redefinED atlanta ARISE Fellow Champions for Equitable Education

Advancing Education Advocacy

There are many reasons why people get involved in improving public education. The draw is professional and personal for Kristen Silton, a member of the first group of redefinED atlanta Reimagining & Innovating for Schools Everywhere (A.R.I.S.E.) fellows. 

As the Alliance Theatre’s head of Education Advancement, she explains how the organization’s programming supports school children. “There is a literacy crisis in Atlanta with only about one-third of our 3rd graders reading at grade level, and the U.S. Surgeon General has declared a youth mental health crisis across the country,” says Ms. Silton. “Our programs help mitigate both. Arts and cultural activities enrich communities and are proven to increase resilience, perspectives of tolerance, standardized test scores, and reduce behavioral infractions and absences.” 

With three kids at Parkside Elementary, Ms. Silton also works for change at her local neighborhood school. After two years as an active member of the school’s PTA, she is starting as the co-president, serving a two-year term structured so that one president’s incoming year overlaps the other president’s outgoing year. Even if she hadn’t been part of the A.R.I.S.E. fellowship program, Ms. Silton likely would have pursued a leadership role in the PTA. Still, the fellowship experience has changed how she’s approaching the role.

A Wider Perspective

The A.R.I.S.E. fellowship gives participants context and connections as they learn about the history of Atlanta Public Schools (APS), student achievement trends, and opportunities for partnerships and funding that support community-driven solutions. Participants also articulate their goals and roles as advocates for great K-12 public education. 

Ms. Silton explains that if you’re just involved as a parent with kids, you only see part of the puzzle. “I now bring a perspective from outside the community to how we function as a PTA. I bring an equity focus, that we’re here to serve all students. I also have a better understanding of what the school board and superintendent do. I can help keep things in perspective for other people, especially those who come from a background of privilege about things that do and don’t matter in the grand scheme.”

Parkside’s PTA focuses on school-wide initiatives that support the students and the school community. “We provide a big organizational lift, enhancing what the school is already doing.” Ms. Silton says. “We put on free community events for all students, supporting everyone having access rather than trying to raise money at events.” Some of their activities include movie night, family dances, teacher appreciation, yoga before school, a school garden and community projects like creating a school mural.

More Connected Momentum

The biggest takeaway from the fellowship that Ms. Silton applies at Alliance Theatre and as co-president of Parkside Elementary’s PTA is the importance of not operating in silos. For example, during the fellowship, she focused on literacy work in the Douglass Cluster. “It’s not where my kids are, and I learned a lot and made so many connections that benefit my advocacy overall,” she says. 

She also learned about APS’s Goals and Guardrails, which helped her understand the why behind decisions. “I met key people from city councils to school boards to large nonprofits in the metro Atlanta area,” Ms. Silton says. “I saw how all the different groups work together and gained insights on advocating for not just my children but all children.”

Another epiphany involved the concept of public charter schools. “They were designed to try new things and then bring that learning back to the public school system,” she says, adding that in practice this potential is not being fully realized in Atlanta.

redefinED atlanta grows and participates in coalitions to address intersectional issues that create barriers for student performance and negatively impact students and families. With more advocates having these kinds of realizations, momentum for coordinated progress increases. Ms. Silton imagines the A.R.I.S.E. fellowship continuing and the impact of all those people with knowledge and connections to those working on the ground in schools. “They are selecting the second-year class,” she says. “There’s a goal for alumni of the program to connect for years to come to create a giant cohort of education advocates.”

Families Can Handle the Truth – If They Know It

Earlier this year, Learning Heroes, a national organization focused on parent-teacher relationships released stunning data. 

Across the country, their research found that 90 percent of parents believe their children are reading and doing math at or above grade level. That would be great – if it was true. In reality, 26 percent of eighth-graders are proficient or above in math, and 31 percent are proficient or above in reading and writing. 

This disconnect is present in Georgia, too. Statewide, most students are not reading, writing, or doing math at grade level. We believe that if parents knew the reality of their children’s academic performance, they’d be asking questions, demanding support, and calling for change. 

The fact of the matter is that schools and districts are not sharing hard truths about how much – or how little – children are learning. Sometimes, we’ve been guilty of not being forthright enough, too.

We’ve been thinking a lot about this topic since 2023 Georgia Milestones state test scores came out this summer. The results are a mixed bag. Whether you’re looking for good news or bad news, there’s something in the results for you. But only sharing one side without the other is disingenuous. Parents deserve to know the full truth, now more than ever. 

Students across the country did not learn as much in the two years following COVID-19 school closures. In response, the federal government devoted an unprecedented amount of federal funding to do something about it. Overall, the government is spending nearly $190 billion nationwide, including just over $200 million for Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

To what extent schools’ use of those funds is helping students to get back on track is vitally important information for parents – and taxpayers – to know. 

The latest state test results show that students at traditional APS district schools held their own, and then some. Whereas the percentage of students in grades 3-8 who are proficient or above in math fell 5.8 points statewide between 2019 and 2023, it only fell 4.7 points in these APS-led neighborhood schools. That’s a notable difference, significant both statistically and historically – APS is not always a step ahead of the state.

Yet in absolute terms, students in these schools – like students in most schools – are struggling. Even though their scores fell less than students statewide, they still fell, and they’re still far too  low. In this group of schools that performed better than others across the state, just 29.8 percent of students are proficient or above in math. In reading and writing, it’s 33.8 percent.

This fact bears repeating. Even among the APS schools that did better – with students’ performance not slipping as much during the pandemic – only about one in three students can do math, reading, or writing on grade level.

What’s more, gaps persist among students from different economic backgrounds. For the seven schools in this group where less than 10 percent of students qualify as low-income, the average scale score in math actually increased from 2019 to 2023. For the 13 schools in this group where more than 70 percent of students qualify as income, the average scale score in math fell by 8.3 points. 

All of these factors fed our surprise when the APS press release on the state test scores came out this summer with a headline that read, in part, “Students Show Growth, Gains.” 

It’s true that students performed slightly better in the 2022-23 school year than they did during the 2021-22 school year. It’s also true that the 2021-22 school year was still significantly impacted by the pandemic, creating an apples-to-oranges comparison. We believe the fairer point of reference for the 2023 scores is 2019, before the pandemic. By that measure, the 2023 scores don’t look nearly so positive. 

This was particularly the case at schools that predominantly teach the most underserved students. At Hollis Innovation Academy, for instance, a K-8 traditional district school where nearly all students come from low-income homes, the percentage of students proficient or above in math fell from 19.6 in 2019 to just 3.6 in 2023.

Whereas charter schools have in the past been a bright spot among city students, particularly students who live in poverty, this trend did not hold true for all APS charters this year or last year.

What we know is that from between 2019 and 2023, the scores for students at two of our historically higher performing APS charter networks, Kindezi Schools and KIPP Metro Atlanta, dropped dramatically. At Kindezi, the students started and ended higher but fell further. In math, the percentage of students on grade level or above fell from 41.7 to 15.8. At KIPP, the percentage of students at grade level or above fell from 37.5 to 13.7 in math. 

It’s important to not paint with too broad a brush and lump all charter schools, or all traditional district schools, together. 

For example, Ethos Classical Charter School is a newer school, one whose application was denied twice by APS before being approved by the state. It doesn’t have test scores from 2019. But while serving a similar population of students to Kindezi and KIPP schools, Ethos significantly outpaced its peers. Their results are between 9 and 17 points higher than the APS averages, with 42 percent of students at or above grade level in reading and writing and 46 percent proficient or above in math. 

At the same time, Perkerson Elementary, a traditional district school led by APS, improved from 2019 to 2023. In reading and writing, the percentage of students achieving at grade level more than doubled from 12.4 to 26.2 In math, the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency or higher increased from 17.7 to 20.1. 

Now, our focus is on determining what we can learn from these bright spots and how we – as an education-focused nonprofit, as well as the school district and its charter partners – will respond to these challenges. Parents have a right to know how their children are progressing. Residents deserve to know about the district’s pandemic recovery plan and what these scores say about how APS is spending that $200 million. Voters must demand to know what the 10 candidates running for the five open Board seats will do differently and how the district will hold itself accountable to its own Goals & Guardrails policy to drive urgent change for students and schools. 

We’re left with questions. Will we interrogate the underlying reasons for this performance? Will we expand the freedom and flexibility that schools need to adjust, be innovative, and make changes to best meet the needs of their community? Will we show up to vote in November? 

This is no time for perky press releases or blog posts. Students are struggling, and schools owe parents and voters a bold plan for how they will bring dramatic improvement to all of our city’s public schools. 


By Ed Chang, executive director, redefinED atlanta, and Angira Sceusi, vice president-chief of staff, redefinED atlanta

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.”

How COVID School Closures Have Impacted Students

On the heels of temporary school closures and the shift to digital learning environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, 95 percent of the world’s student population experienced learning disruption and a disconnection from the classroom that are still affecting them today. While these changes were necessary for the safety of students, teachers and those working within schools, this resulted in a severe gap between where students should be in regards to their respective grade level and their current performance. The impact of school closures was harder on colored students than we immediately realized.

For students of color and those in under-resourced schools, many already faced inequity within their educational experience. “A lot of people call it the achievement gap,” said Learn4Life executive director Ken Zeff in GPB. “It’s really an opportunity gap. Achievement gap makes it sound like it’s the student; it’s not the student that is not achieving. It’s the student who’s denied the opportunity.” 

This long-term absence from the classroom and challenges to access to digital resources caused worsened learning outcomes that compounded intergenerational inequalities. This induced mental and physical health issues, even crisis, for some students. The learning disruption and opportunity gap seen in students’ academics has only been exacerbated by additional school closures and mergers happening as a result of a decline in enrollment. 

Impact of School Closures on Students in Metro Atlanta

Atlanta has the highest income inequality among large U.S. cities, with a median household income for white students of $167k, and just $23k for Black students, and that disparity impacts every aspect of the Atlanta Public School (APS) system. During the pandemic closures, students needed access to wifi, tablets, laptops, or other digital learning devices to keep up, and for many lower income families across the city that created a large barrier to education.

Almost 10 percent of Georgia’s students are without internet or a computer device at home, The Atlanta Voice shared. While many schools sought to provide the necessary tools for children, students and teachers within under-resourced APS schools had to contend with broken and outdated technology, as well as shortage of materials at times. 

These hurdles for students of color or students from low-income families lead to a significant drop in their academic achievement. A 2020 study from redefinED atlanta and Learn4Life projected that only three out of 10 historically underserved students will now be on track to grade-level proficiency within Metro Atlanta. 

The predicted impact on childrens’ academic experience was unfortunately proven true. Using recent Georgia Milestone results, redefinED atlanta uncovered that, between 2019 and 2022, APS saw a six percent decline in reading and a 12 percent decline in math for 3-8th graders. For students who entered the pandemic behind grade level, likely due to inequity in education, there was an even greater learning loss.

The Direct Impact on Education for Black and Brown Students

School closures left students months behind the benchmark for where they should be in their learning. During this loss of educational progress, primary school children, especially children of color, were most affected, including struggling to acquire basic knowledge and study methods needed to grow and excel academically. Students of color were also at an increased risk of dropping out of school, resulting in lost opportunities and earning less money over their lifetimes than they would have otherwise, UConn Today cites. 

While students at majority-white schools are closing the gap and are almost caught up, students from majority-black or under-resourced schools are falling farther behind. According to this 2019 report by GeorgiaCAN, it would take 127 years for Black 4th graders in APS to catch up to White 4th graders at current rates. 

The economic impact of the pandemic and school closures have had broader implications for Black and Brown families. “Students of color and their families are more likely to have lost paychecks due to COVID-19, and are also more likely to have rethought going to college,” Best Colleges states. 

Effect of School Closures and Mergers on Students’ Learning

In recent years, a decline in birth rate has led to a decline in student enrollment, prompting school systems like APS to permanently close and then merge schools within the district. An 11Alive article stated that APS officials aimed to free up resources to better serve students, but some argue that the communities affected directly by this weren’t considered or consulted. 

While some of these mergers were proposed prior to the pandemic, school performance following the temporary COVID-related closures expedited these plans for soon-to-be merged schools or delayed newly merged schools’ aspirations to bolster performance and bring equity to their students’ educational experience. New mergers came just as students returned to in-school instruction, meaning students who were still grappling with COVID-related changes now had to deal with changing schools, classes, routines and more.

Additionally, leaders of newly merged schools had their plans derailed by the temporary closures during the pandemic. A prime example of this is the Harper-Archer merger in August 2019, in which two academically challenged schools were reformed as one school at a renovated Harper-Archer School site. According to The AJC, “stability is critical in turnaround schools, and the Coronavirus crisis has upended schoolhouses and homes. The need to close buildings and switch to distance learning will disproportionately harm low-income students who are already behind, experts predict.”

How We Can Help Students Catch Up

As children, teachers, and administrators try their best to close learning gaps, there are ways that parents and guardians can help. 

  • Partner with your child’s educators to see how your child is doing academically and what they recommend your child needs to grow. 
  • Use any supplemental resources, like in-school tutoring programs, that may help your child get the individualized attention they need to catch up and excel.
  • Lastly, use your voice at school, district and community meetings. Making a public comment at APS Board of Education meetings is one way to share what your children need to succeed directly with APS leadership. When advocating for progress or stopping unwanted change, grassroots and community efforts can make all the difference. 

Are you interested in using your voice and making a difference for your children, but don’t know where to start? redefinED atlanta can help.

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

How Education Grants Help Students from Under-resourced Communities

Education grants — sources of aid that support a specific need within a classroom or school district — provide vital financial and tangible resources to K-12 classrooms across the South, where “56 percent of all Black students in the United States” live, as of 2019. Grantmaking in education is an attempt to create equity in schools where racial discrimination, income inequality, and unjust practices have created gaps in life outcomes for students. 

“School districts where the majority of students enrolled are students of color receive $23 billion less in education funding than predominantly white school districts, despite serving the same number of students – a dramatic discrepancy that underscores the depth of K-12 funding inequities,” U.S. News shares. This imbalance can be linked to the discrimination of Black and brown families. Practices like redlining and housing segregation directly impact property taxes, which, in turn, affect the amount of money school districts receive, creating inequity. Particularly for students of color or those living in under-resourced areas, grants help bridge those gaps that antiquated state funding and discriminatory public policy leave. “That is what equity is, that different needs require different funding amounts,” states Georgia Budget and Policy Institute education director Stephen Owens in GPB News.

Inequity in education is a pervasive problem, which deeply impacts students of color and children living in under-served areas. “The state’s population has roughly doubled, and costs for expenses like transportation, technology, and counselors have radically changed,” according to GPB News, and “Georgia is one of only six states that do not allocate extra money to students living in poverty.” This leads to a lower quality education for the students facing this reality.

Education grants in K-12 schools are especially important because they introduce money and supplies directly into a classroom and or a school district that needs it the most, which supports efforts in literacy, curriculum, equipment, materials or staffing to provide the best and most equitable academic experience possible for students. 

redefinED atlanta’s mission is to transform Atlanta into a city where every student in every community receives a great K-12 public education, and we help Black and brown students and under-resourced schools through grantmaking to help combat the gross underfunding of these communities. Since the beginning, grants have been a fundamental part of how we engage community and advocate for equity, and almost $20 million in grants have been awarded since our launch in 2016, funding critical areas—equitable systems & schools, school-level talent, and parent or caregiver and community mobilization. 

What Is an Education Grant, and What Are the Benefits?

Unlike loans, grants provide needs-based financial support that typically doesn’t have to be repaid. Grant funding can come from a variety of sources, including the federal government, state government, college or career school, private organization, or a nonprofit, like redefinED atlanta. 

Education grants are often used to help students whose communities were historically oppressed or under-resourced. They directly supply funding to classrooms that would otherwise not have access to necessary academic support or materials for their students. For Black and Brown students, grants can help repair the funding gap, increasing their opportunities and improving their overall educational experiences. “Additional funding should help to attract highly qualified teachers, improve curriculum, and fund additional programs,” states CAP

How We Make an Impact With Education Grants

We believe family and community involvement leads to a better education and a stronger Atlanta Public School system. redefinED atlanta invests in schools and communities through our Family and Community Engagement (F.A.C.E.) grants—designed to support schools, helping them establish and strengthen their community relationship building efforts throughout the school year. 

We provide the technical support needed to grantees to help them plan and prepare to organize, mobilize, or educate families or community members on the issues the school, and therefore, their children, are facing. These efforts establish relationships and trust that brings more people together to tackle those challenges and create more equitable learning environments.

How Parents/Guardians and the Community Can Get Engaged 

Active parent or caregiver and community engagement are essential to establish support for every K-12 student. You have more of an impact on your child’s education than you realize. Whether it’s signing up for coalition updates, attending an event, or advocating for change within the larger community and with the school board, your voice has power and you can use it to change the public school system for the better. 

Join our growing collective of parents, educators, community leaders, and philanthropists dedicated to transforming Atlanta into a place where every student in every community has access to a great K-12 public education.

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.