great to see she was in school and ready to learn when I gave her a big hug during my visit.

I See You. I Am Here. Inspiration at West End Academy.

I See You. I Am Here. Inspiration at West End Academy.

I met another student today for the first time who told me about his journey to Crim. He says he was an academically strong student and a pretty good athlete at his previous high school, but didn’t like going to class and knew he wasn’t living up to his potential. He chose Crim as an alternative to his traditional high school and not only is he on track to graduate on time, he has dreams of enrolling at my alma mater, Auburn.

Another student, Jamie Simon, who I met last school year, has really grown up over the summer! He’s a great guy and it was so good to see him. He’s headed to AIU after this school year to study audio engineering and video production. I’m so proud of him!

That’s what I love about Crim.  Every student is truly focused on the mission of our district, to graduate ready for college and career and they show a profound amount of respect for one another and their teachers.

Few things say love like a good grilled cheese sandwich! A special hug for this staff member who serves daily at the West End Academy.

Few things say love like a good grilled cheese sandwich! A special hug for this staff member who serves daily at the West End Academy.

While our students don’t always come in to school with the skills necessary to navigate academics and social situations, the good news is that research has shown us that SEL skills – which include the ability to develop good relationships, and make good decisions – can be taught.

I also visited Fain Elementary, Boyd Elementary and West End Academy, where the early implementation of SEL practices could be seen. At Fain, new principal Mr. Rasheen Booker had each teacher to post information about his or her education, accomplishments and interests outside their classroom door – allowing students and parents to know a little bit more about them before entering the room. There were also bulletin boards that told little known facts about the teachers, once again laying the groundwork for great conversations between teachers and their students which builds healthy relationships.

At Boyd, the bulletin board in one of the hallways says “We are here to be seen and heard,” a tenant of SEL in the district. Boyd has relocated this year and although they are in a temporary space while their campus undergoes renovations, there is evidence that new principal Mr. Marcus Jackson understands the importance of self-awareness and encourages teachers to listen deeply to the needs and desires of their students.

Crim Open Campus students have the flexibility to complete courses utilizing day and evening classes.

Crim Open Campus students have the flexibility to complete courses utilizing day and evening classes.

Over at West End Academy students were also eager to talk to me about how the supportive staff – from the front office to school leaders – were the reason they were seeing such success in the program. I wrote about West End Academy last October. The Academy offers online courses to juniors and seniors and allows students to work at their own pace. Principal Mobley proudly displays her success stories on almost every wall of the school and although she has been practicing the components of SEL for years at the school, she is looking forward to formally embracing the model.

This move toward changing the culture in the district is being infused into not only our schools, but our district offices as well. APS established board policies and administrative norms for the organization to abide to include practices such as putting students and schools first, respect for others, drive and embrace change, and accountability.

CRIM2015-114

I met Jamie Simon last school year – what a great young man. Headed to AIU after this school year to study audio engineering and video production.

Hopefully our communities are already seeing the evidence of the changing culture through the collaborative work between the Board and myself as well as the emphasis on stakeholder input when we go out into neighborhoods and hold meetings around topics that affect our students and our schools.

As we continue our culture lift in the district, with the help of SEL, every child and every adult in our district will be seen…and heard.

Donyall Dickey, our new Chief of Schools Officer, helps a Boyd kindergarten student tie shoelaces. SEL in action!

Donyall Dickey, our new Chief of Schools Officer, helps a Boyd kindergarten student tie shoelaces and asks questions about their first week of school. SEL in action!

~1440162510~WESTend-AUG2015-001

At West End Academy I previewed online learning and tested out a Spanish lesson.

At West End Academy I previewed online learning and tested out a Spanish lesson.

Hearing more stories from Crim students!

Hearing more stories from Crim students!

20150812_100626

Teachers at Fain Elementary have detailed bios posted outside each of their classrooms.

20150812_101730

Great conversation starter. Way to go Fain!