Advancing Equity in Atlanta’s Schools

Posted June 29, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

A student works through an assignment.

Over the past year, Atlanta Public Schools has taken initial steps to implement an equity policy that addresses systemic issues that affect students. Drafted and passed by the school board in April 2019 — with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation — the policy requires school leaders to set goals and have internal and community discussions about race and equity.

Numerous factors drive disparities in outcomes between Atlanta’s students of color and their white peers, including historic segregation and the impact of poverty on families of color. A 2014 analysis identified other issues in Atlanta, including a lack of access to effective teachers, counselors and social workers.

Black students and other students of color in Atlanta are underrepresented in gifted programs and advanced placement courses and have historically scored lower on tests measuring math and reading skills compared to white peers. Students of color also face disciplinary measures that lead to them being suspended more often than white students.

Taking steps toward an equitable education

For several years, the school system has taken steps to address these challenges, including bringing more quality, experienced leaders and teachers to schools with high levels of poverty and providing them with more funding. With the equity policy, the school board and administrators are seeking to better coordinate and strengthen their equity work by adopting new accountability measures and goals and gathering community input.

“It’s long past due that we address inequitable systems that affect students of color in Atlanta,” says Jason Esteves, chair of the Atlanta Board of Education. “This work is especially urgent as recent incidents of police violence and the large impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on historically disadvantaged communities underscore the challenges that creep into Atlanta’s classrooms daily. Atlanta Public Schools must do all it can to enhance equity in its systems, given this context, and ensure that we move toward a time where the color of a student’s skin or where they grow up cannot be used to predict their outcomes in school and in life.”

Since 2019, school system administrators and department leaders have met to discuss the system’s equity goals and drafted a five-year strategic plan that identified various commitments, including:

  • examining and modifying criteria for gifted programs and advanced coursework to ensure more students of color are represented;
  • expanding access to extra-curricular activities and opportunities to learn outside of normal classroom settings to historically disadvantaged groups of students;
  • ensuring that schools that have higher levels of poverty continue to receive additional funding and access to experienced leaders and teachers;reviewing the school system’s disciplinary measures to ensure that fewer students of color are suspended or face other harsh punishments; and
  • building a comprehensive approach to addressing the social, emotional and academic development of students, particularly those of color.

A team of community members and parents assembled by the board of education will work with administrators to provide feedback on system goals as well as review the equity plan’s development and implementation. In March, the team suggested several goals, including creating financial incentives for teachers to work in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods and training parents and students on equity and implicit biases.

Promoting a culture of equity across the school system

As part of its initial work on the plan, school leaders have participated in trainings and discussions centered around race and equity.

Over the past six months, Atlanta nonprofit, The Art of Community, has hosted sessions with the system’s senior executive leadership team to discuss building a culture of equity in the district and improving conditions for students of color overall. And, in January, two hundred school administrators and department leaders participated in implicit bias training facilitated by the National Training Institute on Race & Equity, in which they learned about unconscious biases that can impact their work with students and others.

School system leaders hope to bring similar trainings and equity discussions to teachers and other staff in the coming years, says Angela King Smith, chief engagement officer for Atlanta Public Schools. “Policy and technical changes are important,” Smith says. “But it’s also key that the school system work to shift the mindsets and beliefs of school leaders, teachers and other staff to not only embrace commitments around equity, but also to take necessary action to put equity into practice.”

Next steps for implementation of the equity policy include:

  • reviewing data to determine existing resources and achievement gaps;
  • outlining steps to execute the equity commitments outlined in the strategic plan; and
  • creating metrics and benchmarks to track outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted other areas of need, Smith says, including racial disparities in reliable access to the internet and computers needed for distance learning — an issue the system is working to address.

“Major changes in outcomes won’t occur in Atlanta overnight,” says Rubye Sullivan, a senior associate at the Casey Foundation. “But with this equity plan providing a strong foundation, we’re confident that Atlanta’s school system leaders will stay committed to ensuring that Black and brown students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds get the support they need to succeed.”

Learn about the Baltimore City school system’s efforts to implement an equity policy

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