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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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

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Great conversation starter. Way to go Fain!