Sankofa Montessori Offers Students and Families A Culturally Innovative Approach To Great Public Education

This fall, families will have another innovative public school option for students in Forest Park, Ga. Sankofa Montessori will become one of Metro Atlanta’s first K-6 tuition-free public charter Montessori schools. Sankofa Montessori utilizes the Montessori model of learning to provide a culturally responsive, child and family-centered Montessori education that empowers every child with the knowledge, skills and agency to lead a life of purpose. 

“The meaning of Sankofa is to honor the past to make way for the future,” said Sankofa Montessori, Founder and Executive Director, Sarah Harvey. “Sankofa symbolizes our philosophy of perpetual reflection and growth at the center of our work with students, families and communities.” 

Sankofa Montessori strategically places students in multi-age groupings to build a growth mindset and monitor their individual progress. The multi-age groupings encourage each student’s natural development pace, provide leadership opportunities, create a diverse environment and promote a growth mindset. Each guide stays with the same group of students for all three years to understand each student on a deeper level. 

The newly renovated 5,000-square-foot campus anticipates an enrollment of 125 students in its pilot year. Each classroom is designed according to the following Montessori principles to maximize learning for each child:

  • Freedom of choice in learning 
  • A structured and orderly learning environment
  • Beauty in the learning environment
  • Learning environment designed to bring in nature 
  • Community building
  • Learning materials across ages and stages of development

“The Montessori approach is playful and rigorous; it’s personalized for each child without relying on screens; it is highly structured and student-centered at the same time,” said Annie Frazer, executive director of Montessori Partnerships for Georgia, a nonprofit focused on supporting and expanding public Montessori programs. “Best of all, it helps children feel connected to each other’s success and learn how to think, how to disagree respectfully and change their minds when that’s warranted, how to step up and take responsibility. Montessori graduates know they matter to their communities, and they have the skills to make a difference. It has been a privilege to support Sankofa Montessori’s development, and I know their graduates will be changemakers.”

Sankofa’s Montessori-trained instructional staff are guides, content experts and masters of Montessori teaching and learning practices. Each guide also engages in ongoing professional development to ensure they are incorporating new methods to help students thrive. 

Sankofa Montessori’s launch was supported through redefinED atlanta’s school start-up support, including start-up funding and technical assistance. State-authorized charter schools in Georgia receive several thousand dollars less than peer traditional and in-district charter schools even when serving a similar student population and geographic community. 

Since its founding, redefinED atlanta has filled part of that revenue gap and contributed to the growth, sustainability, and influence of the charter school ecosystem in Atlanta by addressing financial and operational barriers that challenged new schools from coming online and launching successfully. Over an average of 5 years of support, redefinED atlanta invests approximately $1.25M in each public charter school that meets its standard of great K-12 education for Atlanta students and communities. 

To learn more about Sankofa Montessori, visit

About Sankofa Montessori:

Sankofa Montessori is Metro Atlanta’s first State Charter School Commission-approved K-6 tuition-free public Montessori school. Sankofa Montessori utilizes the Montessori model of learning to provide a culturally responsive, child and family-centered Montessori education that empowers every child with the knowledge, skills and agency to lead a life of purpose. To learn more about Sankofa Montessori, visit

About redefinED atlanta:

redefinED atlanta is a growing collective of civic leaders and philanthropists passionate about and invested in transforming Atlanta into a place where every student in every community has the opportunity to attend a great public school. For more information on redefinED atlanta, please visit

redefinED statement on Tapestry Charter School

A message from redefinED atlanta:

By voting to deny Tapestry Public Charter School’s petition to replicate their educational model via a 6-12 campus in Atlanta Public Schools, the Atlanta Board of Education is choosing to ignore the widely demonstrated need for more inclusive, individualized learning environments for neurodivergent students. It is deeply concerning to see the Board turn down a school that would have served so many students with special needs, especially considering the 650 “intent to enroll” signatures from eligible students and families.

The Board has framed their unanimous decision to deny Tapestry’s petition as a delay, not a final denial. But after far too many delays, and extensive evidence that the school would serve a diverse population, hundreds of families have now been publicly denied a great option when their kids need it. The Board made the wrong decision and for the sake of our kids, they should reconsider it quickly.

A School to Celebrate

Founder Ebony Payne Brown shares the inspiring journey of opening PEACE Academy.

On Aug. 7, 2023, PEACE Academy welcomed students into the building for the first time. The only state charter-approved public school in Georgia with a culturally inclusive curriculum, this milestone marks the culmination of an enormous, inspired and coordinated effort on behalf of students.

Founder Ebony Payne Brown describes some of the pivotal moments, starting from the beginning when she worked with the Georgia Charter Schools Association’s Charter Incubator program, a competitive year-long endeavor that recruits and trains leaders to start public charter schools in the state. “I didn’t have funding, and I had a full-time job,” she says. “We had to be resourceful, working with community members and volunteers.”  

One of the biggest tasks was securing the place where their students would thrive. Many grants explicitly state that they cannot be used for funding facilities, so the assistance from redefineED atlanta was instrumental for understanding the commercial real estate market, finding an old warehouse to renovate and hiring architectural and construction teams. redefinED atlanta believes developing new schools and investing in district initiatives will transform Atlanta into a city where every child attends a great public school. 

An Environment that Increases Learning Capacity

After successfully navigating through the many complexities, PEACE Academy is now delivering on its vision. A daily cultural studies class focuses on intentional cultural immersion that helps students appreciate their heritage and the world as a rich and beautiful place with diverse and beautiful people. Monthly real-world questions offer opportunities for exploration and problem-solving. Related field experiences give students exposure to community organizations, educational pathways and potential careers. The curriculum also includes twenty-first-century skills like coding. In addition, reading and literacy underpin everything, along with opportunities for family involvement. 

“So many Black and brown students have a hard time finding a school in their area that is high performing and that accepts their cultural identity. If you remove your identity as you step into school, it’s a weight, and it lowers your brain capacity,” says Ms. Payne Brown. “We want students to show up as they are, celebrating everyone who comes into the building, with their capacity to learn enlarged.” 

The school’s three educational pillars include being culturally responsive, inquiry-based, and community-centered. “Many traditional schools are based on memorizing versus having field experiences and learning how to develop your own solutions,” Ms. Payne Brown says. “We want our students to build critical thinking skills and enter fields and careers that emphasize those skills.”

Bringing a Dream to Fruition

Ms. Payne Brown emphasizes how necessary early funding and support were to achieving this dream when the school was nothing but an idea. “I 100% could not have done this without funding from organizations like redefinED atlanta,” she says. “To receive a grant for planning, a grant for the opening year, all before data or results, believing in me and my leadership made the journey possible.” Having opportunities for professional development and attending conferences also made a huge difference. 

Early support helped expand and fine-tune the vision through visits to schools around the globe with High Tech High and the Georgia Charter Schools Association incubator program. “In Washington, D.C., I visited a school that had the most collective style of learning I’ve ever seen, with a morning meeting and students leading so much of the work,” Ms. Payne Brown says. “And there was an inquiry-based model in San Diego where the level of autonomy and creativity blew my mind and changed my image of what students could do in terms of projects.”

She also mentions the critical role of the incubator cohort. “It’s extremely helpful to have multiple partners along on this journey who are also opening schools, to have regular meetings, share what we are doing and bounce ideas off of each other.” 

Now that the school is open, what’s next? Ms. Payne Brown notes that while they are now fully staffed, her position includes both principal and executive director, overseeing the curriculum and fundraising. She would like to see those responsibilities divided into two positions. “We also want to get to a point where we have so much interest that we have to consider opening another school to provide even more families with an innovative public school option like ours,” she says. “But shorter-term, we want every child to finish this year feeling they have grown and have a place that loves them and cares about their educational experience.”

Giving Families More Choices

redefinED atlanta believes that developing new schools and investing in equity-driven district initiatives will transform Atlanta into a city where every child can attend a great public school. This August, thanks to several new innovative schools opening across metro Atlanta, our region’s K-8 families have more educational options for their children. With the opening of Miles Ahead Charter School, years of visioning and community collaboration have come to fruition.

“The hopes that I have for my son Miles, I want for everyone’s child,” says Founder and Head of Schools Kolt Bloxson. “In some of our first community meetings, hearing the same comments and questions, I realized I was not the only parent wanting another option. So, I took it upon myself to do something about it for my child and all children to give choice and voice to my community.”

The school’s mission — to provide all students with the social and academic achievements necessary to help realize their potential for local impact and global change — grew out of those early conversations. Starting in 2019, more than 300 community members gathered and imagined the school’s graduates and what kind of education would equip them for the 21st century. 

An Innovative and Supportive Structure

“Our model re-envisions the workload for teachers and students,” says Ms. Bloxson. “The mission lives in three areas, the way students learn, the master schedule and the way we support teachers.” 

Multi-disciplinary, project-based learning supports deeper student engagement. Class periods are extended with fewer transitions so that students and teachers can take learning further and become content area experts. A weekly expedition day where students go on field trips or do coding or meet field scientists gives students more varied learning experiences while at the same time allowing classroom teachers a whole day for planning. 

“Overwhelmingly, our families want our students to be equipped for the future,” says Ms. Bloxson. “They want their students to have access to jobs that include technical skills, to understand computer science, to have the ethics of being a globally, digitally connected citizen, to graduate having had explicit instruction to prepare them for the world.”

In addition to ensuring 21st-century skills with a focus on STEM, coding as a second language and more, the school treats students as whole people. First and foremost, students need daily support in caring for themselves and others.

The school has also created a clear pathway for growth and achievement. As students work on mastering the standards, the school’s approach accounts for the fact that no two students will have the same learning needs with a “Power Hour” for individual instruction and regularly scheduled assessments. 

Support and Lessons Learned Along the Way

Getting to opening day has been a learning process. One of the big and unexpected hills was COVID-19. “The pandemic shifted the timeline significantly,” says Ms. Bloxson. “Funding, the way we did outreach, everything was a huge challenge.” Ultimately, because of all the challenges, they decided to defer opening for a year. 

“Deferral was the best decision we could have made,” Bloxson says. “We’re so much stronger because of it, shoring up systems and programs and now opening our doors with over 200 students, fully staffed and ready to serve the needs of our community.”

redefinED atlanta also played a significant role in the school’s journey to launch. “They gave me an amazing partner in associate vice president of schools Emily Castillo León, who helped coach me about how to get the school open and successfully align resources,” Ms. Bloxson says. redefinED atlanta’s support also included connections to a successful portfolio of schools.

“It’s been amazing,” says Ms. Bloxson. “We’re out here on the outskirts of Cobb [County], so it’s wonderful to receive funding support and access to other national efforts to support schools. We’ve been able to open because of the advocacy that redefinED has done for us.”

Miles Ahead Charter School’s first day was Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. “We were excited to see kids in their Miles Ahead uniforms talking about high-five habits,” Ms. Bloxson says. “And once all the kids get home safe, at that moment, I will feel like my dream is achieved — and then we’ll do it 179 more times.”

redefinED atlanta Invests $100,000 To Aid Schools’ Engagement Efforts for the 2023-2024 School Year


redefinED atlanta Invests $100,000 To Aid Title I Schools’ Engagement Efforts for the 2023-2024 School Year

Atlanta (May 17, 2023) redefinED atlanta, a nonprofit that engages communities, advocates for equity, and funds critical work to drive systemic level improvement in K-12 public education for students and families, today announced it has awarded approximately $100,000 in grants to 10 schools serving students in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) district. Grants are awarded through the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) grant fund. RedefinED atalnta created the fund to support schools in strengthening their family and community engagement efforts and this year’s recipients’ awards are for the 2023-2024 school year.

“Each year, we continue to learn about the challenges schools face getting more families and community members engaged in children’s education,” said Denesha Thompson, director of public engagement and advocacy, redefinED atlanta. “With school budgets allocated heavily towards academic recovery efforts, we know additional funds will allow schools to activate families and community members by bringing them into schools and informing them of ways to get involved in supporting students and schools.”

The redefinED FACE grant fund was launched in 2022 to meet the requests of school leaders, teachers, and family engagement coordinators. The fund evolved from a 2018-2019 micro-grant opportunity that awarded schools up to $1,000 per school for a family and community engagement event with a maximum investment of $20,000 per school year. Today, the FACE grant fund awards up to $10,000 per school, with a full investment of $100,000 for the 2023-2024 school year.

redefinED atlanta believes parent and community engagement is one factor that will help advance our mission of every child in every community receiving a great K-12 public education.

Grants Supporting Schools Serving Atlanta Public Schools Students

  • Kimberly Elementary School – $10, 000
  • Benjamin E. Mays High School – $10, 000
  • John Lewis Academy – $10, 000
  • M. Agnes Jones Elementary School  – $10, 000
  • Hutchinson Elementary School – $10, 000
  • Barack and Michelle Obama Academy – $10, 000
  • Ethos Classical Charter School – $10, 000
  • Centennial Academy Charter School – $10, 000
  • Atlanta SMART Academy – $10, 000
  • Beecher Hill Elementary School – $10, 000

About redefinED atlanta:

Every student in Atlanta needs access to a great K-12 public education. Together with parents, educators, community leaders, and philanthropists, redefinED atlanta is transforming Atlanta into a place where every student in every community has: opportunity, well-being and self-determination. For more information, please visit

About Atlanta Public Schools:
Atlanta Public Schools is one of the largest school districts in the state of Georgia, serving approximately 50,000 students across 87 schools and five programs. The District is organized into nine K-12 clusters with 64 traditional schools, 19 charter schools, six partner schools, two alternative schools and five alternative programs. To learn more about Atlanta Public Schools, follow us on social media – Twitter (@apsupdate), Facebook (Atlanta Public Schools), and Instagram (apsupdate) – or visit us online at

This Teacher Appreciation Week, Celebrating A Change of Careers

In recognition of Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re profiling Sonya Hanks, a 9th-grade life transition teacher at Daniel McLaughlin Therrell High School, an International Baccalaureate high school in Southwest Atlanta and graduate of the Relay Graduate School of Education. 


Relay trains teachers at every stage of their career– from recent college graduates seeking their masters degree, veteran teachers who want advanced trainDing, career changers like Hanks who are using Relay to prepare them for the teaching profession after time in other fields, and certificate seekers who want additional credentials in high-need areas like ESOL, special education, and more.


This post is about Ms. Hanks, but it represents the thousands of teachers in Atlanta Public Schools who plan and persist every day to serve students and families. Their creativity and commitment inspire each of us at redefinED atlanta, and we are immensely grateful for their service to our city.


Sonya Hanks’ path to becoming a teacher was long and circuitous, so when she arrived at her new school and heard students not taking her class seriously, she stopped that talk cold. 

“I teach a course, high school transitions,” said Hanks. “They were saying it was more of a study hall, and I was like ‘No, no, no. I didn’t come into teaching to do study hall.’”

Hanks came into teaching to change lives, and that’s just what she’s doing as a career-changer who attended the Relay Graduate School of Education so she could act on her belief to “not be part of the problem, be part of the solution.”

redefinED atlanta spent almost two years rallying partners and philanthropic investors to bring Relay Graduate School of Education to Atlanta in 2018.

Relay is a nationally accredited talent organization with campuses and partnerships in multiple cities like Atlanta.  Relay’s programming is largely known as a “gold standard” talent organization in our field. Since its launch in 2018, Relay has: trained over 250 new teachers in metro Atlanta; addressed a critical hiring need for Atlanta area schools and districts; and at full scale, will be able to graduate 100+ highly trained teachers per year


“We believed bringing Relay to Atlanta would be transformational for Atlanta area schools as Relay would substantially increase the number of high-quality new teachers entering Atlanta’s teaching pool every year,” said Ed Chang, executive director at redefinED atlanta.


Hanks’ teaching area is uncommon, but her skills are in heavy demand. In a national survey released in January, Americans’ foremost educational priority was “a concentrated focus on ‘practical, tangible skills’ such as managing one’s personal finances, preparing meals and making appointments.”

That’s what Hanks excels at, supporting students new to high school and putting them on solid footing for a range of future experiences. 

“I get students acclimated to what high school entails and then prepare them for real-life living,” Hanks said. 

Being a teacher wasn’t always Hanks’ plan. She went to college for communications, then moved to Alabama, where she worked as a receptionist. Her path changed when a category-five hurricane impacted her hometown. The damage forced Hanks and her family to relocate to Atlanta, where she started working as a substitute teacher.  

Hanks’ principal instantly saw her potential as a full-time educator and encouraged her to attend Relay, which is known as a teacher preparation program that grounds educators in practical skills and data-informed instruction. Hanks said the program really pushed her thinking and stretched her skill set. As a result, she graduated with a keen awareness of when students are and are not engaged. 

“Relay walks with you every step of the way,” Hanks said. “That’s different from what I see with many other teachers in similar programs. But, even now, I can still reach out and get support for whatever I need help with.”


Now, at Therrell High, Hanks is seen by her peers as an exemplar of classroom management. 


Hanks knows her journey to becoming a teacher was nontraditional. But, she says, she appreciates what she has learned every step of the way and the opportunity to serve young people every day.


“I look back,” Hanks said, “and I wouldn’t change a thing.”


redefinED atlanta believes great schools have strong school leaders and teachers. For every student in every community to attend a great school, we must increase and retain the number of high-quality teachers and leaders entering Atlanta. We invest in organizations that grow talent at all levels because we believe every neighborhood deserves great schools. To learn more about how redefinED atlanta cultivates strong school talent, visit

Dr. Robin Christian Talks Family and Community Engagement Efforts at BaMO

redefinED atlanta believes that authentic and regular parent and community engagement is a critical factor in advancing our vision of every child in every community receiving a great K-12 public education. The best school leaders and teachers understand their students’ and communities’ unique needs and have thefreedom, flexibility, and support to serve those needs. Active parent and community engagement are essential to establish levers of support for every student.

That’s why in 2022, we began awarding Family and Community Engagement grants to schools serving Atlanta students. In the coming weeks, we will publish a series of blog posts in which school leaders will share how these flexible grant dollars helped them serve their school community better. First up is Principal Robin Christian of Barack and Michelle Obama Academy (BaMO), a pre-K-5th-grade school in Peoplestown. 

These features come as we’re investing another $100,000 to support schools throughout the 2023-24 school year. Eligible Title I schools can apply for up to $10,000 to support their broader family engagement plans across the school year. We hope to strengthen each grantee’s engagement strategy and look forward to creating stronger community ties within our partner schools. 

Now, here’s Principal Christian of BAMO:

redefinED atlanta: To start us off, can you share a bit about BAMO in terms of its educational programs and size? 

Principal Christian: We run a couple of programs in addition to our K-5 classrooms, including a pre-K program and regional special education units, so we serve between 250-270 students. Being such a small school helps us form bonds with families, but our size can be a sore spot when it comes to budgeting, which is based on how many students we serve. 

redefinED: What are some of the main challenges associated with serving a smaller student body? 

Principal Christian: We’re actually in one of the smallest attendance zones in the entire school district, which impacts funding for programs. 

We serve Peoplestown, one of the most historic communities in Atlanta and a highly marginalized community. Think Rashard Brooks and so many of the tragedies that have hit the nation’s media circuit; it’s a host of social injustices.  

We serve a lot of families living in subsidized housing, and right now we’re enduring one of the fastest rates of gentrification in the Atlanta metro area. So a lot of our families are being pushed out and fewer of our educators can afford to even live here. We’re a very resourceful community, so we’re trying to do what we can with what we have. 

redefinED: What goals have you been hoping to achieve as a school? How has receiving the Family and Community Engagement grant supported your work to date? 

Principal Christian: There’s this myth that when schools serve a large population of families of color, that families are not engaged. As a school, we counter that myth: we remain big on family engagement. With its grant, redefinED atlanta is helping us provide incentives to increase attendance rates amongst our students. 

The ability to create this space for bonding amongst students and families, that’s the important work that we’ve been able to focus on. redefinED helps us strengthen our academic parent-teacher teams and create connections between families and faculty in meaningful ways. We’re able to sit with parents and assess academic achievement data, and we’ve implemented a very student-focused agenda.

redefinED: Have you seen any positive shifts in attendance thus far?   

Principal Christian: Last year, we had one of the lowest attendance rates in the district, but we’ve already seen an increase of almost 5 percent. Thanks to the redefinED atlanta FACE grant, we host monthly events where students can use positive behavior points toward purchasing items from an attendance cart. This gives the students a sense of agency and, frankly, it helps make school more fun. We also take steps that don’t cost any money at all, like giving students shout-outs over the loudspeaker. They all want to hear their name!

The unrestricted funding has let me do what is best for my school community. We can’t use our district dollars to offer food for families who attend events, but everyone likes free food – regardless of socioeconomic status – and it can help attract more people. The redefinED grant lets us offer families refreshments at our events, and it’s helped us draw more families. 

We now have the highest attendance rates in our cluster. We’re changing the narrative. The BAMO community is grateful to come together with these new initiatives in place.

redefinED atlanta funds critical work to drive equity in education and promote great schools in Atlanta. We believe the best school leaders and teachers understand their students’ and communities’ unique needs. They work best when given the trust, freedom, flexibility, and support to serve those needs. Active parent and community engagement are essential to establish levers of support for every student. We’re offering new Family and Community Engagement grants for the 2023-24 school year. Visit to learn more.

The Impact of Literacy for High School Students

Why is Literacy Important for High School Students?

Literacy is the ability to read and write, and for your children, literacy is the foundation of their education and communication skills. “The prevailing approach to literacy is failing millions of children who are disproportionately Black and brown,” states the Forbes article How ‘Reading Instruction’ Fails Black And Brown Children. The impact of literacy is bigger than most parents realize.

Despite the fact that students are often expected to be literate by the fourth grade, there are shocking statistics, like those shared by The Hill below, regarding literacy rates among young teens, particularly teens within communities of color and those who have faced inequitable access to education. Many students “lack proficiency in reading skills” or are “functionally illiterate” in Georgia. This means that they are considered to be “unable to manage daily living and employment tasks.” 

While this deeply impacts students in our community, this is not exclusive to Georgia, indicating systemic issues nationwide. According to insights from National Assessment of Educational Progress NAEP studies—a sector of the U.S. Department of Education—12th-grade students in the south, in cities or rural areas, Black and Brown students, English language learners, or students with disabilities show higher rates of illiteracy than their counterparts who fall within other demographic or geographic areas. NAEP also showed that, in 2019, Black students in 12th-grade had an average score that was 30 points lower than White students. 

Additionally, children who may not have received an equitable education due to systemic racism, ableism, or poverty, face challenges that trap them in a vicious cycle—educational policies and practices that fail to meet students’ needs, leading to illiteracy, leading to further problems in life caused by those same systemic issues, and so on. The Forbes article mentioned above shares that statistics from childhood illiteracy “translate into greater struggles in high school, lower college attendance and graduation rates, a higher likelihood of incarceration, and generally bleaker futures.” 

At redefinED atlanta, we are working to empower school systems, parents and guardians, students, and our Atlanta community to help create positive and equitable educational opportunities for K-12 students. Last year, we launched our two-year ARISE participatory grant, which provides a $300,000 fund to support Atlanta Public Schools’ goal of increasing student literacy outcomes. This aims to increase literacy proficiency, raising the percentage of students in grades 3-8 reading scores for Georgia Milestones from 36.9 percent, reported in 2019, to 47 percent by August 2026.

It is our job to work together to challenge current scholastic practices that don’t justly serve our children. Literacy impacts all students, and this skillset belongs to all students, including its benefits. 

Benefits of Literacy

A strong command of language sets a strong foundation for academic and job performance, and it promotes essential life and leadership skills, like self- and community-advocacy. Literacy has a variety of other benefits, including:

  • Higher self-esteem 
  • Improved concentration
  • Increased critical and analytical thinking
  • Expanded vocabulary
  • Meeting academic milestones
  • Managing daily living and employment tasks

These are just a few of the many ways that these skills can enrich your child’s life, and as a parent or guardian, you can make a difference. 

Prioritizing Literacy Skills with Your Teen

You may be asking, ‘how can I encourage and grow my teen’s literacy skills at home?’ Time and consistency are a few of the greatest indicators of a good outcome. Encourage your child to set aside time in their schedule to read something they enjoy independently, with their peers, or with you. Even for teenagers, reading with others and reading aloud, as well as listening to others do the same as they follow along, can increase their fluency and comprehension. Reading independently allows time for them to practice their skills. “Motivating students through topics that relate to their own lives and cultures” and new material related to developing interest areas helps them engage more easily with the words and story, according to Forbes. Reading for as little as 15 minutes per day is the consistent practice students’ need to improve. 

You can create a literacy-rich environment at home by getting your child a public library card or encouraging them to check out books from their school library. You can also prompt your child to write creatively, for school or for fun, which can improve literacy skills, as well as their imagination. This can be on paper, a computer, or simply in the notes app on their phone. 

And lastly, your teen has an opportunity to practice and improve literacy on each and every homework assignment they receive. If there are words they don’t recognize or understand, share the definition or have them research the meaning. Praising curiosity could inspire your child to develop a habit of looking up new words or words used in a new context, which can give them the tools they need to continue to expand their vocabulary.

How We Can Improve Literacy Together

Literacy is of the utmost importance for academic and long-term success in your child’s life. This is especially true for high school-aged students whose near-future goals and careers depend on their ability to communicate clearly and effectively. We, at redefinED atlanta, are here to listen and advocate for better educational practices for the children in our Black and Brown or under-resourced communities, as well as provide funding to give students the support they need and improve literacy proficiency in Georgia.

“There’s abundant scientific evidence that explains why our standard approach to reading instruction isn’t working for so many black kids—and others,” according to Forbes. We believe that people in our communities most impacted by injustices need to have more agency and the opportunity to take an active role in order to effectively address the historical inequities in Atlanta’s public school system that contribute to high teenage illiteracy rates. Even with teenagers, it’s never too late to help your child grow their literacy skills, and you don’t have to do that alone.

Fickett Elementary Uses Parent Engagement to Increase Student Attendance

Meeting Families Where They Are

Tonya Holmes acknowledges that sometimes families see social workers as only getting involved when there’s a problem, and she’s working to change that. “I’m here as a resource,” she says. She brings nearly 30 years of experience as a teacher and long-time high school principal to her current position as a school social worker at Fickett Elementary School. 

Now in her second year, she’s focusing on increasing attendance. That’s why she applied for the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) grant. A $150,000 investment by redefinED atlanta, FACE grants support eligible Atlanta Public Schools (APS) in their 2022-23 family engagement efforts. The money, up to $15,000 per school, gives recipients autonomy in how they spend the funds to address their priority needs. 

“redefinED atlanta engages with communities, advocates for equity, and funds critical work to drive systemic level improvement in K-12 public education for students and families,” said Denesha Thompson Pressy, director,  public engagement and advocacy, at redefinED atlanta. “We believe supporting schools’ broader family engagement strategy will lead to a more lasting impact on family engagement in schooling and thereby support student academic and life outcomes, ”she added. 

More Momentum and Shared Understanding

With thoughtful events, information and incentives, Holmes is working on increasing daily attendance momentum and understanding why attendance is so important at home. The program for students kicked off in September, with attendance winners going to the monster truck show. “Then we hit the reset button every month,” she says. “We don’t want you to be knocked out of the running because you missed a few days last month.” 

The announcement comes every morning asking kids to try hard to be at school and to be on time. One month, the winners went to a College Park Skyhawks basketball game, snacks included. Another month, children’s names went into a drawing for a video game console and parents received wireless earbuds, recognizing that the students would only be successful with parent support. Snack bags and perfect attendance t-shirts are other ways Holmes increases the visibility of students with high attendance to encourage more students.

For the Fickett Elementary School community, Holmes uses redefinED atlanta’s F.A.C.E. grant funding to meet people where they are with the information and support they need. “Anytime I have the opportunity for a captive audience of adults, I go,” says Holmes. For one of her outreach efforts, she and her school’s parent liaison organized a school meeting at an apartment complex where about 100 Fickett students live. While attendance was light, those who came left with bookbags full of useful items, and now other parents are asking when she’s coming back. 

To reach out specifically to dads, Holmes joined one of the All-Pro Dad’s meetings to discuss the importance of school attendance. The father’s group involves about 60 men who meet in the school media center monthly. “We have to stop the expectation that raising kids is only the responsibility of mothers,” Holmes says. “The dads were so receptive and happy to be included.”

Removing Barriers

There are many reasons why students at Fickett Elementary might not come to school. A child may need clean clothes because cleaning supplies are expensive. A parent might have a night shift and struggle to get their child ready on time based on when they get home from work. It removes a barrier when Holmes includes laundry detergent in gift bags. Also, she lets families know that even if a student is not on time, the school still wants them to come. “It’s about feeling welcome,” she says. “Better to come late than not come at all.”

Holmes underlines the importance of administrators having the power to allocate funds in the ways their school community needs. “The needs are different from one community to the next,” she says. “Some schools might have the same demographic makeup as ours, but students at that school aren’t missing class because parents have cars or children can walk to school.” In the case of Fickett Elementary many families don’t have cars, and if children miss the bus, they may live too far away to walk. 

At Fickett, there are also a lot of younger families and Holmes is emphasizing why elementary attendance is so critical for students. “With young parents, many of whom are trying to make it from day to day, taking this time to establish relationships will have a long-term impact,” she says. “A change in their mindset is happening.”

Already Holmes has seen an increase in two-way communication. Instead of the school always initiating calls if children are out sick, she’s getting more proactive calls from families that the school can document and keep track of, like if a student is out because of an asthma attack. “When we call parents, we don’t just say a student missed eight days,” she says. “We say, ‘Unfortunately, they’re not doing well in math and not on grade level.’ When my parents hear that, it means more to them — they want more for their children.” 

Her long experience as a high school administrator gives Holmes a unique perspective. “High school students are in control of whether they go to school or not,” she says. “In elementary school, students must rely on supportive adults to set the stage for their whole academic career. This year, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made. I’m very pleased with the parents being receptive. It’s not just about students being in school but being there to maximize their lives and reach their full potential.”

redefinED atlanta funds critical work to drive equity in education and promote great schools in Atlanta. With more flexible resources like the FACE grant, thoughtful leaders like Holmes can continue advancing critical elements of student success, like attendance and family engagement. redefinED atlanta believes the best school leaders and teachers understand their students’ and communities’ unique needs. They work best when given the trust, freedom, flexibility, and support to serve those needs. Active parent and community engagement are essential to establish levers of support for every student. Learn more about our current FACE grant opportunity today.

COR combats food insecurity at Carver S.T.E.A.M. Academy

It started with what some might call a wild idea. Jennifer Bartl says she’s one of three Jenn’s, the ‘Jennerators’, (the other two are Jennifer Henn and Jennifer Greenlee) who decided to create COR to support trauma-affected and historically excluded students and provide them with what they need to succeed.

Bartl says that when they decided to house their organization in Carver S.T.E.A.M Academy in south Atlanta, they knew there was a lot of food insecurity in the school. COR works in South Fulton County (30315), which has a Child Well-Being score of 30.9 (avg. score for Georgia is 68), and 55% of children in the zip code live in poverty (United Way of Greater Atlanta, 2020).

“And so we opened a grocery store inside the school. If our kiddos have food in their belly and the rest of their basic needs met, they are more likely to come to school, stay in school, and thrive,” Bartl said. The food primarily comes from Second Helpings, an organization that “rescues” food that is still good from grocery stores, restaurants, and corporate events. Available items range from prepackaged sandwiches and organic fresh produce to hygiene items and clothes, all free to students and their families.

The CORner Store also has some necessities that can’t be bought with an EBT card. For instance, the Homeless Period Project provides pre-made bags of period products for students to grab and go, making menstruation one less thing that gets in the way of learning.

COR tries to reduce any barriers that might stand between students and their needs, and they provide more than nutrition. Bartl said that COR is unique because they offer counseling, prevention education and care coordination for students and their families, on-site at school. Services are offered where kids spend most of their day. Counseling is free and doesn’t require an appointment or an insurance card, so students can walk in when needed. They also equip students with important social and emotional skills necessary for adulting.

“The Whole Child Approach is an example of how we ensure students have access to a great K-12 public education,” says Dennis Dent, communications director, redefinED atlanta. “We [redefinED atlanta] partner with organizations like COR to address intersectional issues that create barriers for student performance and negatively impact students and families,” Dent added.

“Every child, no matter their socioeconomic status, deserves to flourish at school and beyond” Bartl said. 

“Our idea is that your zip code shouldn’t determine whether or not you have food in your belly or access to a decent education, or to see a successful future for yourself,” Bartl added. 

The CORner Store supplements the school lunch program when there’s not much food at home. Often the lunch and breakfast they receive at school are the two guaranteed meals they have. Bartl says that allowing students and their families to shop at their grocery store helps fill in those gaps. 

“Maybe it’s that dinner meal that they don’t get at school, or weekend meals, or snacks,” Bartl said.

Another benefit of the store is that it provides a point of contact with parents or guardians who may otherwise be hard to reach.

 “It’s like, oh, this students’ Mom comes every Tuesday to get groceries,” Bartl said, adding that regular contact and resources also help the adults in a student’s life to see interaction with the school as positive, rather than just a sign that their child is in trouble.

Improving family engagement is a frequently discussed goal of many school districts because involved parents can mean better outcomes for students. Bartl says that developing a strong relationship with parents was a happy consequence of the pandemic – they made countless home visits and became quite the fixture in many south Atlanta front yards and porches. Connecting with parents and caregivers is something they’ve been intentional about prioritizing since a return to in-person learning.

COR tries to educate students and families about nutrition by using models like the US Department of Agriculture’s My Plate plan. They love to share personal family recipes and parents often return with pictures of what they made and stories of getting their kids to try something new.

COR’s “CORner Store” and the other on-site services they provide help keep students in school. COR also advocates for students and will try to intervene if a student is on the verge of being disenrolled due to absence, starting with asking what is happening in the student’s life.

“We try to jump in if it gets to the point of saying ‘we’re going to disenroll’ and say, can we put some brief interventions and support in place to see if we could get this kid to come to school?” Bartl said.

Bartl said that school-based grocery stores and the kind of wraparound support that COR offers is an idea that is spreading.

“There’s one at Tri-Cities High School this year and they just put one at Banneker [High School],” Bartl said. 

“In a perfect world, I think that this model of tiered levels of structured, in-school support should be the norm,” Bartl added. 

While improving nutrition is an important part of COR’s approach, Bartl says the goal is to reduce all of the barriers that get in a student’s way.

“It’s never just food insecurity. Poverty, housing insecurity, racism, and the subsequent historial exclusion…you can’t separate [them]. And I know that none of our families struggle with just one. It’s layered, it’s infuriating, and it’s largely preventable,” Bartl said. 

redefinED atlanta is transforming Atlanta into a place where every student in every community has opportunity, well-being, and self-determination. We will continue to grow and participate in coalitions to address intersectional issues that create barriers for student performance and negatively impact students and families. To learn more about our intersectional coalitions and grow your understanding of public education, take the A.R.I.S.E. pledge today!