In a letter to Atlanta seniors, APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen writes. “What I see as the greatest challenge—and opportunity—before us is rebuilding the world on the other side of this and making it kinder, fairer, more just, and much better than it was before.”
Photo: APS Photo
Photo: APS Photo

Meria Carstarphen consoles and cheers seniors whose grand finale was stolen by coronavirus

This is a lovely letter to the graduating seniors of Atlanta Public Schools from Meria Carstarphen, who relinquishes her school chief title at the end of June. 

This is a bittersweet moment for the seniors and the superintendent, both of whom are leaving APS in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic that cancelled face-to-face classes, along with many cherished senior year rituals.

Neither will get a traditional farewell. I hope for better things to come for the students and the superintendent. 

By Meria Carstarphen

To my beloved APS Class of 2020,

Amid all of the chaos and crazy surrounding what has become a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking about you, every single one of you, as our district works to maintain teaching and learning and some semblance of a normal school year even as our school buildings remain closed. 

With you prematurely heading your separate ways, I’ve been reflecting on the power the students of the Class of 2020. You were starting seventh grade when I first met you — little middle schoolers that have now grown up into beautiful and compelling young men and women. It is you who give me the heart and the passion to do this work. You are indeed #WorthTheWait. 

You have led movements garnering national attention, such as silent and respectful protests against gun violence your sophomore year as well as the Global Climate Initiative that originated from North Atlanta by Cole Bickerstaff and Emily D’Achiardi. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced our schools to close for teleschooling, many of you made your opinions and ideas known such as Chris Whitaker of Douglass High, whose online petition generated more than 6,000 signatures and supported the right position to push for closure for the health and safety of our students and staff. Thank you for your leadership!
You have led teams to championships, like Zhaniya Moreland, Ashley McKee, and Ikenya King, captains of the Frederick Douglass Lady Astros basketball team for two years running, and the Grady Jester debate team, notching its 11th straight state championship.  

You have made strides in the arts with Jackson students forming an International Thespian Troupe and showing leadership at a state level, Therrell students with art featured at the High Museum, and Carver High serving as the backdrop for an upcoming movie about Aretha Franklin. Oh, and Washington, with its awesome dance troupe a feature of this year’s State of the District, is just “Bad to the Bone.” 

You have LIVED our mission as shown by Atlanta Classical Academy, BEST Academy, and Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, where all students are not only on course to graduate but ALL have been accepted to college. We see it, too, at Forrest Hill Academy and Crim where students were part of the inaugural class of students for Project Hope to get more students than ever to graduate.

You have put yourself on a pace to earn more scholarships than ever, including students at Charles Drew, Mays, and South Atlanta who snagged prestigious 5 Strong Scholarships. Congratulations to Turan Beadles, Destiny Crawford, Jamilah El-Amin, Trinity Franklin, Sherodon Jenkins, Daysha Rainwater, Nicholas Smith, Jasmyn Thrash, Brionne Triplett, and Toni White.

You have become models for community service as exhibited by students at KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, with one of their own – Ari Hawkins – named among Atlanta Intown’s “20 Under 20.” 

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen delivered her final State of the District address at the newly renovated Harper-Archer Elementary School. The theme of this year's address was "The Epic of APS." 
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

And just as you have worked together to emerge from numerous struggles over your 13 years of schooling, you will emerge from this pandemic.

Given how much you’ve achieved together, I know it may feel stressful and disorienting to have to face this latest challenge apart from each other. Even as you recognize the power of facing challenges together, you’re told to face this particular one in isolation … and at a distance. So, it’s lonely. It’s scary. But, it’s not insurmountable. 

I’ve come to realize in my role as superintendent that, while the immediate challenge of this virus does require us to be apart for a time, that's not the only challenge we're facing. The challenge before us is not just to make it through these next few weeks and months. We will. 

What I see as the greatest challenge—and opportunity—before us is rebuilding the world on the other side of this and making it kinder, fairer, more just, and much better than it was before. The disparities and inequities in our communities have always existed. However, they are exacerbated due to the virus and that is the world you will lead us through. We need you to remember that. I believe you are strong enough to persevere and rebuild our communities for the better. 

What gives me hope in these challenging times is that you—the leaders, learners, and strivers I have had the pleasure to watch grow over the past six years—will be responsible for building and shaping that world. And you will do it together. 

As you move through the rest of your life, every job you take, every interaction you have, every choice you make will play a part in shaping the world. So, these next few weeks provide opportune moments for you to think – uninterrupted by the usual school day-to-day routines – about who you are, what you want, what you want your world to be, and what you’re going to do to build that world. Take that time, and do something great with it.

Rest assured that, as you do that, I am committed to do everything I can to make your senior year special and uniquely yours. We asked for graduation ideas, and more than 1,650 of you – including Chy'onna Clayton, Traniece Franklin, Shawn Gillespy, Kumari Hendricks, and Jalin Roscoe – made your #WorthTheWait opinions (first tweeted by Destiny Crawford of Mays!) overwhelmingly clear. Therefore, we will celebrate virtually from May 18 through 21, but we will bring all of the pomp and circumstance with traditional ceremonies in the summer or fall or during the first safe opportunity because this class is, indeed, #WorthTheWait. 

We will consider all of the options and your concerns at a dedicated virtual Town Hall for the graduating class of 2020 at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 30. Details will be provided on Instagram at @meriacarstarphen. I look forward to the conversation.

Until then, I want to leave you with one final thought: Strength comes from struggle, and the strongest are those forged in the fight. You all have already developed and demonstrated so much strength, as I’ve witnessed in our conversations, projects, football practices, water polo games, and everything else we’ve done together. 

 You are already strong, and by the virtue of being the class forced to brave a pandemic through to graduation, you will become the strongest, most resilient, most prepared students of your generation. Take that strength forward, persevere, and continue making us proud.
Much love and air hugs!
Dr. C. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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