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.”