Improving educational outcomes for Atlanta’s K-12 students not only depends on city and local leadership, it also relies on the willingness of those in the community to help.
That was the key message Atlanta Board of Education Chairman Courtney English relayed to audience members on Thursday, April 13, as local civic engagement group Empowrd hosted a discussion on the state of Atlanta’s public school system and how city leaders, community members and the like can continue to help it flourish.
English, a product of Atlanta’s public school system himself, is the youngest chairman to serve on the city’s school board and is now looking to apply his record of service in education by running for Atlanta City Council. The Morehouse College alum has worked in and out of the classroom to tackle issues affecting APS students, partnering with both leaders of the City of Atlanta and local civic organizations.
He laid out his plans to continue improving local schools and aiding students but was sure to remind audience members of their essential roles in helping the city achieve its educational goals.
“The thing that will drive impact [and] student achievement the fastest is if the folks in this room found a kid in a school somewhere and put their arms around them and told them you loved them,” English said. “If you show up in a classroom once a month or volunteered … or mentored — the thing that will drive change the fastest is if folks, particularly in the African-American community, folks who look like us, were able to give back.”
The City Council candidate went on to discuss, in detail, ways in which community members could get involved in local schools as well as voice their issues and concerns to Board of Ed members like himself. Town halls, public hearings and monthly board meetings are all open to the public, so local residents are encouraged to speak their thoughts on Atlanta’s school system, English said. What he urged community members not to do, however, is only show up to said meetings when “the house is on fire.”
“Where you’re gonna miss me is when you show up with a fierce anger, if you will, that is sometimes generated because you haven’t been around,” the former teacher said. What happens far too often in our community is we only “show up when there’s a major decision that we don’t like and we’re ready to turn up.”
English said that more often than not in government, issues are debated and weighed on for months at a time. He pointed to the recent launch of a long-discussed turnaround strategy to benefit Atlanta’s public school system and its students where community members failed to show up to those “in between” meetings.
While the engagement of local residents is important in improving the city’s school system, so are the powers that be, i.e., elected officials. English pointed out that APS is an independent school system not run by the City of Atlanta. However, that doesn’t mean city leaders, board members and community leaders can’t work together to enact changes that’ll impact the city’s most vulnerable students.
“Frankly, we don’t talk to the city enough,” English said. “We should be working with the city on a lot of things — early childhood education, workforce development, affordable housing, etc. Unfortunately, we have some folks in city government … we have almost an adversarial relationship.”
In addition to building better schools and turning around low-performing institutions, the BOE chairman put an emphasis on aiding Atlanta’s Black male students, who tend to fall behind or get lost in the education system.
“There are 101 ways that the City of Atlanta and the school system should be working together,” he added. “And, because I’ve sat in both seats, I look forward to leading the charge to change our communities and, by doing so, ultimately improve the quality of education of kids in and throughout the city.”
When asked the two things he would do if he had autonomous power as leader of education of America’s students, English said he would start by improving early childhood education and overhauling school leadership by providing better training to teachers and principals.
“Good teachers don’t leave because of the kids, good teachers leave because of bad leadership,” English concluded. “And so, we’ve got to have a different conversation about what it means to be a principal and how those folks get trained to handle autonomy.”