Week One Reflections, Selfies and Dispatches by the Super on Super Staff and Students

As we end the near of another first week of school in Atlanta Public Schools, I have finally had  a few moments to reflect upon the past three days among our students, teachers, administrators, support staff and the rest of our community. Day One for the 2016-2017 school year marked my third opening day at APS as the superintendent, and I can say that this year’s Day One was the best yet.

Folks who know me, work with me and follow me (on Twitter, ha ha!) understand how important seeing and experiencing the evidence is to me. So let me share some of our outcomes.


Enjoying chalk work and writing at Fain Elementary School

We have made attendance a high priority all three years, and I am thrilled to report that our preliminary numbers show that we had 902 more students on the first day of school this year compared to last year.

The official number (when adjusting for charter schools start dates): 42,396 students!

Now that we have the kids in school, it’s important that we have adults to teach them. We have also been stronger in human resources in making sure we had as close to full staffing on the first day as possible. We hired 463 new teachers for 2016-2017 and had only 9.5 teacher vacancies on the first day. We hired 14 new principals and 20 new assistant principals, all ready for Day One. This was the third year in a row in which all of our principals were in place by the start of the year!

Transportation is always a concern on the first week of school. We had more buses online at the start of this school year than at the start of any other year, and we started with the year with drivers for every single route.

And, course, our 68 new school resource officers (SROs) were on duty on Day One, and I would like to think that they contributed significantly to the fact that there were no major safety issues.

But it is the anecdotal and boots-on-the-ground feedback that provides the most significant evidence about our first week of school.


Ag and soon-to-be Aggie Superstar Sydney Stepney from Mays High School.

To sum it all in one word: Positivity.

I saw people trying to create new and better relationships – from teachers and students learning more social emotional learning (SEL) skills in class to our SROs interacting with their new schools and the community working inside the schools. These connections will eventually lead to more mutual understanding and respect and more!

Most of all, I saw effort and progress – not enough movement in one, two or three days to push the needle immediately to full achievement but enough that made you feel – really deep down – that if we are doing the work, making the changes and bringing our best selves to school.

If we continue on that trajectory, we will see significant change.

So I challenge our students, our teachers, our administrators, our GO Teams and anyone with APS to come in every day this year and just work a little bit harder and a little bit smarter with a focus to push ourselves that little bit more. Make Day 4 next week better than today’s Day 3. Come in with the same attitude on Day 5 and so on until the last day of school. Over time, we will turn around the district and be proud when we see our kids achieving, our kids graduating and our kids leaving APS ready for college and career.

In sum … a transformation!

Congratulations and thanks to everyone for an amazing first week of school!

And now please enjoy my Day 3 dispatches:

Day Three, 7:53 a.m., Miles Intermediate School (Mays Cluster)

Walked into Miles Intermediate School this morning to the theme song of Welcome Bank, Kotter, and Principal Thalise Perry, her teacher, staff and students certainly made me feel welcome!Day Three

Had another pre-packaged breakfast – mini-pancakes this time – and joined Latoya Mallory’s third graders for Breakfast in the Classroom. While we must ensure our students must have full tummies as they start a full day of instruction. Mrs. Mallory did a strong job of keeping students focused on the “Mountain Math” lesson, while implementing Breakfast in the Classroom.

We ended the visit with a stop at the new community health clinic under construction. It really does look like a full-fledged medical office, and I’m pleased that it will be open later this month!

Day Three, 8:47 a.m., Mays High School

Now I know who I want to be when I grow up: Sydney Stepney, a senior at Mays who is the Governor’s Honors Recipient for Agriculture and plans to attend Texas A&M to study agriculture. We were at Mays this morning to visit the schools’ greenhouse where teacher Timiko Gray and Ray Williams of Mirror Image Mentoring provide (dirty!) hands-on lessons in aquaponics (raising fish and using their poop, instead of soil!) and hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) greenhouse systems. Yum!

2016-08-05 13.28.15_1470418226846We’ve featured the garden last school year on Talk Up APS, and I encourage you to click here to learn more as I did in my lesson from Sydney today. (Sydney also was featured in this Fox 5 news story.)

She gave a thorough and impressive overview of this burgeoning gardening technique and how it would enable us to use our limited farming resources in an efficient manner that could better use land at a ratio of as much as 20 to 1. In fact, the 800-square-foot greenhouse has provided enough herbs to season food at all 87 APS schools!

Thanks for teaching me about agriculture, Sydney. I’m a new fan and am seriously thinking about how we can bring more agriculture to urban school districts like ours!

Day Three, 9:53 a.m., Fain Elementary (Douglass Cluster)

Stopping by to see the soaring Eagles at Fain Elementary, and I was thrilled to see the school’s dynamic new principal, Desmond Moore, as he and his staff and Board Member Steven Lee greeted me at the door.2016-08-05 13.26.58_1470418227212

Mr. Moore and his teachers and staff have created a welcoming and caring environment. I was pleased to see evidence of social emotional learning (SEL) at the school, where they have created their own Fantastic Four. I learned them in Jennelle Timmons’ third grade class: Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe, Be Honest!

And I loved the innovation in Meliva Holmes’s kindergarten class – multi-colored chalkboard tables! The kids couldn’t help but write and write and write with chalk dust filling the air. The highlight of the visit was seeing Kaya her first name by herself after working on it for nearly the entire visit.

Soar, Eagles, Soar!

Day Three, 10:50 a.m., KIPP Atlanta Collegiate High School

Walked into KIPP Atlanta Collegiate High School into a sea of purples, blacks, greens and greys. It’s Spirit Day as the KIPP Warriors faced Our Lady of Mercy for a pre-season football scrimmage tonight.2016-08-05 13.14.22_1470418227636

While KIPP has certainly got spirit for athletics, it was also clear that everyone from KIPP director Kinnari Patel-Smith to Principal David Howland to the teachers and students were pumped for the academics as well. Senior Lyric Hawkins and juniors Jamall Beazer and Migyana Thomas escorted me to Kulsum Vakharia’s social studies class, where the students were developing brands and flags for nations like Jamaica, Greece and Nigeria. Then I got to work on my Spanish with Shyann Gilkey’s students. And I watched as Josh Adair’s physics students constructed towers using only spaghetti, pipe cleaners and masking tape.

A great day at KIPP for sure. And its going to be a great night when our Warriors whoop Lady of Mercy.

Day Three, 11:45 a.m., B.E.S.T. Academy

Midway through my day, I learned that my practice session scheduled for tonight with the B.E.S.T. Eagles had been cancelled for a scrimmage against Pace Academy. I was devastated! (Was looking forward to tackling board member Steven Lee.) But I still got to see many of my boys at B.E.S.T. when we stopped by for a Day 3 check-in.Best

Principal Timothy Jones agreed to allow seniors Jahizreal Aquart, Deonte West and Darius Worthem escort me through the school. They are all dear friends of my beloved mentee, Qwantayvious Stiggers, who is now at University of Michigan. #GoBlue (I am still wearing your No. 11 on my jersey, Stigg!)

Love the energy of these young men at B.E.S.T., and while I couldn’t be on the field with them, it was even better being with them at school during the first week.

We had lunch. Because I view every school lunch as an official taste test, I had my team sample a bit of everything on the menu from the boxed lunches to the kale salad (yes!) to the pizza to the fries. Thumbs up on the green offering and better tasting fries and pizza!

Day Three, 12:55 p.m., Morningside Elementary (Grady Cluster)

After being on a bus for much of the day, it was fantastic to go into a super cool (in attitude and spirit as well as temperature!) building.

MorningsideMorningside is midway through a major HVAC project, and I am thankful that we landed on a plan where we didn’t have to move these kids from this beautiful school. Phase I, which involved most of the downstairs of the school, was completed this summer. Phase II will be finished over the summer next year.

We were met by a young dynamic administrative team – new principal, Audrey Sofianos, and one-year assistant principal Jay Bland and new assistant principal Holly Brookins.

Holly served as a professional intern with me last spring. But before she was my intern, I was actually her intern! You see, when I became superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, I didn’t have the proper special education certifications that is required of superintendents in Georgia. Holly let me crash her classes and pick her brain until I could pass! Thanks, Holly, and congrats on the new role.

I always love being at Morningside with its historical building (with an actual old fireplace in a classroom!), its beautiful courtyard, and, of course, its beautiful children!

Day Three, 2:05 p.m., Carver High School

I enjoy speaking with high school students whenever possible because of their frankness, honesty and natural curiosity. I always come away inspired, more insightful and in awe. In fact, conversations with Carver High students played a large role in our decision to form our own police force. We also are placing considerable positive behavior supports, such as social emotional learning, at this school.Carver

Thanks to the junior American Literature class for keeping it real with me today. I very much enjoyed that chat (and seeing football players engaged in class).

I am truly excited about Carver’s new principal, Yusef Muhammad. He comes to Atlanta from New York City, fresh after turning around one of its most challenging schools – City Poly Tech, a Title I school in Brooklyn.  But Mr. Muhammad has Atlanta ties – his wife, Tanya Gathers, is a 2002 Spelman alumna – so he has a vested interest in doing right by this city’s kids!

Day Three, 3:10 p.m., Sutton Middle School (North Atlanta Cluster)

 For our last school visit, we stopped by Sutton Middle School and spent time with the school’s new principal, Gail Johnson. This is her third principal role – the first in APS – and the students, teachers, staff, parents and community have made her feel so welcome that she has already called this her best job yet! As a former middle school teacher myself, I love hearing that!

And having taught in middle school, I understood when the kids in Daniel Lloyd’s 8th grade English Language Arts class hesitated at first to talk when I walked into the room. They were working on an International Baccalaureate learner profile project (IB is the signature theme for the North Atlanta cluster).

As they explored what kind of personality traits and learning styles they prefer, I explained that APS uses Gallup StrengthFinders program where each employee learns what strengths they bring to their work and how to maximize them. The kids then opened up, saying they wanted to do such an assessment. We will look into that!

At some point, I learned that my desk neighbor – Elizabeth Clippinger – played water polo with me at the pool in Washington Park last night with North Atlanta and Grady high schools and other students from around the district who were interested in water polo. I didn’t recognize her without one of those funny, little swim caps.

We closed the visit in Madame Zemmali’s French class, learning through song how to break down parts of that beautiful language. Great spirit and fun at the school. Viva la Sutton!

End of Week One

After three days of testing new systems, implementing new models and executing research-based strategies, I, too, feel so positive about the potential for transformation in the district, which must be led and supported our entire school community.

So imagine my delight in seeing reporter Eric Stirgus’ compilation in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of some of my best APS moments from the last 72 hours captured in “super selfies” made great, to me, because of our super staff and students.

Happy new school year!

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