Day One Dispatches from the District
As part of the Day One tradition in Atlanta Public Schools, my team and I have boarded an APS bus to visit students, teachers, administrators, support staff and the community to report on Back-to-School happenings across the district. Throughout Day One on this blog and on social media @CarstarphenMJ and @APSUpdate, we catch up with our schools in real time as we enter another year of the APS Journey of Transformation.
Here are my live reports:
5:15 p.m. Washington High School (Washington Cluster)
We closed our Day One Tour today the way hundreds of student athletes will this fall … at practice!
In this case, it was football practice at Booker T. Washington High School, a school as rich and full with history and tradition as Atlanta itself. Its doors first opened in 1924 as the city’s first and only high school at the time for African American students. Just like the community has gone through its ups and downs over the last decade or so, so has the football team. But things are on the upswing on both fronts! The football team was one win away from making the state playoffs last season, and I can personally attest to the fact that they are focused and dedicated to making the playoffs this year (those six-inch leg lifts and tire drills almost KILLED me!).
WOW! What a day! I’m exhausted, but its days like this that inspire me to continue working as hard as I can for our students and their families. It warmed my heart to see so many of our students – from pre-K to high school seniors – ready and excited about learning on Day One. And our teachers, administrators and support staff were ready as well. It was indeed a great day!
One down, 179 more to go!
3:08 p.m. Price Middle School (Carver Cluster)
During the APS Journey of Transformation, we have embraced a series of strategies to support some of our lowest-performing schools. For some, we changed leadership or school structures. For others, we provided targeted support that includes professional development, high-impact tutoring and more wraparound services. And in limited cases, particularly in the Carver Cluster, we partnered with experienced groups that have proven outcomes in making changes with limited resources.
Such is the case with Price Middle School, where Purpose Built Schools is helping us transform this school and the community as part of our Turnaround Strategy.
Price and both of its feeder elementary schools – Thomasville Heights and Slater – are part of the Carver Cluster and now all three are under the management of Purpose Built Schools, which also operates Drew Charter. When searching for a new principal, they thought enough of Principal Luqman Abdur-Rahman, whom we had hired more than a year ago, that they kept him at the lead over the transition.
As a former middle school teacher, I can relate to the challenges Principal Abdur-Rahman faces. In fact, I relish them. Middle school is my sweet spot.
During my visit, I stopped by Joshua Thurston’s seventh grade math class where he develops math fluency by challenging his students to complete multiplication and division equations within five minutes. Principal Abdur-Rahman described it as “pushups of math.”
Seventh grader Jaylen Walker and I worked through factoring and T-charts and enjoyed the competition with other student teams as we attempted to figure out the greatest common factors of two numbers.
For Price overall, Principal Abdur-Rahman said he has embraced the Purpose Built Schools’ focus on project-based learning. He told me he wants his students to really understand what it means to create and especially “to find the power in themselves to create a different kind of school.”
For a school district on a Journey of Transformation, that is an inspiring direction to take and one I hope we all embrace.
2 p.m. – Grady High School
Next it was on to our first high school visit of the tour – Grady, one of our bedrock schools with a long and storied history of academic and co-curricular excellence.
Grady’s award-winning student newspaper, The Southerner, is one of the most highly-respected student publications in the country. Most of the students who work on The Southerner are part of the Communications and Journalism small learning community, one of four the school features. The others are Biomedical Science and Engineering, Business and Entrepreneurship, and Law and Investigation. Each one produces top students every year, which is why the school has earned national awards for journalism, as well as speech, debate, mock trial and robotics. Grady’s forensic science and oceanography programs are stellar as well.
Also, later this school year Grady students will be able to access a new digital technology lab, which will help them be even more prepared for college and career in the 21st Century.
And in a little more than two weeks, Grady’s football team, which won the region championship last season, will begin a new season, ready to defend its title.
This is all being done under the leadership of one of our most seasoned, knowledgeable and professional principals, Betsy Bockman, recipient of the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Educational Advisory Foundation. In fact, Dr. Bockman was so on top of things on Day One that she didn’t need our help with ANYTHING! We had a team of workers ready to go – including board members Cynthia Briscoe Brown and Matt Westmoreland, and board chair Courtney English. But she had no books for us to sort and deliver. No files to sort. No forms to collate and staple. Nothing (Major bummer!).
So instead, I hung out in Mr. Greg Hardy’s twelfth grade Lit class. Guess what they were talking about on Day One? The poem “Invictus”! That’s right, the same poem that will serve as an inspiration for the students at our new middle school – John Lewis Invictus – will be one of the first assignments for English students at Grady.
All in all, it was another great visit … except for the traffic on the way there!
12:56 p.m. Bolton Academy (North Atlanta)
Tucked into a wooded neighborhood near Bolton Avenue in North Atlanta is one of the district’s most diverse schools, drawing students from a wide mix of neighborhoods. So it’s fitting that Bolton Academy is one of our schools that fully embraces the learning of other languages.
APS continues to expand opportunities for its students to learn a world language. Presently, our district has the distinction of being one of the only school districts in Georgia that has a clear pathway for world languages from elementary through high school. And six of our schools, including Bolton Academy, offers Dual Language Immersion, where students are taught two languages every day as part of their regular coursework. At Bolton, the school offers Spanish as well as English.
I always enjoy visiting the quaint school. Last year on Day Two, a group of first grade Owls from Ms. Tomkins’ class greeted me with a handmade banner peppered with personalized owls that read “Look Whoooo’s Coming to Bolton Academy.” It was one of my favorite gifts from all of all last year, and it hung in my office all year long!
A trip to Bolton also gives me a chance to brush up on my own Spanish. Senorita Carmen Ibanez’s students are only first graders, but they are fully immersed in the language even on Day One. Not a word of English is spoken or appears on the walls!
Both Kristi Adcock in first grade and Stephani Clark in third grade brought high intensity into the classroom. Ms. Adcock’s class scurried around to fill in a grid for a get-to-know-you exercise even asking Board Chair English, Vice Chair Nancy Meister, Board Member Briscoe Brown, Esteves and Westmoreland whether they owned pets or had brothers and sisters.
As part of a team-building lesson, Ms. Clark’s third graders built towers out of plastic cups. They cheered in astonishment when some of my colleagues accidentally knocked two towers down. (Next time, I visit Bolton on my own! 😉 )
11:51 a.m. – Kimberly Elementary School
Next we went to Kimberly Elementary in southwest Atlanta. The Rensselaerville Institute is working with the staff and Principal Joseph L. Salley to help take this community school to new heights!
Kimberly Elementary’s longstanding stature in the community becomes exceedingly clear when you run down its list of community partners – names like Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Cascade United Methodist Church, Chick-fil-A, Publix, McDonalds and the Metro Atlanta Kiwanis. Additionally, the school is filled with academic resources like the John Lewis Learning Lab and co-curricular activities like the Kiwanis Club and the Junior Beta Club.
Kimberly had a fantastic year last school year, which began with them moving back into their newly refurbished building after a year in a temporary site. The students, staff and administrators then got down to business. The result was an average gain of 6.2 percentage points in all subject areas on the Georgia Milestones! That placed Kimberly in the top 15 of all Atlanta Public Schools, relative to gains made. Outstanding!
And we had a TON of fun at Kimberly, and we got a little work done, too. We helped media specialist Jennifer Saunders (one of my run buds helping me train for the New York City Marathon!) collate and deliver workbooks to several classes, including Ms. McCants’ first-grade class (School board member Matt Westmoreland and I left a note for you, Ms. McCants. Hope you like it!).
Then we went out to the new, beautiful playground! I, along with Board Member Cynthia Briscoe Brown and Board Chair Courtney English, had just as much fun as the kids! The playground features entertaining and challenging equipment, like a four-man see-saw and a tall climbing tower. It is part of the major renovation project at the school that has transformed the entire building. It’s larger, roomier and brighter – all paid for with your SPLOST dollars (Thanks again for your vote, Atlanta!).
Yes, Panther Pride is alive and well at Kimberly Elementary!
10:58 a.m. Beecher Hills Elementary (Mays Cluster)
As we swarmed into the hives of Beecher Hills Elementary in the Mays Cluster, we hit the midpoint of DAY ONE – and lunch time!
As anyone who follows Atlanta Public Schools and me know, I place a high priority on hot, nutritious meals for our students. More than three of every four APS student qualify for free and reduced lunch, so I make certain our food contracts include healthier options, more locally sourced foods and tastier selections.
I survey students about our food all year long, but I am especially curious today about their thoughts now that we have entered into a new one-year contract with Aramark. I know that with our partnership with Aramark, APS’ award-winning nutrition services department is committed to enhancing our school meals program to provide nutritious foods for our students, while maintaining a comparable level of service.
On the elementary lunch menu today: chicken nuggets, burritos, green beans, rolls and milk.
I enjoyed eating the nuggets (with real chicken bits) and my burrito. The green beans were OK, and the roll was soft as bread should be. All in all, I thought the food was better than at the end of last school year, so that’s an improvement.
But I wanted a quick assessment from our own experts – in this case, the Beecher Hills taste-testers. Of my four lunch companions, two had brought their lunch, and the other two seemed to like their food. One of them said she would put the rest of her nuggets in her bag and eat the rest later.
Look around the lunchroom, I saw a lot of empty trays, so the children must enjoy the food enough to actually eat the food. But I really need to talk to more kids.
During our visit – which included Board Chair English and Members Amos, Briscoe Brown, Lee and Westmoreland, we ran into school nurse, Jamil Woodridge, who attended Beecher Hills as a young girl.
Her own daughter, JaKayla, was a Carver High graduate and recent valedictorian at Clark Atlanta and is now a first-year teacher at Hutchinson Elementary. So the Woodridge family is keeping it within our own APS family!
As for Beecher Hills itself, the school has been around since the 1950s, with Principal Crystal Jones at the helm for the last nine. I know all of the Beecher Bees are looking forward to a renovated hive in the near future.
8:53 a.m. – John Lewis Invictus Academy
The first part of our Day One Tour has been like a celebration of heroes! First, we went to TAG Academy, named in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen. Then it was on to Barack and Michelle Obama Academy. And then we came to the third school stop – the brand new John Lewis Invictus Academy – where I got to give a big ol’ hug to one of my personal heroes, Congressman John Lewis!
He is truly a national treasure and unquestionably worthy of having a school named in his honor. It is also fitting that “Invictus” is also part of the name. The word means “undefeated,” and it is also the title of an inspirational poem that speaks to Congressman Lewis’ unwavering courage as one of the key leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. One stanza in the poem captures his essence perfectly: “In the clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance, my head is bloodied but unbowed.” (SMH, I love this brother!)
We want the students who come to this new middle school on the city’s west side, to embody the spirit of perseverance displayed by Rep. Lewis and the poem. The opening of John Lewis Invictus Academy is part of our plan to revitalize the Douglass Cluster, as we grow this new school one grade level at a time, starting this year with sixth grade. And based on what we saw this morning, the students and staff, led by Principal Gregory Parks, are primed and ready to live up to the school’s name!
The students sat respectfully – some dressed in their bright orange uniform shirts, others in their navy blue school t-shirts with the word “Effort” on the back – waiting for Rep. Lewis to arrive. When he walked into the gym to take part in a brief ceremony officially naming the school in his honor, it was as if royalty had entered the room! Before we got started, Atlanta School Board members Byron Amos, Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Eshe Collins, Jason Esteves, Steven Lee, Matt Westmoreland and Board Chair Courtney English, joined me, Principal Parks and others in a quick photo shoot with the congressman. And it’s a good thing we took pictures before the ceremony, because afterward he was mobbed like a rock star!
In his remarks to this brand new class of more than 300 sixth graders, Congressman Lewis complemented them on their beautiful, handsome faces, their intelligence and their colorful attire. He went on to encourage them to strive to be whatever it is they want to be. After all, he and his peers laid their lives on the line so that we can all aspire to dream big and then set ourselves on the path to achieving those dreams through education.
Thank you, Congressman Lewis, for giving us the honor of naming a school after you! The students, faculty, staff, administration, parents and caregivers of John Lewis Invictus Middle School will make you proud!
7:51 a.m. Barack and Michelle Obama Academy (Jackson Cluster)
For our third stop of DAY ONE, we visited another school packed with excitement – from dynamic turnaround Principal Robin Christian and her enthusiastic teachers and staff to an innovative early learning program (more on that in a moment) to a brand new school name!
As part of its turnaround efforts, the community wanted to change the name of the former D.H. Stanton Elementary to Barack And Michelle Obama Academy to be more reflective on its future. Because the community overwhelming wanted to honor our former president and first lady, the Atlanta Board of Education this spring approved the name change. (Mr. Stanton and the Obamas are all honored in a beautiful new mural by Ashley Anderson in the school’s hallways.)
But it’s more than a name change at this school, which they have already affectionately nicknamed BAMO! On the most recent Georgia Milestones results, this school has seen gains in most subjects. (See my most recent blog on Milestones here.) So the BAMO community is already seeing improvements!
When we visited for breakfast, we could feel the energy of BAMO kids, families and teachers!
Georgia State athletes from cheerleading, basketball, soccer and track and field along with Pounce the Panther arrived in force as the young BAMO students arrived in sharp white shirts and khaki pants and skirts as part of the school’s new dress code.
In the lunchroom, Jacarruem Bradford, the school’s behavior specialist, pumped up the students with cheers that took them through the paces in math. And then in former teacher of the year Deborah Welch’s second grade class, we engaged in social emotional learning (SEL) with a good morning greeting and sharing exercise. What a inspiring way to start the day!
Later in August, the school will be the site of a brand new Sheltering Arms to provide families with services and early childhood education for children ages six weeks through Pre-K. Sheltering Arms already operates a successful program at Dunbar Elementary, so we expect great things for our youngest learners!
Stay tuned for more from this Jackson Cluster school!
6:55 a.m. – Tuskegee Airman Global (TAG) Academy
What a way to start the school year! A brisk walk to school with students into the loving arms and warmth of the “Million Father March!”
TAG Academy joined hundreds of schools across the country in participating in the “Million Father March” – an initiative started by the Black Star Project 13 years ago as a way for African-American fathers to show their total commitment to the academic success of their children by walking them to school on the first day of school.
TAG Academy dads – including community members such as Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., Kent Bazemore of the Atlanta Hawks, Derrick Boazman of WAOK and Art Terrell of Kiss 104.1 to just name a few – lined up to high five and cheer students and staff into the school! They all stepped up in a major way! Seeing all these fathers and caregivers with their kids, their faces glowing with anticipation and excitement on Day One of a brand new school year, was inspiring. I can see that TAG Principal Lincoln Woods shares that passion.
Last year he successfully brought two school communities together (the former Connally and Venetian Hills elementary schools) under one nurturing roof, with a new name that honored a group of American heroes – the Tuskegee Airmen, an elite corps of World War II fighter and bomber pilots who became our nation’s first African-American military airmen. This year, Mr. Woods has cultivated a partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine, which will help enhance TAG Academy’s STEM-focused curriculum.
We walked to school with the Howe family! Thanks Board Members Courtney English and Matt Westmoreland for the escort on this special day. It was great to also see Board Members Cynthia Briscoe Brown and Steven Lee at the school to welcome all the kids!
TAG Academy and the “Million Father March” gave this Day One tour the perfect start. And speaking of great fathers and schools named after historic figures, stay tuned for our next stop!
5:45 a.m., APS Metropolitan Bus Depot
Welcome back to school!
We start Day One in Atlanta Public Schools where we start every day of the school year – with buses. In mere moments, more than 300 school buses will leave here, our other bus depot at Lakewood Stadium and a third location at North Atlanta High School to travel more than 14,000 miles across the city to deliver 28,000 of our beautiful students to their schools safely.
I call these colleagues our “transportation educators,” because they are so much more than bus drivers. After a student’s parent or caregiver, a bus driver is often the very first adult that greets students as they start their school day … and sometimes the last as they are driven home from school.
We met with some of our drivers at the Metropolitan Depot where we sent them off with good wishes and Chick-Fil-A biscuits!
Over the past year, our Transportation Department under the leadership of Executive Director John Franklin, has made a tremendous effort to boost the safety and quality of our transportation services. Over recent months, the department completed a full reorganization of the Fleet Maintenance section, complete with a new fleet manager, fleet foreman and certified mechanics. This has already led to more than 86% of our bus fleet to be fully operational, preventative maintenance service on 200 school buses and a reduction of tow costs last school year.
A major highlight of this department was the quick reaction to the I-85 bridge collapse. Bus operators reached an 80% on-time percentage on the next day – Friday, March 31 – despite the circumstances.
Some other highlights and bragging points:
- 320 buses have American Traffic Solutions stop arm cameras installed to help ensure the safety of students.
- Transportation went from a morning on-time arrival status in the high 70s during the 2015-2016 school year to an on-time arrival status in the low 90s last school year.
- Integrated databases support our new mobile app (search for Atlanta Public Schools on your phone’s app store and download the one with our logo!) and enable better communication with parents.
So from Day One to the last day, we can depend on safe transportation! If you need to check out your bus route, please visit our Transportation page online or call 404-802-0411!
Now on to school!