By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on June 5, 2015
A major new initiative to dramatically increase the number of Atlanta high school students who enter and graduate from college and technical schools is being launched — thanks to a $20 million investment from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation.
Achieve Atlanta is a partnership between The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools and the Whitehead Foundation, one of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations.
An executive director for Achieve Atlanta was selected on June 1 after a months-long search. Tina Fernandez has held a combination of educational, public policy and legal positions aimed at providing greater equity and opportunity for all student populations.
The program will be launched this fall in the Atlanta Public Schools system, and it will include increasing the number of college advisors and counselors working in APS’ high schools.
Achieve Atlanta also will have advisors on the campuses of Georgia colleges and technical schools to make sure that those students complete their degrees within six years after they have graduated from high school.
The program also will offer scholarships as well as support services to help students navigate the financial aid, scholarship programs and college application systems. It will seek to partner with other nonprofits that have been working with high school students so they can best use the community’s overall resources.
Currently, it is estimated that only 14 percent of APS 9th-graders complete their post-secondary degrees within six years after they graduate from high school.
“We want to significantly increase the number of APS graduates who graduate from post-secondary schools,” said Alicia Philipp, president of The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. “We want organizations working together to see if our resources as a community can be deployed more effectively.”
Achieve Atlanta, which got its nonprofit status in 2014, has been in the works for about 18 months. A small group studied best practices around the country, going on site visits, looking for what had worked in other communities.
Achieve Atlanta also named a small, high-powered board for the new initiative, which in turn searched for an executive director. The board includes Bill Rogers, chairman and CEO of SunTrust Banks Inc.; Claire “Yum” Arnold, CEO of Leapfrog Services; Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University; Ernest Greer, managing partner of Greenberg Traurig LLP; Philipp of The Community Foundation; and Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College.
“This is the first effort that I’ve been involved in where it makes sure that students not only get to college but that students get all the way through college,” Rogers said.
Achieve Atlanta is different from other initiatives in several respects, Rogers added. First of all, the funding is in place. Second, an executive director has been hired. And three, the operating support will be provided through the Community Foundation.
“Our role will be to provide guidance,” Rogers said. “You couldn’t hand-pick a better group of individuals. It really is a unique board to be involved with because we can leverage the best of what’s being done. And Tina is uniquely qualified — her background and her journey.”
Fernandez graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts degree and spent two years as a bilingual elementary school teacher in the Bronx in New York City with Teach for America. She earned her law degree from Columbia University in 1999 and practiced law in Austin, Texas, for five years before joining the University of Texas (UT) School of Law.
At UT, Fernandez served as a clinical professor, oversaw a professional development program that operates the largest public interest law job fair in the state, and launched UT Law’s Pro Bono Program, which engaged students, lawyers and community members to deliver legal services to low-income individuals. She currently is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm.
Fernandez moved to Atlanta last year, following her husband, Frank Fernandez, who had been named vice president of community development for the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Since she’s been in Atlanta, she has joined the board of the Latin American Association and has been appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to Georgia’s Education Reform Commission.
In an interview, she talked about leaving Austin, where coincidentally she had gotten to know and work with Meria Carstarphen, who was then-superintendent of Austin’s public schools. Her husband moved to Atlanta several months before Carstarphen was named superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.
“I came to Atlanta because Frank was recruited to work here, and I left a job I loved,” Fernandez said. “But I very well now may have a job that is the pinnacle of all my professional experiences. I feel so incredibly lucky.”
She also said that she felt a bit overwhelmed by the opportunity and potential of Achieve Atlanta, which she described as having a “laser-like focus” to get kids into college and to keep them there until they graduate.
“It’s not an effort that’s going to try to solve all the problems in education,” she said. “We have chosen our lane. Our goals are very clear.”
Fernandez said it was a coincidence that both she and Carstarphen ended up in Atlanta at the same time after working on “educational equity issues” in Austin.
“You couldn’t have planned it,” she said. “All the stars aligned.”
The Achieve Atlanta initiative was in the works before Carstarphen came to Atlanta last year, but she has embraced the concept and welcomed the partnership.
“It’s incredible that people would make this type of investment in our kids after they leave high school and as they go through college,” said Carstarphen, who went on the site visit to Denver. “They did their homework. It’s an unbelievable collection of folks who did all the research. And Tina is amazing.”
Russ Hardin, president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, said the Whitehead Foundation was established in 1937 to help the poor and needy, especially children, in Atlanta.
“We are dead serious about this, and we are willing to invest significant resources if the community can develop a program that works,” Hardin said.
But he acknowledged that the effort would cost millions of dollars to support on a long-term basis. “There’s no commitment beyond $20 million — except we’ve given the Community Foundation and the board members assurance that we are dead serious about this if it works. We are willing to invest in it. Our hope also is that other folks will step in.”
Hardin said that the presence of Becker and Tatum on the board was strategic, because both institutions have been successful in getting first-generation college students to graduate from their institutions. Hardin also addressed the turmoil that the Atlanta Public Schools has faced in the past decade with the cheating scandal that gave both the system and the city a black eye.
“We were sort of torn asunder in Atlanta by that scandal, and we are still dealing with its aftermath. Forget all that,” Hardin said. “What we all can agree on is that Atlanta can’t be a healthy community, a healthy place to live, if our kids are not getting a quality education. This is a way to invest in our kids.”
Hardin also said Achieve Atlanta was not a political statement on the current controversy between the city of Atlanta and APS over the payments related to the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. “We are for APS, and we are for the Beltline,” Hardin said.
Carstarphen, meanwhile, grasped the significance that Achieve Atlanta could make to the city’s economy if there were to be a significant increase in the number of high school graduates who completed their post-secondary education and returned to their communities — working in higher-paying jobs than they would have been if they had dropped out of school.
“This kind of investment will change the landscape of Atlanta’s workforce forever,” Carstarphen said. “It’s beautiful. It’s bold, and it’s aggressive. I’m so excited by this.”