‘Labor of Love’: APS Strategies to Prevent Spread of Hate
As I reflect upon the contributions of our teachers and staff as we head into Labor Day weekend, I wanted to celebrate those who work with children and contribute to their well-being. But I cannot help but be reminded – because of recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere around the world – that we, as a nation and as global citizens, still face images, symbols and words of hate.
It is essential that those who “labor” for children implement strategies that help them set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships especially in a diverse world that needs more inclusion. Parents and teachers also want to do everything we can to keep our precious children from the types of repulsive behavior we’ve experienced recently.
Unfortunately, we cannot always shield our children from the realities of the world … not even in Atlanta, the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. We were disheartened when we learned that one of our fifth grade classrooms found a swastika lightly drawn with pencil on a flower pot. Or when a small group of demonstrators felt it was acceptable to use bullhorns to shout at students, families, teachers and staff at one of our high schools during dismissal.
It raises concerns about those very qualities we celebrate during Labor Day – strength, prosperity and good fortune – when tensions are heightened around race, belief systems and identity, especially around those who labor for children.
Being a part of a vibrant growing city, like Atlanta, has many advantages. There are economic, social and educational opportunities for our students that are not available elsewhere, and our growing diversity is a source of great joy. It can also be said that the city is home to a part of U.S. history that brings both pride and pain, which has an unspoken existence in the culture of our city and schools.
Atlanta Public Schools has the responsibility, and the privilege, to develop students who are knowledgeable of our past struggles with race and class as they prepare for a brighter future. Again, we cannot fully shield our children from hate; thus, we must give them the tools to combat such adversities on their own.
The district’s commitment to Social Emotional Learning or SEL is a major component of that preparation. In simplified terms, SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
Working with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org) and other partners, we began implementing SEL in our schools by focusing on developing relationships and building a strong sense of community.
As part of the SEL initiative, students from PreK through 12th grade are learning much needed skills such as active listening, empathy, conflict resolution, problem solving steps, perspective taking and self-advocacy.
In support of the lessons taught by the teachers, our elementary counselors also implement the Bully Prevention Unit in all classrooms from kindergarten through 5th grade. This curriculum is a preventative measure to stop potential bullying through education and awareness. Our students are learning how to recognize and respond effectively to bullying as victims and bystanders.
Our work includes adults as well. The SEL team provides training sessions for adults that address topics such as identity, relationship skills and implicit bias. These trainings are available to all schools at the request of their principals.
From an academic standpoint, our teachers are also equipped to teach historical events such as the Holocaust, as they appear in the curriculum, with resources from the Georgia Commission on Holocaust and Teaching Tolerance and other groups.
Our collaboration widens to include experts in our surrounding community as well. The King Center is currently a partner in developing a youth program that allows kids to discuss solutions to poverty, racism, and economic instability. Our ongoing partnership with the Anti-Defamation League provides ongoing support to schools as they embark upon critical conversations with students and staff around race, class, culture and sexual orientation. We are proud to be a 100% No Place for Hate district for the second year in a row.
Finally, our Office of Safety and Security partnered with the Annie Casey Foundation to train our School Resources Officers on Cultural Competency and Racial Equity. We are providing officers with a quarterly structure for effective dialogues about race and creating a culture in which all practices and policies are developed through a racially conscious lens.
All in all, Atlanta Public Schools strives to help our beautiful students become better people than we could ever be, but there is still more work to do. As a district, we don’t and we won’t shy away from the tough conversations and the sometimes difficult but morally correct choices. We are always open to furthering our efforts and diving deeper into these important topics with students, teachers, parents and the community.
It’s all a part of APS’ multi-tiered strategy of love to prevent the spread of hate.
And so I hope that over the Labor Day weekend, we can take a moment to truly reflect upon what it means to celebrate the day and especially honor those who labor for children. Children, after all, are the true source for the continued strength, growth and prosperity for our city, state and nation.