Beverly Hall, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools since 1999, was named the National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) during their annual conference in February. After accepting the award, which entitles her to present a $10,000 college scholarship to a student at the high school in Jamaica from which she graduated, Ms. Hall sat down with us to talk about Atlanta’s public schools and their inspiring successes.
Q: Tell us a little about the makeup of your district.
BH: Atlanta Public Schools has approximately 50,000 children, 76 percent of which qualify for free or reduced lunch. Over 80 percent of students are black, 9 percent are Latino, and the rest are white and other ethnicities. The district has been on a path of improvement over the last nine years, and we’re very proud of the progress we’re making. We’ve been gaining a lot of attention because it’s been such a steady, incremental progress. The other interesting point is that this is my tenth year, which is a little bit of an anomaly for a superintendent.
When you say nine years of improvement, what type of improvement is that exactly? State test scores? Graduation rates?
Both. When I arrived, only 46 percent of fourth graders were meeting or exceeding state standards. But the state has raised the bar, and now we have 86 percent of our fourth graders meeting state standards. The gap between Atlanta and the state of the state was 18/80[?] percentage points when I began. It’s now two points in the fourth grade. Our graduation rate rose from 30 percent to over 70 percent. And our lowest performing high school when I arrived had 23 percent of its kids graduating, but now it has a 75 percent graduation rate.
What challenges has the district faced and how are you tackling those challenges?
Poor student achievement was the number one issue, but we also had challenges in terms of stable leadership. I was the fifth superintendent in 10 years when I arrived. When you don’t have stable leadership at the superintendent’s level, it spirals down throughout the system. There wasn’t a stable senior team. If you don’t have good leadership, you can’t attract and retain competent teachers.
To what do you attribute your success?
I think this award really represents a recognition of the collective efforts of a lot of stakeholders, from the school board—who I believe really understand their role as policymakers—to the executive team, the principals, and the teachers. They’ve all said, “We can get this done. We can get our children to achieve at high levels.”
Let’s talk about the stimulus package. Do you have a sense of how Atlanta might benefit from the new federal monies?
We don’t have the fine print yet. What I do know is that without the stimulus package, we would have to consider laying off teachers. We also know that the state stabilization fund will help to offset these cuts, which in turn will help to maintain small class sizes. And clearly we can use the money that will come for the school modernization program and for technology. It really is a shot in the arm for public schools all across America.
Can you offer any advice to other administrators who may be struggling to raise student achievement with dwindling resources?
I think we all have to prioritize. For example, when I got to Atlanta we took on the teaching of literacy with a great deal of intentionality, because teachers said their college’s school of education did not prepare them to teach reading. It is a fact that without children being able to read, very little else will occur. So we invested heavily in professional development around the teaching of literacy—we put coaches in our schools, model teacher-leaders to provide on-the-job professional development. We also looked at the issue of principal leadership. Having been a principal myself, we knew that if you don’t have a competent leader, no matter what central office is mandating or providing, you don’t get the return on the investment for the resources you’re using. So my philosophy is to try to prioritize and look at where you’ll get the best bang for your buck. And I also am quite entrepreneurial—I go out to the philanthropic community, to the corporate community, and I ask them for support. Particularly for start-up costs for initiatives that I know the budget will not be able to provide.
What are some examples of those one-shot initiatives?
My signature initiative with elementary school is something called Project GRAD—Graduation Really Achieves Dreams, which has been supported by the Ford Foundation. One of its components is that you provide to schools two or three social workers who go above and beyond what the regular school social worker would do to link families and children to outside agencies for health support, mental health support, and other services that impact the child. Attendance is one of the areas they focus on heavily. When I got to Atlanta fully one third of my elementary kids were missing ten or more days of school. Now that number is down to about 17 percent. I raised $20 million in three years to support Project GRAD, which also provides tutors for children who are falling behind in first and second grade to provide a family support team within the school. Those are things that our budget would never have been able to provide.
So it’s not just standard teaching, but a more holistic approach that brings multiple services together.
Right. You’ll hear from the teachers, “Oh, I can’t do it, because they don’t come? They’re here today, they’re not here?” Those are real issues in urban centers, and yet we hold teachers accountable ultimately for student achievement. Yes, teachers do have a job, but they can’t say that they don’t have support in getting the job done.