By Guest Columnist COURTNEY ENGLISH, chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education
Atlanta works best when it works for everyone. For far too long, my beloved Atlanta, has been a tale of two cities.
Recent studies have placed Atlanta near the top of list in job creation while at the same time, one of the country’s leaders in income inequality and child poverty. The negative effects of this kind of disparity is felt first and hardest in our school system. 76 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch.
Over 3,000 of our kids are homeless. It’s no coincidence that our lowest performing schools are in neighborhoods that have been battling concentrated and persistent poverty for decades.
Take Thomasville Heights, which prior to this year, was the lowest performing elementary school in the state of Georgia for three consecutive years, or Woodson Park elementary school in the Grove Park community.
Students in these schools live in the middle of food and healthcare deserts and often lack stable housing. Put another way, imagine trying to learn if you’re hungry, hurting, homeless or all three. Is it possible? Yes. But it is exponentially more difficult.
When our performance data is compared to neighborhood quality of life metrics (median income, crime rates, incarceration, poverty rates etc.) one thing becomes crystal clear, our schools do not outperform the communities they are in and the community does not outperform the school. Educational outcomes and community development/revitalization are inextricably linked.
For all the reasons listed above, Atlanta Public Schools has invested in more social workers, counselors and wrap-around services to serve our students and their families.
The district commissioned an equity audit designed to identify and help correct longstanding inequities throughout the system.
We’ve made additional investments in early education and are now offering breakfast, lunch and supper for our students. We have also opened additional in school healthcare clinics, with plans for a fourth clinic at Woodson Park that will serve our students, their families and the surrounding community.
In Thomasville, we have partnered with Purpose Built Schools which has extended the school day, added additional support staff and have brought on full time staffers from the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation to help ensure that our kids have suitable housing conditions.
Moreover we’ve launched a district-wide social-emotional learning program which, in part, will help our students in need process their emotions and heal from trauma they may have experienced. Despite these efforts, we should, can and will do more.
In the next few weeks, I am hopeful that my colleagues will take action on a plan that will effectively “double down” on our efforts to improve educational outcomes and mitigate the effects of poverty for our students and their families.
It has been said that “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound cure.” We must address the root causes of the problems we face not just the symptoms. As previously mentioned, the things that negatively impact a child’s ability to learn the most, are things that happen outside of the school and cannot be ignored.
APS has a 20 percent mobility rate, that is, 20 percent of kids in the district move at least once during the school year. As one would imagine, that number grows as the poverty rate in a given neighborhood grows and makes it impossible for a student to build the kind of meaningful relationships that contribute to learning and receive consistent instruction.
This mobility rate is due to one of the most critical issues facing our families–affordable housing or lack thereof. My colleagues have adopted a policy that mirrors the city of Atlanta’s affordable housing policy.
However, this was just the first step. APS is one of the largest owners of vacant land with well over 70 parcels of unused property. Last week, I appointed the APS Affordable Housing Task Force. This all-star panel is charged exploring ways the district can repurpose its surplus properties into affordable housing units.
Using our vacant school buildings for affordable housing will eliminate blight, contribute to the kind of holistic revitalization that our most disadvantaged neighborhoods need and provide stable housing for our staff, students and families who need it most.
Atlanta, at its best, is a city that works for everyone. It’s time to close the book on our tale of two cities, and I am proud that APS will continue to find innovative ways to create a safer, affordable, equitable and educated Atlanta that works for all her citizens.