SKIP Georgia Supports Students to and through Graduation

SKIP Georgia scholars after a day participating in an Environmental Ecosystem program.

Students’ first year of high school is critically important. How often 9th-grade students attend school and how well they do in school has an outsize impact on whether they will eventually graduate. 

So it did not bode well when Malik Gore started skipping class as a freshman at a high school in South Atlanta. 

“I got caught up in the drama, and it really took a toll on me,” he said. 

Malik ended up at Phoenix Academy, a second-chance school on the Crim open campus in East Atlanta. That’s where he encountered a system of support that has helped put him on the verge of graduating from high school this spring. 

Key to Malik’s success has been the Phoenix Academy staff and the programming of, the local chapter of the Save Kids of Incarcerated Parents program. During the 2020-21 school year, SKIP Georgia received a grant from the redefinED atlanta Innovation Fund to support counseling sessions it offers students at five Atlanta schools, including Phoenix Academy. The sessions run from 5:00-7:00 p.m. and offer students an opportunity to decompress, participate in trauma-informed care, and connect with peers. 

Most of the participating students are high school seniors, and much of the recent discussion in the counseling sessions has been about navigating this momentous time educationally, in the midst of a pandemic. SKIP Georgia has provided additional support to the students through grants from the United Way of Greater Atlanta* and Dollar General Literacy Foundation as well as additional programming like a Sunday Brunch & Munch where older students mentor younger students. 

The system is working. 

Nikaya Winfrey graduated high school with the support of the Phoenix Academy-SKIP Georgia partnership and is now a student at Atlanta Technical College, preparing to become a dental hygienist. 

“I have reached so many things I didn’t even think were possible,” she said. 

Both Nikaya and Malik credit Phoenix Academy staff members like Theresa Mullins, who is the school’s site coordinator for SKIP Georgia. 

“I’m responsible for their needs getting met, not just academics but wraparound services,” Mullins said. “We do the social and emotional, we do the mental health, we do food services, emergency funding, going to college, trying to place them in the best way possible.”

Because of the support that he received from Phoenix Academy and SKIP Georgia, Malik has fully recovered from his rocky start to high school. This summer, he is scheduled to take classes at Morehouse College.

Looking back, Malik says, “It was a minor setback for a major comeback.”

* redefinED atlanta is also a proud partner of the United Way of Greater Atlanta and receives support as a Child Well-Being Impact Fund “Strong Learners” grantee for their work advancing parent advocacy in public schools.



Smaller Learning Groups, Bigger Gains for Ethos Classical Charter School

Ever since Ethos Classical Charter School opened in South Atlanta in 2019, small-group instruction with two teachers per classroom has been a hallmark of its learning model. 

So when the pandemic hit, the literacy and arts-focused elementary school readied itself to create even smaller learning groups to meet safety requirements for students and staff. 

“But in order to have more in-person learning instruction through smaller learning groups, we needed more adults,” explained Emily Castillo León, Head of School and founder of Ethos Classical. “Hiring more educators during a pandemic was quite the challenge. We needed talented candidates and funding for the additional salaries, quickly.”

Thanks in part to a grant from the redefinED atlanta Innovation Fund, Castillo León was able to solve her school’s biggest challenge during the pandemic—creating safe in-person instruction. 

“We were able to tap into a new talent pipeline thanks to redefinED, and we were able to hire four full-time, on-site learning leaders, which enabled us to bring students back in-person,” Castillo León explained.

In addition to being able to offer in-person learning to more students, hiring new educators mid-year gave Ethos Classical a jumpstart on hiring for the 2021-22 school year, which is a necessity as the school grows by one grade per year.

Among the new teachers hired is Josalyn Jones, a recent college graduate with a degree in child developmental psychology. Jones joined Ethos Classical during the pandemic and was hired to stay on for next school year. She’ll also be able to pursue her Master of Arts in Teaching degree through Ethos Classical’s partnership with the RELAY Graduate School of Education’s teacher residency program. 

“I have never felt so in place and welcomed in my life,” she said. “My journey has led me on the path to a great school where I know my skills as an educator will increase and flourish.”

Learn more about Ethos Classical at

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Ethos students patiently waiting to have their class picture taken below a “RESPECT” reminder. Throughout the school, walls feature similar positive messages, affirmations and artwork.
Ethos Principal Emily Castillo Leon showing students how figs look before they ripen.
Ethos Principal Emily Castillo Leon Checking Plants in the Garden with Students
Students and Castillo Leon checking on the progress of recently planted tomatoes, collard greens and other veggies in the school’s courtyard garden.





Whenever Georgia Reopens, Let’s Not Go Back to Normal

ATLANTA  – There’s a debate raging in states across the country about how quickly we can return to normal. 

My take: let’s not. Not in May, not in June, not ever. Let’s not go back to normal.

Here in Georgia, normal is what led to COVID-19 disproportionately impacting Black residents, who make up 32 percent of the population and 54 percent of the deaths. Across the country, the pandemic has reflected the race-based inequities that stubbornly persist — that we have accepted as normal. The impact has been particularly acute here in Atlanta, which has the worst income inequality in the nation. 

The debate about reopening Georgia — or any state — should therefore not just be about when but about how. A return to pre-pandemic conditions is a return to an uneven playing field, a return to the median household income in one part of Atlanta being $148,480 and $27,525 in a neighborhood 11 miles away.

I come at this from an education angle. I’ve been a teacher, principal, and education advocate in Atlanta for the last 20 years, and the communities most impacted by COVID-19 are the communities that my organization, redefinED Atlanta, focus on. More than two-thirds of students in Atlanta Public Schools — 72 percent — are Black, and more than three-quarters of APS students — 78 percent — qualify for free and reduced-price meals. In fact, the school district’s foremost roles during the coronavirus outbreak have been distributing food and providing access to devices and internet service. Normal is what created a need for APS to distribute 80,000 pounds of food on just one Saturday in March. They ran out within two hours. 

The school district’s efforts to provide food for not just students’ families but the entire city is admirable, but it also gives me pause. When did we start expecting schools to not just educate children but to feed them, to support their mental and physical health, and to look after not just their students but also their students’ families? What will the thousands of people getting food from the district do later this month when the school year ends and food distribution stops? 

The answer lies with me, and you, and all of us. The extent of our challenge is so significant, the breadth of our needs is so large, that our entire community must respond, not just the district. Now more than ever, educators are going to need to focus on teaching and learning — on getting a sense of where students are academically and emotionally and developing robust plans to close the gaps that have only gotten bigger. The new normal must be bigger, broader, and more inclusive.

After all, when schools reopen, not only are they going to do so with the same inequities that they had before, but those inequities will be amplified by the pandemic. As the late, great civil rights leader Joseph Lowery once said, “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

Atlanta Public Schools is in a position to act, and it will need to. Despite the millions of dollars that may be coming our way through the CARES Act, districts around the country will likely experience deep cuts as state revenues have all but dried up. The Board of Education’s decision-making will be guided by the strategic plan it recently adopted. The plan is centered on transparency regarding the performance of students, schools, and the district, the equitable distribution of resources, and the commitment to urgently adjust strategies when those schools chronically underperform. In short, the district is primed to assess where the gaps are when kids come back to school, figure out the plan to catch kids up, get kids what they need, and quickly change course if things aren’t working.

Atlanta Public Schools are a microcosm of the inequities that permeate Atlanta and that are a direct reflection of the inequities we see in our entire country. The pandemic has exposed this situation — this normal that we grew complacent with — to the point where it is undeniable and can no longer be ignored. Now is the time for elected officials, policymakers, community leaders and educators to come together and adopt bold, urgent actions that rethink how schools serve students and communities — and how communities serve schools. 

It’s time to acknowledge that normal never worked for Black, Brown, and poor kids in the first place. 

It’s time to reimagine a new normal.

The American People Have this Lesson to Learn

“The American people have this lesson to learn: That where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons or property will be safe.”

– Frederick Douglass
“Southern Barbarism” speech on the occasion of the 24th Anniversary of Emancipation, Washington, D.C., 1886

Thank You, Teachers

With parents and guardians doing their best to homeschool their students and support their families during this pandemic, it’s clearer now more than ever just how valuable teachers are to our young people’s success. So many teachers are going above and beyond right now — as they tend to do — to meet their students’ and families’ needs. As a former teacher and as the executive director of redefinED atlanta, I salute the more than 5,000 teachers across Atlanta, who are integral to our goal of becoming a city where every student in every community receives a high-quality education.

Cultivating strong school-level talent is a core element of what we do as an organization, and so this Teacher Appreciation Week, I’d like to share a little bit more about the educators who have participated in an innovative partnership we helped launch to strengthen Atlanta’s public schools.

Relay Graduate School of Education’s mission is to prepare teachers and administrators with a practical and effective program that balances the theory-focused offerings of most traditional programs with a heavy dose of deliberate practice and concrete ways teachers can help their students.

When I learned about Relay’s model and saw the initial evidence of their effectiveness I immediately wanted them to help prepare teachers in Atlanta, where (like many districts across the country) there was a shortage of educators. There are few programs nationwide that track the effectiveness of their budding teachers, and Relay requires all of their prospective teachers to demonstrate that on average they can move students about a year’s worth of growth in a year’s worth of time. While this certainly won’t raise the ceiling on teachers’ effectiveness, it can help to raise the floor of what we can expect for the effectiveness of our teachers entering into the field. It’s also worth noting that Relay is the rare program that’s had success attracting candidates of color: 70 percent of teachers in Relay’s residency program nationally identify as people of color, and that figure rises to 95 percent for the Atlanta program in the 2019-20 school year.

That’s why redefinED atlanta was proud to support Relay expanding to Atlanta in 2017. During the 2017-18 school year, Relay worked with principals and principal supervisors from the South Atlanta cluster. Those administrators told their peers about the quality of the program, and demand increased among both school leaders and teachers. As one school leader who was in the original 2017 cohort said, “Relay has assisted me in rethinking the manner in which I interact with teachers and teacher leaders about teaching and learning and improving student outcomes. I have received specific strategies for strengthening culture and academic achievement. I am excited about learning more.”

Led by Atlanta native Christy Harris, a former APS student who was also a teacher and school leader in the city, Relay launched its teacher residency program for the 2018-19 school year. This program provides an opportunity for someone new to the teaching profession — a graduating college senior, a paraprofessional already working in schools, a career-changer — to gain classroom experience with a mentor teacher, gradually assume more responsibilities, and, after two years, graduate with a teaching certificate and a master’s degree in education.

As the third year of this partnership comes to a close, Relay has helped hundreds of educators in Atlanta move into schools and strengthen their practice. redefinED atlanta is proud of the role it’s played in generating a robust talent pipeline for teachers and school leaders. With an eye toward the urgent need to make more progress across Atlanta, we look forward to supporting more prospective educators and further strengthening our city’s schools.

To the 5,000-plus teachers across Atlanta, happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Brown v. Board — A Dream Denied?

Brown v. Board–A Dream Denied?

“A dream deferred is a dream denied.” Langston Hughes

Last month marked 65 years since the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (Brown v. Board) which declared that segregation of students in public schools on the basis of race was denying children equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment— and therefore unconstitutional. The anniversary of this landmark case prompted me to reflect on my own family’s educational experiences, my hopes and dreams for my children and my parents’ hopes and dreams for me. Have we fulfilled the hope and pledge embodied in Brown v. Board, or is it another one of America’s myriad of promises to people of color that are not only deferred but systematically denied?

The ruling of Brown v. Board was intended to forge a path to ensure all students have a right to equity in education. In the Court’s Opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted education is “the most important function of state and local governments.” He continues: “in these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”1 That was the promise of Brown v. Board in 1954; the promise to all Americans. As is all too often true in this country, particularly as it relates to people of color, this promise has yet to be fulfilled. What was purported to be a path to equity in education continues to lead to a dead end.

Like all too many African Americans and people of color in this country, I have countless, painful recollections of prejudice and experiences of racism during my lifetime, but my most vivid memory of discriminatory practices and education inequality involves my experience as a mother in the Atlanta Public Schools district (APS) in the mid-1990s. At the time that my daughter was entering the first grade, we lived in Southwest Atlanta. Our community and social circle were primarily African American, so we chose to enroll our daughter in the Minority-to-Majority (M-to-M) student transfer program in order to give her a more diverse educational experience. After waiting in line for hours, we were given the option to register our daughter at an elementary school in a predominantly white neighborhood. When I arrived at that school to finalize her registration, the school secretary seemed visibly shocked to find that I was African American. She then informed me that despite the documentation I presented, there were no more slots for first graders at the school.

I was consumed with anger ignited by the school secretary’s ignorance and the system-supported injustice. However, the most vivid memory I have of this incident was a visceral weight on my heart and soul of having to fight the same fight for equity that my parents and my parents’ parents had to fight. I quickly realized what was going on and sent letters and made phone calls to school board members. Though the school eventually agreed to admit my daughter, I was uncomfortable with how she might be treated and opted for her to attend a different school nearby instead.

Often, I think about the discrimination we experienced and how my education and income afforded me a level of privilege and access to address the injustice in a way that most other African Americans in my community cannot. However, at the root of our appalling experience was the underlying impetus for programs like M-to-M particularly the fact thatour educational systems have always been and continue to be fraught with inequity. Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board, and almost 160 years since our country’s segregated education systems were first created, there are still significant achievement gaps in APS between the average scores of African American and white students on state and national assessments— with white students outpacing others by as many as 50 points between average scores in certain grade levels and subjects. The weight of this systemic injustice continues to fall on the shoulders of African Americans, other people of color and those who are economically disadvantaged, and the necessity of this struggle for the opportunity to attend a quality school is a direct result of the school system’s failure to ensure equity and quality public schools for all families.

Sadly, my family’s experience in 1996 Atlanta mirrors the experiences and conversations parents are having in 2019 Atlanta, which are in turn identical to the conversations of the invincible parents and children who, in 1954, boldly stepped forth as plaintiffs in the cases that made up Brown v. Board. If we are to make the progress that is required to finally fulfill the promise made to American families so long ago, we must be bold and uncompromising in ensuring that every child receives an education equal to every other child in our city; irrespective of their zip code, the economic condition they were born into, their racial identity, their native language, natural abilities, or their ethnic lineage. We must end our legacy of failed promises. And if we are ever going to fulfill the pledge and dream of Brown v. Board anywhere, it should be in the Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, Atlanta, in a school system that is led by people of color for a student population that is majority children of color. We must catalyze a movement of people who acknowledge the atrocities that they experience and that regrettably define our community and, who in turn, share responsibility for addressing these disparities in our lifetime.

Today there are countless families who experience similar situations to the one I faced over twenty years ago, and most will face these trials without the privilege and positional power that I have. This is not and should not be their problem, my problem, or solely a problem borne by African Americans and people of color: It is everyone’s problem. How we take care of our children is a direct reflection on who we are as a city. We all, those with and without privilege, must stand up and fight for change. African American communities, Latino communities, other communities of color and those in white communities need to stand up and walk shoulder to shoulder as allies in the fight for a high-quality public education for all students. Civic and business leaders also need to show up and speak out– to be truly engaged with our public education system; an essential part of their community. We all need to fight for what’s right and fight for that change to happen now– 65 years have passed and we’re faced with the same disparities and having the same conversations today that were had in 1954! We can’t afford to let another 65 years pass and have the same result. We must define and determine what quality public schools look like, raise up the practices and structures that are working best, and urgently change what is not working. Our children deserve to have their dreams fulfilled.
[1] Brown v. Board of Educ., 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

This piece was written by redefinED atlanta board member, Kim Anderson, on behalf of redefinED atlanta. 

Kim Anderson has spent her career leading dialogue, advancing change and convening partners who are committed to empowering marginalized people. She was CEO of Families First, senior director for BoardWalk Consulting and executive director of AID Atlanta. A former attorney for Alston & Bird, Anderson was general counsel of Grady Health System, vice president and assistant general counsel for Magellan Health Systems and senior legal counsel for the Atlanta Housing Authority. Anderson serves on the boards of KIPP Metro Atlanta, Partners for Home and the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children. Anderson holds a law degree from Columbia University and a bachelor of arts in psychology and sociology from Oberlin College.

A Growing Voice for Change

A Growing Voice for Change

As schools prepare for their annual Georgia Milestones assessments, marking the end of another school year, I cannot forget the many stories that I have heard at the past several Atlanta Public Schools board meetings. There was the parent who began by speaking in Spanish to the predominantly English-speaking Board to demonstrate how he and other Spanish-speaking parents felt silenced and invisible without access to materials in their language and how their children felt the same way. A local grandmother revealed her worry that two generations of her family might graduate unable to read. Another mother told of her serious consideration of committing a crime by lying about her address so her children could get into a better school. It is hard to hear stories of pain and the extreme lengths that our parents will go through to get a better education for their children, and this school year I have noticed the voices of our parents growing stronger and more numerous. As a principal and educator in Atlanta for the past 19 years, I know that these stories are far from unique – in them, I hear the voices of so many parents I’ve known, and I see the faces of so many former students I’ve taught.

Over the past several months, I have been struck by the growing number of parents across the city who are clamoring for the Board of Education and APS leaders to do more now to afford all Atlanta students access to excellent schools. At this week’s APS board meeting, I saw parent after parent stand in solidarity and speak out to demand the board act with more urgency around the System of Excellent Schools plan. These parents come from different schools, various backgrounds, and all walks of life. Even when they have vastly different views about what their schools need, they all seem to agree about one thing: the system is not meeting the needs of their children yet. They are calling on the leaders of APS to finish the work they started— to put a timeline on defining excellence and to commit to specific action steps to help schools achieve it.

When a child is gravely ill, parents and doctors work together, urgently, to deliver the course of treatment that the child needs. Every second counts in the medical model of care, and we know our school system should be the same. Dr. Carstarphen and our previous school board brought stability to the district’s finances and generated some notable academic improvements. But for students and parents, this simply isn’t enough. While the APS high school graduation rate has climbed 20 percentage points since 2014, there is still a glaring gap of over 17 percentage points between the graduation rate of Black and White students. The disparity between student scores on state exams is larger still, with the Black and White achievement gap showing a difference of 60 percentage points in the percentage of all students in 3rd grade through 8th grade who scored proficient or better on Georgia Milestones math assessments in 2017. For the students at the lower end of those gaps, these recent district-wide academic improvements don’t hold a lot of meaning. In a city where children born poor are more likely to stay poor than anywhere else in the country, the opportunity crisis faced by our students is more serious than ever before. All parents deserve excellent opportunities for their students and shouldn’t have to wait any longer for policymakers and district officials to take meaningful action on behalf of their students.

Every year, too many students move through our city’s school system without truly having the chance to attend a high-quality public school. The need to transform our schools is urgent, and families want us to act like it. Our system has already let down too many bright young minds and the parents at the board meetings— along with countless other families— deserve to be heard and to see real action. They shouldn’t have to wait. The future of our children and our city depends on it.