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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.