Five Years of Progress in Atlanta Public Schools and Counting

On Monday, August 12, more than 50,000 students and 7,000 educators and staff will return to school, marking our sixth Day One together! I am still as proud, honored, excited and committed to serve our children and families of the City of Atlanta as I was on my first Day One!

I have given my heart and soul to Atlanta Public Schools, and I am truly proud of everything our district is starting to become. As superintendents, we do our jobs in dog years, so I’ve been here for about 35 years (hahaha!), but the strain and the stress – and the joys – have been worth it!

Thanks to the hard work of a lot of people inside and outside of APS, over the past five years, APS is, indeed, making gains and progress. I could not be more grateful to the Board of Education, my team, our teachers and staff, our students and families, and the Atlanta community for the progress so far. We have more work ahead, but let’s review some highlights of the past five years.

Over that time, we have fixed a few things, stabilized others and refocused on our core purpose – to prepare kids for college and career. We have a clear mission and vision for APS, a five-year strategic plan with the four pillars of Academic Programs, Talent Management, Systems and Resources and Culture and have embarked on the next evolution of our work together.

We have a new contract with the state allowing more decisions to be made at the school level by principals, educators, parents and community members, all of whom are closer to students and their school needs. This freedom and flexibility comes with increased accountability for student achievement, but the change is paying off! We are seeing evidence of more engagement, better outcomes and higher achievement.

Aligned with this operating model, APS created and funded signature theme plans for each cluster around programs such as International Baccalaureate, STEM and College and Career Prep. Also, that led to school governance bodies – we call them GO Teams – comprised of parents, educators and community members to assist with school-based decision-making.

I truly believe I put in place one of the strongest teams in education today. We started with establishing a strong senior leadership team and supporting and stabilizing our school-based teams.

Principal turnover has decreased significantly from 30%, when I had to hire 24 new principals in 2014, to 5% for this year, when I only had to hire four. Our Day One teacher vacancies dropped from 243 in 2013 to ONLY SEVEN this year. This is the sixth year in a row where we had fewer than 10 teacher vacancies when schools opened at the start of the year.

Last year, we made the last payment on a $30 million pay parity correction plan that began in 2015 to create a more equitable pay schedule for our employees. For this fiscal year, we secured enough revenue to fully fund pay raises at the level recommended by our new Governor. Across our whole workforce, that’s an average raise of about 5% per teacher.

We also have some of the best educators in the nation: Tracey Pendley, 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year, first district winner in 40 years!; Dr. Terrilyn Rivers-Cannon, National School Social Worker of the Year, and Principal Andrew Lovett of Benteen and music teacher Ashleigh Spatz at Burgess-Peterson Academy, 2019 recipients of Atlanta Families’ Awards for Excellence. We haven’t ever seen a year of recognition like this!

And in truth, you continue to have a devoted, energized, committed superintendent, who pledges to you that she is willing to continue to do the hard work and make the necessary changes to see this all the way through to a more stable, higher achieving district for all children so that Atlanta has a home-grown quality workforce. We have to finish this work and cannot become complacent or give in to political agendas.

Stable, quality leadership matters. I’m concerned when I see so many superintendent turnovers around the country in urban centers and in Metro Atlanta. Someone recently told me that in the world of Atlanta politics, it’s not about children. While that may be true for some, it cannot be an acceptable standard in our region. In THIS role, you to have someone who educates the babies, balances the books, blocks the bullies and cuts out the bull so that Atlanta can have a quality workforce and an educated citizenry.

We made a commitment to change the APS Culture so we have made social emotional learning – the ability to set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships – a district priority. We’ve seen lower suspension and arrest rates partly because of this and also because we have a new police force under the leadership of Chief Ron Applin focused on SEL and restorative practices. For the past four years, APS and all of its schools have earned the No Place for Hate designation from the Anti-Defamation League.

We have also seen a positive increase in employee engagement, which has improved over five years from the 5th national percentile to the 57th according to Gallup, putting us above the national average among other organizations taking the survey.

Other signs of progress can be seen in Systems & Resources.

Thanks to Atlanta taxpayers, we have the benefit of another five-year SPLOST, a one-penny sales tax that pays for buildings, buses and bonds. Without raising the millage, we have constructed new buildings or completed major renovations or substantial additions to 17 schools, which is about 20% of our infrastructure, with more coming online next year.

With our new Student Success Funding model, APS has worked to make sure larger shares of our expenditures go directly to schools. Over the past five years, the amount of general fund dollars accounted for at specific school sites has increased from 66% of the total budget to 73% in the FY2020 Board-approved General Fund Budget of $854.2 million. 

And APS has either established or re-established more than 350 partners and raised more than $72 million.

We have seen meaningful progress with Academics. Looking at the bookends of a K-12 education from early childhood to graduation, the District offers 1,336 pre-K seats, a 35% increase over the past five years. Our graduation rate increased from 59.1% to 79.9%, which is 20.8 percentage-point growth. I hope to have good news about graduation rates next month for our most recent graduating class.

Atlanta Public Schools graduation rates from 2014 to 2018

Also, APS’ college-going rate has increased to 62%, climbing 11 percentage points.

As we recently reported, APS has achieved its highest gains to date in percentage of students who scored proficient and above across all subjects on the 2019 Georgia Milestones End-of-Grade and End-of-Course Assessments. Specifically, APS posted year-over-year gains in the percentage of students scoring proficient and above on 21 of 24 assessments. That’s 88%, up from 52% when we started.

Percentage of APS Milestones Assessments with Year-Over-Year Growth

But while we can celebrate gains, many, many more of our students must be proficient and distinguished learners before we can say we are preparing them for college and career. On all 24 assessments of the Milestones tests, about a third of our students scored proficient or better. But flip that, and it means that two-thirds of our students are NOT proficient.

Illustrating with our End-of-Course ELA, where 36.9% of our third through eighth graders achieve proficiency and above, a gain of 4.6 percentage points over the past four years.

But flip it, and that means that 63.1% of those our students are not reading on grade level!

When we drill deeper and consider socio-economics, the results are absolutely sobering. Let’s look at ELA results by race.

While our white students show 84.1% proficiency and above on average on ELA, only 25.3% of our black students show similar achievement.

That’s a whopping 58.8 percentage point gap! AAARRRRGGGHHHH!

THIS is why I know our work is not done. This is not the time to take a victory lap.

As we continue the work, we must understand the most unfair truth about Atlanta: It is the most unequal city in the United States when it comes to income disparity. In my work, it sometimes feels that we are light years away from lifting the barriers of intergenerational poverty for our children, especially when Stanford University research found that a child born in poverty in Atlanta has only a 4.5% chance to rise to the top quarter of earners. About 75 percent of our children live in poverty!

That poverty is at the heart of nearly every issue facing our students and schools. Three of the poorest schools in the entire state of Georgia are in our district – Boyd Elementary, Thomasville Heights and Fain Elementary.

According to the most current census data, the median household income within our school district is $167,087 for white students and $23,803 for black students. Closely associated with this inequity gap is the academic achievement gap I’ve already mentioned. As this chart illustrates, white students are nearly 4.5 grade levels ahead of their black peers within Atlanta Public Schools.

 We are seeing gains – more proficiency, higher graduation rates, more stable and high quality leadership and educators, and even high poverty schools like Hope Hill and West Manor elementary beating the odds. But you cannot be fair to all concerned when too many of our families deal with unstable housing, food deserts, lower economic opportunities and a lack of transportation year after year which amounts to intergenerational poverty.

Atlanta has the money. APS can help, but one of the biggest challenges for the district is the erosion of the tax digest, which is outside of our control. It’s especially hard to do the two things we want to do the most: One, keep pace with rising healthcare costs, pensions and the competitive salary market while attempting to invest deeply in strategies to turnaround our schools with the most needs while supporting and expanding excellence in successful schools. And, two, reduce the burden on our homeowners, while a soft third is supporting economic development in our city.

If a world-class city like Atlanta really wants a world-class school system, it has to fairly allocate tax dollars, balancing the interest of economic development with the District’s educational mission and responsibilities to our 52,000 students, 6,000 employees and 158,000 taxpayers.

We took two specific actions as part of our commitment to help homeowners with tax relief. First, we supported Senate Bill 485’s homestead exemption, and second, we rolled back our millage rate during Fiscal Year 2019. This one mill rollback returned 80% of the increase to homeowners, and when added to the SB 485 homestead exemption, we anticipate that APS will return approximately $200 million over the next four years to homeowners.

We would like to do more, but without having checks and balances on the largest portion of the tax bill, our hands are tied to do much more. We support economic growth in the city but that growth must also serve the students and the families our district serves.

We have many opportunities to take the next steps necessary to address equity. We have to keep that in mind especially as we continue implementing the Transformation Strategy to position more students for choice-filled lives.

We must continue working both sides of the aisles and maintain relationships with our state lawmakers and improve our relationship with the city. We had a good run with Governor Deal; we worked well with legislators. We got off to a good start with Governor Kemp, who chose an Atlanta school to make a recent budget announcement. And I serve on the First Lady’s Grace Commission to combat human trafficking.

We all know that our district and our students face some unbelievable odds. Intergenerational poverty especially has stacked the deck significantly against our city and our families, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on any of OUR kids.

But we are nearing the end of that part of the APS journey.

We must continue the investment. We must finish the work. And I am committed to do that.

I invite the entire APS community to be a part of and step into our mission: With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.

At our central office, we step into huge, stunning images of our beautiful students every day. They are on our elevator doors! (See photos of the elevator and more of the Bash and Day One below!) It’s a daily … hourly … almost minute-by-minute reminder that every time you walk into the elevator you are walking into a child’s life.

Join me and enter those doors. Let’s take the elevator all the way to the top for every Atlanta child to have a choice-filled life.

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