Return + Learn in Atlanta Public Schools: Respecting Our Past as We Move into the Future

As the new superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, I started my very first Day One at the legacy school of David T. Howard Middle School, where once walked Kings, a future Mayor, an Olympian, an NBA star, and future business leaders.

I became very conscious of my first step – crossing the threshold into the beautiful addition leading into this $52 million renovation project completed just this summer.

Did Dr. Martin Luther King – as he began his journey of learning – take his first step into Howard in 1936 as a third grader near my first step?

Did Mayor Maynard H. Jackson first discover his civic obligations to his hometown in one of these classrooms?

Did Walt Frazier first show signs of becoming “Clyde” in the renovated gymnasium on the basketball court that now bears his name?

Did Mildred McDaniel-Singleton clear her first high bar on the fields of Howard on her trek to Olympic glory?

Did Herman Russell become inspired to go into construction because of the architecture of this classical building, named after another great African-American businessman?

The transformational efforts to bring this former APS school back into the educational fold defies description. The engaging classrooms, the cafeteria with its enormous windows, the bright new media center, and the restored gymnasium … every square inch of Howard … inspires much like the school’s famous alumni do today.

Founding Principal Dr. Tasharah Wilson of Atlanta College and Career Academy shows me the state-of-the-art HVAC lab.

For my first week of school, I also visited the brand new Atlanta College and Career Academy, now complete at the Dr. Michael E. Maze campus. The state-of-the-art labs and workrooms sparkled with equipment at the ready for our scholars. We visited Humphries (another legacy school built way back in 1916) and Hutchinson elementary schools in the South Atlanta clusters, which re-opened this summer after months of extensive renovations. I cannot say enough about the new STEM labs and all of the updates at both schools.

When the district began work on bringing these buildings, these innovations, and these legacies fully into the 21st century, no one had any concept that they would come online amid a season of pandemic and a season of protest. While our school visits clearly showed everything is in place for high quality teaching and learning, one thing was missing … our scholars.

With deep respect to our past, we restored, renovated, and innovated to create quality learning environments, tools, and resources for the future of our scholars.

But where the past intersects the future marks the present.

As much as we want our children in our schools, especially our renovated ones, our present requires teaching and learning from a distance. As part of our mission to create a culture of equity, trust and collaboration so that EVERY student graduates ready for college, career, and life, our present also requires everyone in Atlanta Public Schools to re-commit themselves to ensure quality teaching and learning – no matter where our children sit in Atlanta before their computer screens.

Among my visits during this first week, I joined numerous virtual classrooms. Few are as aware of the criticisms surrounding virtual learning as I am, but I experienced gratitude, dedication, commitment, joy, and excitement along with a little frustration (especially when Zoom crashed on the morning of Day One).

Most of all, I saw quality teaching and learning in action.

Let me borrow a word from Justin, a freshman at Carver Early College: Blessed.

Justin said he felt blessed to be in a school like Carver Early College even though – at present – it was in virtual fashion. Classmates in Brooke Levine’s class also said “proud,” “honored,” and “excited” with a few “goods” and “alrights” sprinkled in as well.

In some ways, our teachers said they felt more intentional about looking at and interacting with every single one of their students in ways they might not have in a regular classroom. Mrs. Levine said her students are actually more technically savvy than she and that has already made a difference in their attention and engagement with lessons.

You could feel the high spirits and energy as I joined the inaugural sixth grade class of KIPP Soul Academy online. This was actually their Day Six (as one of our charter schools, they started last week), but they have continued the momentum that made my very first virtual visit memorable. Thank you, KIPP Soul sixth graders!

I must also send:

Shout outs to fourth grade teacher Laila Ogunyomi at Hutchinson and 7th grade ELA teacher Darice Williams at Sylvan Hills Middle and all of their students. Those classes did not let a curious superintendent interrupt their lessons for even a moment! That was focus!

Thank yous to Rashaun Mulhollad, who teaches Chinese at King Middle School, and his students for my lesson of the day, which involved distinguishing between the Chinese greetings of “Ni Hao” and “Zai Jian.”

Thank yous to students in Paul La Motte’s fifth grade class at W.T. Jackson Elementary for their frankness in sharing both their excitement and concerns about learning at a distance.

Thank yous to kindergarten teacher Andrea Edwards and everyone at Usher-Collier Heights Elementary for the creativity and spirit and demonstrating how to create a virtual kindergarten space.

Kudos to everyone at Sutton Middle School’s sixth grade campus for your commitment to teaching and learning at a distance. Sutton’s teachers worked from home and at the school to get their virtual classrooms ready, and our students are benefiting from their preparations.

Thank yous to Young Middle for letting me interrupt instruction briefly in Tierra Allen’s seventh grade classroom. And, yes, Tyler, we will be back in school when the public health data shows that it is safe for us to return to in-person learning.

Thank yous to Therrell High School, where I began my own journey as an educator, counselor, and superintendent. The visit symbolized my personal intersection with the past, the present, and the future. A quick hello to Josephine Barksdale, a Therrell educator who was teaching when I was completing my field work requirements to become a teacher myself many years ago.

We completed our Day One at Booker T. Washington High as we distributed food to our families at the footsteps of the monument to the school’s namesake. The Bulldog cheerleaders, clad in protective masks, gave us an “AWE-SOME” welcome. Then school historian Marcie Wynn led us through some of the history of Washington High, a school with a legacy possibly even deeper than Howard’s.

By happenstance, this completed a circuit of the education of Dr. King in Atlanta Public Schools. The future civil rights leader actually attended Washington before entering college at Morehouse down the street at only age 15.

Again, I became very conscious about my steps. Was I walking in the actual path of a King? But I became even more aware that some other steps were missing that day … the footsteps of our current Atlanta Public Schools scholars.

I can assure the APS community that we will have those students – who no doubt have future Kings, Mayors, Olympians, and business leaders among them – back in our schools in a safe, near-present time.

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