By Guest Columnist MERIA J. CARSTARPHEN, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools
Atlanta – as the birthplace of a King, the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement and the international gateway to the Southeastern United States – is a city of innovation and spirit. Yet it is also a city entrenched in inequities that prevent children from living the choice-filled lives they deserve.
The City of Atlanta ranks first in the nation for income inequality, with one in four residents living in poverty, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Even as our city thrives, the median household income for black families is $26,605 and is $84,944 for white families. More than 80 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children in the wealthier areas of our city were enrolled in preschool compared to only about 25 percent of children from the least wealthy, and the statistics are comparable from elementary through high school.
As education leaders, business leaders, civic leaders and neighborhood leaders, we must ensure that every student has access to a high quality education. With that high quality education, we have the opportunity to break cycles of poverty, illiteracy, violence, mobility, unemployment and health disparities that have become too prevalent especially in our urban centers. And, that happens because a high quality education provides students with the academic, career and decision-making skills they need for choice-filled lives.
I truly believe that public education is the cornerstone of our democracy. Part of what makes our country unique is that anyone can put their children into the educational system and, when that educational system is well run, lives are changed. As the educational reformer Horace Mann said: “Education … is a great equalizer.”
Our city, state and country can be stronger if we embrace and invest in public education as a strategic lever for change.
But many students, particularly those in urban settings, come with economic, academic and social challenges that obstruct opportunity. That is so true in Atlanta, a diverse urban center that unfortunately has deep-rooted inequities and large pockets of intergenerational poverty.
More than ever, Atlanta Public Schools must be a high-performing school district where students love to learn, educators inspire, families engage and the community trusts the system. We must graduate ALL students ready for college and career.
That has been the basis for the APS Journey of Transformation.
As we moved forward, we found that we needed to do more to dramatically increase student achievement to transform our lowest achievement schools without taking anything away from students and schools that are achieving. We needed comprehensive direct services to students, development of turnaround leaders and teachers and strong educational partners.
To that end, our Turnaround Strategy saw an accelerated rollout of social emotional learning, more partnerships to build capacity, more reading and math specialists and more resources to schools to make decisions at the campus level. As part of our charter operating model and cluster planning, we aligned instruction among schools in each cluster along signature themes – either International Baccalaureate, STEM or College and Career Prep – and created school governance teams – called GO Teams – to direct more accountability, flexibility and decision-making to the school level.
We do not have the capacity to do all of the turnaround work on our own. We need city leadership to help families with wraparound services, housing, health, food and transportation and some of the other heavy lifting.
Amid this election season, we developed an Agenda for Children that outlines some of the ways in which our district hopes to work with policymakers – established and newly elected – in service to Atlanta’s children:
Working together for Atlanta through stronger coordination and cooperation
- This involves supporting APS as a viable option for families of school-aged children. It includes releasing deeds for APS properties, upholding current Tax Allocation District agreements, preventing the reduction of public funding to schools and ensuring that as our city grows, so does the district.
Building safe routes and communities
- We must work toward stronger collaboration between city and district police departments to improve neighborhood safety. We should build sidewalks in all school zones and provide street crossing aids in all high-traffic areas. Working with our Affordable Housing Task Force, the city should tear down or repurpose abandoned buildings near schools.
Investing in the future and increasing opportunities
- Our leaders must work together to guarantee quality early childhood education for every child in Atlanta, lower APS’ mobility rate by developing a comprehensive affordable housing strategy, and commit to collaborative procurement processes to strengthen inclusive practices for minority and women- owned businesses.
During our recent 2017 State of the District address, we invited Atlanta to find ways to come home to APS and join our Journey of Transformation. I challenge elected officials and candidates for office to make the same commitment and put aside adult issues for a child-centered agenda in Atlanta.
Note to readers: Meria J. Carstarphen earned a doctorate in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a concentration in urban superintendency. Carstarphen has served as superintendent in Austin and St. Paul, Minn., and as chief accountability officer in Washington, D.C. Carstarphen started her career as a classroom teacher in a public school.