Together in Hope, Equity, and Opportunity: Faith Leaders Across Atlanta Convene to Support APS Students

Joining hearts and minds for the benefit of the children of Atlanta Public Schools, faith leaders from throughout Atlanta discussed ways their congregations can impact and improve student outcomes in the inaugural Faith Leaders Convening with APS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring.

Held on Jan. 22, the event was themed “Together in Hope, Equity, and Opportunity,” or THEO, inspired by Theo – an ancient Greek word for “God,” a name that also means “gift from God.”

Faith and community organizations have a long history of supporting APS students in a wide variety of ways. During this past year of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, faith organizations came together in service of APS students, schools, and staff particularly in these unprecedented and challenging times.

Dr. Herring, who is the daughter of preacher, shared with the attendees how near and dear this convening is for her.

“It was in our church and in our faith community where I first discovered my heart for service and love for learning. There, I discovered my personal world view about public education,” she said. “For me, the journey of public education continues my own personal mission rooted in a passionate belief that education is the greatest equalizer. I believe strongly in the inner strength, power, and talent of our children and that with strong teachers and schools, we can maximize our students’ talents so they can pursue whatever opportunities they choose.”

During this time of pandemic and protest, Dr. Herring expressed how important it was to APS to have partners whose missions intersect with the APS mission to create a culture of equity, trust, and collaboration so that every student graduates ready for college, career, and life.

Equity was certainly at the forefront of the discussion. The group heard from new Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer Tauheedah Baker-Jones, who reviewed a few of the facts and statistics regarding the APS student population.

About 77 percent of APS students are in low-income environments. And studies show that a child living in poverty within the city of Atlanta has only a 4.5 percent chance of achieving upward economic mobility. Several of the poorest schools in all of Georgia are in APS. Looking at academic achievement, 76 percent of White students in APS are performing on grade level by fourth grade, compared to 16 percent of African-American students and 23 percent of Hispanic students.

Baker-Jones said that at the current rate of growth, it will take roughly 128 years to close the gap between White and Black fourth graders within APS.

“For every six congregations that exist in the U.S., there is one high poverty public elementary and secondary school. If just a few congregations became advocates for the students in their communities, it could change the face of education inequality,” said Baker-Jones. “That is why equity stands at the core of the District’s 2020- 2025 strategic plan and will guide all of our work as a school system.”

A success story of the power of faith organization/school partnership was presented by Hope-Hill Elementary School Principal Maureen Wheeler. Wheeler, who took the helm of Hope-Hill eight years ago, has seen student achievement improve dramatically. Wheeler credits the school’s partnership with several area faith organizations, particularly a partnership with Wheat Street and Operation Peace. Wheat Street has been a consistent partner over the years and stepped up significantly during the pandemic to support students with learning pods and educational support when the school was offering virtual-only teaching and learning.

“There are so many ways faith partners can support schools and make a real difference in the lives of students,” Wheeler said.

During break out sessions, participants actively discussed ways their organizations could provide greater partnership and impact.

Baker-Jones committed that the Center for Equity and Social Justice will continue to convene faith leaders as one of the offices signature initiatives. Support for schools could be provided in a number of ways:

Direct Partnership: Support opportunities for schools, and the school district to partner more strategically with faith-based organizations in order to advance outcomes for the children who are shared between these organizations. For example, a church’s after-school programming could be enhanced by allowing staff from the after-school program to participate in professional development for the district’s new math curriculum.•

Social Capital Exchange: Commit to opportunities for each of the sectors to learn from each other. For example, individuals in the faith community have built overtime social capital which allows them to support students and their families in ways that educators can learn from.

Collective Advocacy: The interests of schools, and the district, particularly in our high-poverty and communities of color – and the interests of faith communities often overlap. With the idea that collective voices are stronger together than separate.

“The basic premise of THEO is that by pooling our collective will and resources, and by working Together in Hope, Equity and Opportunity, we position ourselves to exponentially increase our impact on families and improve the quality of life within our communities,” said Baker-Jones.

Faith organizations that did not participate in the inaugural convening are invited to partner with APS! For more information, contact partnerdev@atlanta.k12.ga.us.

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