Learn more about ANCS’s “diversity and equity action team” at our community open house (or through this blog post!)

In the fall of 2014, the ANCS Governing Board adopted a multi-year strategic plan for our school (you can find a summary of the plan and what’s been accomplished under it over the past few years on our website here).  Among the priority goals of the plan has been a focus on increasing the racial and economic diversity of our school as it has shifted, especially economically, since the early years of our school.  I’ve written in this blog on several occasions about why that’s been an emphasis for us–namely because we recognize the educational, social, and civic benefits that come from creating a school in which students learn with and from classmates whose lived experiences are different than their own in line with our mission and values.  In this post I want to spend a bit more time talking about how we’ve been addressing this goal, with most of the attention on a “diversity and equity action team” that is hosting a community open house tonight from 6:30-7:30 at the elementary campus.

In considering the shifting demographics of our school over time, the board and school’s leadership recognize that the reasons for these changes are multi-layered.  On a policy level, our board took the steps of widening the school’s attendance zone to include the nearby neighborhood of Summerhill and advocated for and adopted a weighted student enrollment lottery, both of which increase the likelihood of a higher percentage of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds enrolling at ANCS.  We also know that our classroom practices must support a diverse range of learners, so we’ve undertaken extensive work–first with outside facilitators, then by building capacity to lead this effort from within–to equip our teachers and staff with the mindset and skills to create classrooms and campuses that are responsive to the cultural experiences of all of our students.  Through common readings, trainings, and ongoing professional learning, we are becoming better at recognizing and addressing inequities in teaching and learning at ANCS.

Beyond the board and faculty/staff, we know that there is a need to engage our full school family in work towards our goals, so last year, we created a “diversity and equity action team” (we’ll call it DEAT for short) with parents/caregivers, teachers, and board representation to help provide leadership in this area.  There was an initial interest meeting held last fall, and from there, those that were interested spent last year getting grounded in the state of diversity and equity at ANCS and identifying priority areas for the school. As we’ve started the new school year, the DEAT established a trio of co-chairs from the faculty and parent body and is looking to grow from the core team into a set of task force groups focused on specific needs that build on the work already happening at the board and faculty level:

  • Further learning for team members about leading equity work
  • Communications and messaging to increase awareness about the team and ANCS’s diversity and equity goals
  • Equity analysis of parent and family engagement at ANCS
  • Learning opportunities about issues of equity and inclusion for families and points of collaboration with faculty/staff
  • Community-building in parts of ANCS’s attendance zone historically underrepresented in enrollment at our school

Last month, I provided an update about the DEAT at parent coffees and our regular monthly board meeting, and tonight we are hosting a community open house where members of the ANCS community can come learn more about the team, ask questions, and plug into one of the team’s task force groups.  The meeting will be from 6:30-7:30 in the elementary campus library. If you cannot make it but would like to connect with the team, contact the DEAT’s co-chairs: Tilifayea Griffin, ANCS interim equity support coordinator (tgriffin@atlncs.org), Carla Wells, ANCS elementary campus parent (cwells1126@gmail.com), and Lisa Flick Wilson, ANCS middle campus parent (flick.lisa@gmail.com).  I appreciate their willingness to step up and help guide us in this important work!

What will it mean for our middle campus to be an “IB World School”? And how did we get here?

A couple weeks ago, a pair of visitors representing the International Baccalaureate (IB) spent two days at our middle campus observing classrooms and interviewing teachers, parents, and members of ANCS’s leadership.  This visit is the final step in a years-long journey our middle campus has been on towards IB authorization. For those of you new to ANCS or otherwise unfamiliar with this process and why we started down this path, I hope my post this week will help to fill you in.

In the fall of 2014, the ANCS board authorized the creation of a task force to learn more about the IB’s “Middle Years Programme” (MYP) and to explore whether pursuing IB MYP authorization would be a good fit for ANCS’s middle campus.  The MYP–which focuses on generally on the period of time in middle school and early high school for students–offered an opportunity to bring a solid framework to our teacher-developed units of study and align the campus through common rubrics and academic language, but there were a number of questions about the potential benefits and drawbacks the task force set out to investigate.  The team of six people on the task force (parents, teachers, and a board member) spent a year visiting other IB MYP schools and conducting research in the areas of philosophy, organization, curriculum, and funding before making a recommendation to the board that the middle campus should pursue IB authorization. The task force saw many potential benefits to students, such as increased student learning and engagement, a greater level of open-mindedness, and a deeper connection to the world beyond ANCS.  Additionally, the development of the IB Programme at Maynard Jackson High School was a separate, though related, benefit to ANCS students matriculating to MJHS for high school.

At that point, our middle campus principal, Dr. Cathey Goodgame, and IB coordinator, Somer Hobby, set to work on organizing ANCS’s application for candidacy to submit to the IB.  Thanks to their work and a high degree of existing alignment between ANCS’s mission and the IB MYP, the middle campus was approved as a candidate school in June 2016, and we began to take steps to more fully align with the IB’s structure.  In the 2016-17 school year, this meant the beginning of monthly IB information sessions for parents and caregivers, teacher training, and use of IB rubrics to guide teacher planning and assess student learning. Last year, the process continued with a new schedule and course structure (including Spanish as a second language for all students throughout middle school) and the introduction of elements like the community project and learner profile.  A visit last January from a consultant from the IB resulted in our team being allowed to move forward to submit an application for authorization in the spring, and, as I mentioned earlier, the recent visit from two representatives of the IB will now hopefully be followed up with notification soon that our middle campus has been fully authorized as an IB “World School” for the MYP.

So assuming we become an IB World School, what happens then?  Well, many of the pieces are already in place at ANCS, so it’s not likely that you’ll see much discernible change.  Information sessions for parents and caregivers (especially new ones) will continue to be provided, and the IB rubrics and course offerings will remain the same.  However, ANCS will now be a part of a larger educational community, allowing our teachers to connect with other IB teachers through training and resource sharing. Similarly, there will be greater opportunity to collaborate with the IB programme in place at MJHS to help make the transition from middle to high school even smoother for the majority of our students who move on to MJHS for 9th grade.

If you want to learn even more about the IB MYP at our middle campus, I highly recommend attending one of the information sessions we host each month.  The next one is tonight (Tuesday, 11/6) from 6:30-8. You can attend and make it home in plenty of time to see election results roll in :).

Key offices and issues up for vote in Georgia (and how they impact education)

As I hope you already know, we are in the midst of voting season on a number of statewide offices and ballot questions that will have a significant impact on Georgia’s future, including education.  Early voting has been going for about a week (and continues for a while longer) and the official election day is Tuesday, November 6. (By the way, you can find all the details about early voting times and locations here.)  If you haven’t already voted, please take some time to educate yourself on key races and questions that will influence life in schools for our students and teachers in the coming years:

  • Statewide races: The gubernatorial race has gotten most of the attention, but there are also important elections for Lieutenant Governor and State Schools Superintendent.  You can read what the candidates for all those races had to say about some significant public education issues in this informative guide put together by a collection of Georgia education organizations.
  • Ballot questions: Among a number of ballot questions and proposed amendments to the state constitution are a few that are related to funding for public education, either directly or indirectly.  Check out this overview from the AJC to learn more about each of them.

One final note about election day: while the Atlanta Public Schools is closed for students that day since a number of schools serve as polling locations, ANCS will be open for students and on a regular schedule on November 6.  Whether on November 6 or before, I hope you will exercise your right to vote!

Grandparents, special friends, and our school family

If you’ve spent any time at ANCS, then you’ve no doubt heard us use the phrase “school family” to talk about the members of our school community.  Drawn from our school’s work with Conscious Discipline, the “school family” emphasizes building meaningful relationships between the people in a school–students, teachers, parents–to create a culture of responsibility and cooperation, where everyone has a role to play in forming a positive environment.  And to connect our “school family” with students’ home families, classrooms use “friends and family” boards filled with pictures of loved ones from students’ lives outside of school. Beyond parents and siblings, on these boards you’ll find many grandparents and other adults important in the lives of our students, and once a year, we hold a special day just for those folks.

This coming Friday is ANCS’s “Grandparents and Special Friends Day” hosted and organized by our school’s wonderful PTCA.  It’s one of those days when the energy in the school building is palpable as students are excited to show off their classrooms and introduce their guests to their teachers and friends and the grandparents and special friends in attendance are thrilled to be with their respective students.  At the elementary campus, the school chorus puts on a beautiful display of singing for guests, and at the middle campus, a short performance by drama program students is always entertaining.

More than just a feel-good moment, Grandparents and Special Friends Day is a recognition of the importance of the network of adults in a student’s life–teachers, parents, grandparents, coaches, aunts, uncles, etc.–to the success of that student.  By creating the experience of Grandparents and Special Friends Day at ANCS, we want to send a message that all of those adults are members of our school family.

To learn more about Grandparents and Special Friends Day (and, if you haven’t already, to RSVP), visit our website.

Charter schools as collaborative partners rather than competitors

Yesterday afternoon I attended the regular meeting of the core leadership team of the CREATE Teacher Residency Program.  With representatives from Georgia State University’s College of Education and Human Development, staff members working across the program’s member schools, and consultants who assist in the program’s professional learning for educators, this team has helped to support CREATE (which stands for “Collaboration and Reflection to Enhance Atlanta Teacher Effectiveness”) as it has expanded from a program operating only at ANCS to one that now involves over a dozen public schools in and around the Maynard Jackson cluster in southeast Atlanta.

CREATE is the most visible example of ANCS’s broader long-term effort to serve as a partner and collaborator with neighboring schools as opposed to a “competitor”.  I use those specific terms because they represent different ways of thinking about how charter schools–public schools afforded greater flexibility and autonomy in exchange for different accountability requirements–might positively influence public education on a larger scale.  Many are of the opinion that the existence of charter schools creates choice-based competition that ultimately can increase the educational benefits for all students through simple marketplace principles.  Of course, others point to examples where charter schools have not had a demonstrable impact on student learning in the surrounding district and, in fact, may be stretching the resources of the local district thin by their presence.  There are compelling (and complicated) arguments on both sides of this debate.  

At ANCS, we aim to position ourselves more as partners with other public schools for reasons that are both practical and philosophical.  We have not expanded the size of our school, added grade levels, or replicated to open additional campuses through the years despite demand and even incentives to do so.  We’ve made this decision in part because we don’t feel we have the capacity to increase the scope and scale of our work without diluting what we do best as a school: creating a personalized learning environment for students based on knowing each one well.  But we have also stayed small as a school because we believe we can manage a much bigger impact on public education by collaborating with other schools. We don’t strive to “add more seats” or operate as a competitive force because those approaches are ultimately limited in the number of students they can affect.  Instead, we see that there can be an exponentially greater result that comes from learning with and from the schools around us and together taking collective responsibility for all of our students.

So how do we do this?  

CREATE (which you can learn more about on our website) builds connections among a range of schools and institutions to deepen teacher development through partnership supported by several million dollars in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Georgia’s Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, and a host of private foundations.  CREATE grew out of ANCS’s Center for Collaborative Learning (CCL) which helps to facilitate learning about what education based on our school’s principles can look like.  In the past few years, the CCL has organized visits to ANCS by over a hundred interested educators from many different schools, allowing them to see what we do and talk more deeply about it with our teachers and staff.  The CCL has also hosted workshops, film screenings, and other events designed to spark discussion about teaching and learning.

While much of the attention on charter schools over the past 25 years has been on the “competition” angle, there is an increasing number of examples of collaboration between charter schools and school districts.  I hope that the work we do at ANCS helps to add to that part of the story.

Conferences and the “essential conversation” between teacher and parent

Over the course of the next month, conferences will be held for and with students from both of our campuses.  These conferences offer an opportunity to check in on each student’s start to the school year, to look at the student’s educational outcomes and progress so far, and to set goals for the remainder of the year.  Beyond simply looking at a recounting of how the student has performed on classwork or a MAP test, the conferences allow for deeper discussion and understanding of the student as a thinker, a communicator, an artist, a person.  

While the format of these conferences at ANCS looks different depending upon the age of the student with students themselves leading the conferences once they reach middle school, one constant is the presence of both the student’s parent/caregiver and the student’s teacher.  These adults know the student in important but different ways, and in order to work together effectively on behalf of the student during a conference, there are some aspects of this relationship to keep at the forefront of our minds:

Recognize what each person brings to the discussion: In a book titled The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, the author, educator, and parent Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot wrote about the natural tension that can sometimes arise in the relationship between parents—who are most interested in the their own specific child—and teachers—who are engaged in the deeply personal work of teaching a classroom full of students (you can read this short interview with Lawrence-Lightfoot to get a better sense of this and/or watch this longer talk she gave to really understand her ideas).  Near the end of The Essential Conversation, Lawrence-Lightfoot writes “productive dialogue requires that both teachers and parents…see the necessary and crucial claims of each other’s position.  Each must respect and value what the other knows and sees; each must attend carefully and listen deeply to the perspective and wisdom that the other brings.” As a teacher, hearing and appreciating what the parent sees and knows about her daughter from raising her is critical to supporting the student’s growth at school.  As a parent, really listening to a trained educator’s perspective on what your daughter is doing at school can really help you to know how to reinforce learning at home.

This is the student’s conference: Especially in middle school when students are leading the conference, it is important to let the student be the center of the conversation.  But even if the student isn’t physically present in the room, he should always be present and the focus of the conversation. Lawrence-Lightfoot describes a tendency for the “ghosts” of our own experience in school as children to haunt parent-teacher conferences by causing us to reflect upon our past as a way of understanding our student’s (or child’s) present.  But our student (or child) is different and unique from us and therefore his school experience will also be different and unique, so the attention in a conference should be squarely placed on his needs rather than on what school was like for us.

Don’t make the conference the only time you talk: At ANCS, there are two formal conference times each school year–one in the fall, another in the spring.  But teachers and parents shouldn’t save their conversations with one another for only these times. There is much to communicate about throughout the school year, and teachers and parents should be encouraged to reach out to one another to share good news, ask a question, or just to check in about the student.  Whether an email, a phone call, or a face-to-face chat, each of these help to build the healthy, productive relationship our students need us to have to support them in their development as learners and as kind, competent human beings.

How to help young people safely navigate a sea of technology

I’ve been working in schools since 1998 and have spent the past 11 years here at ANCS.  There have certainly been plenty of changes in education and in the experience of young people over that time, perhaps none as striking as the rise in access to and use of computer technology.  When I started at ANCS as the principal of our middle school campus in 2007, the entire building shared a cart of heavy, bulky laptop computers, and it was rare for a student to have a mobile phone (and “smartphones” didn’t exist).  Today we have a 1:1 student to laptop ratio in grades 3-8, additional tablets and laptop and desktop computers at each campus, and many students have mobile devices.

A few years ago our school’s technology subcommittee developed a multi-year technology strategic plan which included this description of the vision for technology use at ANCS:

As a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, ANCS is committed to personalized instruction based on individual needs and interests as well as the performance of authentic tasks.   As a hands-on, constructivist community, we view technology as one tool to promote personalization, project-based learning, and authentic assessment. Teachers and students are empowered to explore creative and varied methods of instruction and learning, some of which will include technology, some of which will not.  It is the goal of the school to provide reliable, easy-to-use technology tools to its teachers and students to support their learning goals. Teachers and students are the primary drivers of how technology will be used in a certain learning activity; the vision of the school is to make technology available and to provide the appropriate professional development and training to make the use of that technology effective.   Lessons and indeed classrooms will vary greatly in how often and how deeply technology is used, and that variance is consistent with the mission of the school. Our goal vis-à-vis technology is to make sure teachers and students have it available to use at their discretion.

As you can see, our goal is not for students to use technology simply to have a slicker, more modern way of learning but to use technology as a tool for deeper, more personalized learning.  We are fortunate to have two terrific educators–Mike Boardman and Kisha Rogers–who directly support teachers and students in the use of ANCS’s technology and many more teachers at each campus who share their instructional technology skills with their colleagues.

Alongside the increase in the use of technology at school is a parallel rise in exposure to screens outside of school.  These infographics from Common Sense Media highlight the dramatic change over the past several years in the level of media consumption among young people, particularly through mobile devices.

As parents and as educators, it is important to be aware of these changes so we can help our children and students to develop healthy habits when it comes to the use of devices so that we can avoid the negative impacts emerging research suggests can come from certain types and/or levels of media use.  Here are three things I’d encourage all of us to do to support our young people when it comes to screens and devices:

  1. Monitor what students are using and watching and discuss with them what’s appropriate and what is not:  We all know that “But my friend plays _________ video game” or “Her parents let her watch ______________ show” is a common response from kids.  But we should all decide what’s best for our own family. Common Sense Media has terrific guides to apps, games, movies, and television with suggested ages and detailed descriptions along with discussion points for parents to use when talking with their kids.
  2. Help students develop a healthy media “diet”:  There are plenty of positive benefits to using devices for learning and for enjoyment.  But obviously there can be too much of a good thing, and we have seen students come to school bleary-eyed from staying up late watching a tv or displaying semi-addictive tendencies in relation to a video game.  Again, Common Sense Media offers simple ideas for parents and for educators to help students establish appropriate limits for when/how/where/what they use devices.
  3. Reflect on your own screen time: Smartphones have made adult lives more efficient and easier in many ways, but they can also cause us to check email more frequently, want to capture and post about every moment in our day, and sneak in views of phone to check the score of a game while out with our family (I’ll admit to some of these myself).  Our young people model much of their behavior based on what they see from us, and a recent article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that one of the best ways we can support our kids in having healthy media use habits is to be more mindful of our own.

Access to technology is without a doubt a powerful tool for students, but we must take care to work in partnership between school and home to guide students in using that technology in ways that are beneficial to their learning and emotional development.

From the blog vault: “Inspiring an appetite for learning”

Last week, our school nutrition team received word that their program had been selected for a 2018 “Golden Radish Award”, an award given annually by the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Department of Public Health, the UGA Cooperative Extension, and Georgia Organics for “extraordinary work in farm to school”.  The ANCS nutrition team certainly does extraordinary work. They strive to provide locally-sourced food on our menus, with an emphasis on farms and vendors that are small and/or minority-owned. They teach hands-on classes to students in the kitchen and in our gardens to help students better understand how to make healthy and tasty meals. And they plan menus based on feedback from students and with dishes integrated with the curriculum that expose students to foods from different regions and cultures, like Mexico, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.

As a tie in to this news (and because I didn’t write a new blog post over the Labor Day weekend :)), I encourage you to take a few minutes to read this post from last year on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Education Matters” blog by ANCS Chef and Nutrition Director David Bradley about the thought that goes into our farm-to-school program.  There’s even a video of our students in action in the ANCS kitchen!

Extending learning past the end of the “regular” school day

Now that we are just about a month into the new school year, students and families are beginning to hear about programs and groups available to students at ANCS outside of “regular” school hours.  A range of enrichment classes, clubs, and other extracurricular activities enhances the learning students do in the classroom with their teachers by offering opportunities for different skills to be honed and different settings in which to use them.  At our elementary campus, after-school enrichment classes (the first of which are starting in September) provide students with the chance to learn alongside classmates of different ages and to gain some new skills in a small group environment. For example, past classes have focused on computer coding, cooking, soap-making, science experiments, running, and improv.  At the middle campus, after-school clubs are often student-initiated and a space for our middle schoolers to try on leadership roles in managing clubs with a supportive faculty advisor. A listing of available clubs will soon be on our website and will include areas of focus like being a part of the cast or crew for drama productions, skateboarding, art, computers, and a queer-straight student alliance.  We’ve even got a farm at the middle school that students can help to maintain and in which they can learn.  And, of course, there are plenty of athletics options through our participation in a few local sports leagues competing in activities like flag football, cheer, ultimate Frisbee, basketball, cross country, baseball, soccer and more, all of them available to all middle school students and several extending down to 4th or 5th graders. You can contact our athletics coordinator, Santina Cambor, with questions.

None of these programs could happen without dedicated teachers, staff members, parents, and other community members who give of their time and talents to lead, coach, and support our students in these extracurricular activities.  Additionally, given that our local/state funding accounts just for the learning that happens during the normal school day, there are expenses associated with each of these activities that we must pay, and we strive to make all of the activities accessible to all of our students.  We aim to charge only modest fees and offer scholarships to families and receive generous funding from our PTCA to help offset these costs in a way that is as inclusive as possible.

To our ANCS parents and caregivers, I encourage you to explore with your child the various after-school extracurricular options available and find an opportunity for extended learning.  And if there’s something you’d like to see that isn’t currently offered, ask your student to suggest it at school!

Being good models of environmental stewardship for our students

Last night the Southface board of directors held their regular meeting at ANCS.  Southface supports nonprofits like ANCS in understanding, designing, and implementing projects that promote responsible resource use.  Over the past 9 years, ANCS has been fortunate to have been awarded three different grants from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta’s “Grants to Green” program to make over $1 million in energy-efficient improvements to our two historic school buildings.  Solar panels to produce renewable energy, low-flow plumbing fixtures, motion-controlled LED lighting, thermal envelope insulation, and other projects completed in partnership with Southface have allowed us to greatly reduce energy and water use at both campuses.

We take great pride in being good stewards of the environment, and we appreciate recognition given to us by the U.S. Department of Education as a “Green Ribbon School”, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a top ENERGY STAR performer, and by the City of Atlanta as an “Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge MVP” award winner.  As a school, we strive to model for students how to take care of the world around them by conserving resources, and it goes beyond just our facilities.  For example, our PTCA’s sustainability committee shares “green suggestions” from students at morning meeting, and the committee also organizes “zero waste” lunch days about once a month to draw attention to eating all of the food on our trays and being mindful of using reusable containers if packing a lunch from home.  For years, ANCS has participated in the Safe Routes to School program–including earning an infrastructure improvement grant with the Georgia Department of Transportation–to encourage walking and biking to school so that fewer cars are on the streets.  And in our cafeteria, our nutrition team emphasizes the use of locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy as much as possible to reduce the energy costs associated with ordering products from distant vendors.

These efforts at reducing our energy footprint not only help us to protect the environment for our students now and into the future, but they also allow us to significantly cut our utility expenses which means we can put more dollars directly into teaching and learning.  If you’d like to connect with the PTCA sustainability committee to learn more, you can do so here.