Meet the First Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer for Atlanta Public Schools

Posted February 9, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Tauheedah Baker-Jones

Atlanta Pub­lic Schools hired Tauheedah Bak­er-Jones in Novem­ber as the district’s first chief equi­ty and social jus­tice offi­cer to car­ry out an ambi­tious agen­da: Reduce or elim­i­nate his­toric dis­par­i­ties between stu­dents of col­or and white stu­dents in mea­sures of edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment, dis­ci­pli­nary mat­ters and oth­er key areas.

Bak­er-Jones already has begun to lay the ground­work. She has start­ed dis­cus­sions with peers in oth­er school sys­tems that have estab­lished equi­ty divi­sions to learn from their suc­cess­es and chal­lenges. She and her team also plan to engage with staff, school board offi­cials, par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to assess pri­or­i­ties and dis­cuss the district’s vision for fos­ter­ing equity.

Over the long term, Bak­er-Jones — whose posi­tion is fund­ed in its first year by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and oth­er donors — hopes to estab­lish a Cen­ter for Equi­ty and Social Jus­tice with­in the school sys­tem, com­plete with a robust staff who will cre­ate key pro­grams and help the dis­trict mea­sure progress around equity.

Bak­er-Jones has 18 years of expe­ri­ence in edu­ca­tion, hav­ing worked as a teacher, prin­ci­pal and super­in­ten­dent in Newark, New Jer­sey, and in Los Ange­les. In May, she start­ed work­ing in the Atlanta school system’s superintendent’s office on efforts relat­ed to equi­ty before tak­ing on her new role.

The Casey Foun­da­tion spoke with Bak­er-Jones to learn more about her ini­tial goals and over­all vision for equi­ty in Atlanta schools.

Q: Can you talk about your back­ground with social jus­tice and equi­ty in education?

Bak­er-Jones: Through­out my career, I’ve always had a com­mit­ment to social jus­tice and equity.

My Master’s degree is in social jus­tice ped­a­gogy and urban edu­ca­tion. When I began teach­ing, I took a social-jus­tice lens with me into the class­room. As a teacher in Newark, I revised the district’s social stud­ies cur­ricu­lum to make it more cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive. I also was the found­ing prin­ci­pal, and lat­er super­in­ten­dent, of the Paulo Freire Char­ter High School in New Jer­sey — and the theme of the school was social jus­tice and ser­vice learning.

As part of my doc­tor­ate pro­gram at Har­vard, I was select­ed as a RIDES Lead­er­ship fel­low and co-designed and taught a course on equi­ty in action in school sys­tems. I also served on Har­vard Pres­i­dent Lawrence Bacow’s Diver­si­ty, Inclu­sion and Belong­ing­ness Strate­gic Plan Imple­men­ta­tion Advi­so­ry Council.

One of the require­ments of my doc­tor­al pro­gram is that I com­plete a res­i­den­cy in my third year. I want­ed to work with a school sys­tem seek­ing to imple­ment pol­i­cy around equi­ty in a com­mu­ni­ty where I had famil­ial roots — which led me to a senior strate­gic advis­er role with Atlanta Pub­lic Schools’ superintendent’s office and, ulti­mate­ly, led to the role I am in today.

Q: What would a ful­ly equi­table school sys­tem in Atlanta look like to you?

Bak­er-Jones: Ide­al­ly, an equi­table school sys­tem would be one in which each stu­dent has the resources and sup­ports they need to achieve their full potential.

Specif­i­cal­ly, the goal of equi­ty in a school dis­trict is to break the pre­dic­tive link between stu­dents’ demog­ra­phy and out­comes. We would no longer be able to pre­dict stu­dents’ out­comes based sole­ly on their demo­graph­ics, such as race, income or if they have a disability.

Q: Can you walk through some of the major dis­par­i­ties between white stu­dents and stu­dents of col­or that you think need to be reduced or elim­i­nat­ed in Atlanta Pub­lic Schools?

Bak­er-Jones: An obvi­ous dis­par­i­ty to pri­or­i­tize is the oppor­tu­ni­ty and out­come gaps that exist between white stu­dents and stu­dents of col­or around aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment and out­comes. Our African-Amer­i­can stu­dents are four times less like­ly to be read­ing, writ­ing and doing math on grade lev­el com­pared to their white peers. Far few­er Lat­inx stu­dents are per­form­ing on grade lev­el com­pared to their white peers, too.

Although the school sys­tem has made some progress, at the cur­rent rate, it would take rough­ly 128 years to ful­ly close the edu­ca­tion­al gaps between our white and Black 4th graders in Atlanta Pub­lic Schools. We must take action to accel­er­ate the reduc­tion of that gap.

We also need to ensure we are meet­ing the needs of the whole child. Our teach­ers report that there is a lack of school psy­chol­o­gists and social work­ers with­in the sys­tem, while, at the same time, one-third of our schools have a police offi­cer. While the safe­ty of our stu­dents is impor­tant, that dynam­ic sug­gests that there’s a cul­ture with­in the dis­trict of polic­ing stu­dent behav­ior, rather than cul­ti­vat­ing stu­dents’ social and emo­tion­al well-being and devel­op­ment. More­over, the high rate of sus­pen­sions for African-Amer­i­can stu­dents in Atlanta pub­lic schools is almost cer­tain­ly inter­twined with this. This sit­u­a­tion requires a seri­ous change in mind­set around dis­ci­pline and social and emo­tion­al well-being.

Also: We need to ensure that our stu­dents have access to rig­or­ous and cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive course­work and qual­i­ty edu­ca­tors. About 75% of our white high school stu­dents are enrolled in advanced place­ment cours­es com­pared to 16% of our African-Amer­i­can stu­dents and about 25% of Lat­inx students.

Atlanta schools with a major­i­ty white pop­u­la­tion also tend to have more expe­ri­enced teach­ers than major­i­ty Black schools in Atlanta. Revers­ing these trends will be key in mov­ing forward.

Q: What will you need to do in your first year to advance equity?

Bak­er-Jones: We haven’t done an equi­ty assess­ment since 2014. So, our first goal is to do that: Pro­duce a com­pre­hen­sive assess­ment of the dis­trict to deter­mine the degree to which inequity is a prob­lem and what its major sources are. We are also aware that the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has like­ly exac­er­bat­ed inequities that already exist­ed, and we need to be sure to take stock of that, too.

Basi­cal­ly, we need to ask: What is the cur­rent state of the union as it relates to equi­ty? Answer­ing that will help deter­mine what needs to change, what sys­tems need to be put in place and what cul­tur­al shifts need to be made.

Relat­ed to that: We need to gath­er and exam­ine data in the dis­trict. Cur­rent­ly, we don’t have a cen­tral­ized dash­board for equi­ty-focused data. If you want to find equi­ty-focused data, you must pull and comb through mul­ti­ple sources of infor­ma­tion to find the data that you need. We need to cre­ate an equi­ty data dash­board to be more acces­si­ble and equity-guided.

We also need to build an over­ar­ch­ing equi­ty frame­work that defines what equi­ty means and gives us shared lan­guage. This frame­work will also pro­vide a the­o­ret­i­cal guide for our divi­sions, depart­ments and schools to use as a foun­da­tion for build­ing out equi­ty-focused ini­tia­tives and guide the addi­tion­al tools and resources that need to be cre­at­ed and the pro­to­cols for account­abil­i­ty in this regard.

Q: Are there con­di­tions beyond edu­ca­tion that need to change for equi­ty to be achieved?

Bak­er-Jones: Yes. What we’re see­ing in edu­ca­tion is a symp­tom of some­thing greater in our soci­ety. We need to call it what it is: Sys­temic racism and oppres­sion, which man­i­fests itself in all facets of soci­ety and its insti­tu­tions, includ­ing edu­ca­tion, polic­ing, health care and our polit­i­cal system.

We are work­ing to undo cen­turies of sys­tems and struc­tures that are built on sys­temic racism and oppres­sion. None of us cre­at­ed these sys­tems and struc­tures, but we’re all respon­si­ble for doing our part to undo them so that they don’t con­tin­ue to adverse­ly impact the lives and out­comes of chil­dren and others.

For us to reach this ide­al as a school sys­tem, we must invite our stake­hold­ers — both inter­nal and exter­nal — into authen­tic con­ver­sa­tions and work hand-in-hand with them to make sure we are each using our respec­tive roles to pur­sue equi­ty to the fullest extent possible.

Learn more about advanc­ing equi­ty and inclu­sion with­in an organization

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