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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