By Maria Saporta
The Atlanta Public Schools enjoyed a stellar day on Thursday.
It started out with a release at 10 a.m. announcing that 57 APS schools (about two-thirds of the system) achieved academic gains based on the Georgia Milestones End of Grade and End of Course Assessments – 17 more than last year.
Then at noon., the Westside Future Fund pledged to raise approximately $16 million over the course of the next five years to improve education outcomes at the Hollis Innovation Academy by supporting more teachers and critical wraparound services delivered by not-for-profit partners.
SunTrust Bank and the Coca-Cola Co. kicked off that effort by donating $2 million to support a five year partnership agreement between the Westside Future Fund and the Atlanta Public Schools.
That contribution and commitment will be used to hire an extra teacher or paraprofessional in 21 classrooms currently at the Hollis Academy.
But that’s not all.
At 2 p.m., the Delta Air Lines celebrated a new partnership with the Atlanta Public Schools at the Delta Flight Museum along with an estimated 700 people in the audience.
Delta presented APS two big checks – a $500,000 corporate gift and a $312,000 that came from the company’s officers and directors.
But the partnership will be much more than just money.
“I encourage you to contribute financially, but even more importantly, contribute with your time,” Delta President Glen Hauenstein told the people in attendance.
Delta will be working with two schools near its headquarters – Dobbs Elementary School and Hutchinson Elementary School – with a goal of making sure all 3rd graders are able to read at grade level.
APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen was almost giddy by the time she got on stage at the Delta Flight Museum where she told the audience the goal is to make sure “every student will graduate – ready for college and career.”
Cartstarphen said she looked to Delta with its ability to bounce back from bankruptcy as a way to learn how to turnaround APS and stay focused on the end-game.
“There are some truths about us,” Cartstarphen said. “We want to graduate more kids. Our third graders are not reading at the appropriate level.”
The Delta partnership would be help improve literacy at “two of our schools that need it the most,” Carstarphen said.
“We have one of the greatest economic earnings disparities in the country,” she said. “If you grow up in poverty in Atlanta, you can almost not work your way out of poverty.”
Cartstarphen said APS is trying to break the cycle. “We know that if we don’t do it in our schools in Atlanta, it won’t happen at home. It gets easier when really good people like you step up and take a responsibility in our schools.”
She went on to say that children who grow up without a large vocabulary and without being able to read by 3rd grade will be locked out before they start, and that’s a reality APS and its partners are trying to change.
“When I came here three years ago, it was one hot mess,” she said. “We are absolutely working on our culture.”
And she ended her comments by quoting Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
The Hutchinson and Dobbs elementary schools are in APS’ South Atlanta cluster of schools, and both schools did not have a corporate partner until Delta signed on.
Headlining the event were two former Atlanta mayors – Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young – both who served on Delta’s board of directors. According to Haunstein, Franklin was instrumental in connecting the players who started working on the partnership nine months ago.
Tad Hutcheson, Delta’s vice president of community and public affairs, said the partnership will focus on students reading at grade level.
“Up to 3rd grade, it’s learn to read,” he said. “After 3rd grade, it’s read to learn,” Hutcheson said, adding that reading is a key predictor of a student’s success.
Delta asked the question: “How do we fix that at APS? We decided we would give them $100,000 a year for five years and focus on reading in two schools. Let’s start with two schools, get that going, and then we can expand it at APS and export (the program) to our other hubs – Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City. That’s our real plan.”
Earlier on Thursday, the Westside Future Fund committed to “collaboratively develop and sustain a cradle-to-college pipeline of STEM-based innovation schools in the target neighborhoods of English Avenue, Vine City, Ashview Heights and Atlanta University Center.”
John Ahmann, executive director of the Westside Future Fund, and APS Superintendent Carstarphen signed their agreement, where the Fund pledged to raise $16.4 million for the Michael Hollis Innovation Academy over the next five years. The Academy now serves pre-K to 5th grade, and it is adding a grade level every year until it has classes that go all the way up to 8th grade.
“We couldn’t make this school a reality without the help from many Westside partners through the coordinated efforts of the Westside Future Fund,” Carstarphen said. “This investment will go far in making Hollis Academy an innovative learning model that benefits our students, families and the surrounding community.”
The Coca-Cola Foundation and SunTrust Bank Charitable Irrevocable Trust then each committed $1 million to the initiative.
Ahmann explained the Fund asked APS and the Hollis Academy how it could be helpful. The Fund is providing the resources to add 21 teachers or paraprofessionals for each of the school’s classrooms, effectively reducing each class size in half. Two of the Fund’s board members – former Spelman President Beverly Tatum and former AT&T Georgia President Sylvia Russell – are serving on the local governance council of Hollis.
Also, the partnership is expected to grow as the Hollis Academy adds grades and students over the next several years.
All in all, Thursday was a pretty good day for Atlanta’s public schools and its relationship with the business and civic community.