Opinion: New Atlanta school chief must focus on students with special needs

Bryan Johnson, the sole finalist for superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, speaks to community members at The New School at Carver in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (Seeger Gray / AJC)

Credit: Seeger Gray / Seeger.Gray@ajc.co

Credit: Seeger Gray / Seeger.Gray@ajc.co

Bryan Johnson, the sole finalist for superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, speaks to community members at The New School at Carver in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (Seeger Gray / AJC)

After a long search, Atlanta Public Schools has hired the next superintendent to take the helm in our district. On behalf of Atlanta Thrive and parents and advocates across the city, I would like to welcome Bryan Johnson to Atlanta.

At Atlanta Thrive, we believe in the potential of every student. To us, quality education is essential for creating opportunities and breaking the cycle of poverty. And we know from the hundreds of parents we engage with daily — online and offline — that every child learns differently.

Kimberly Dukes

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

In Atlanta Public Schools, nearly 6,000 students benefit from Individualized Education Programs, designed to tailor the learning environment to their unique needs. These students include 4,709 traditional school students and 1,236 charter and partner school students of APS. Yet, despite having a documented IEP and receiving recommended special education services, many of these students are still falling through the cracks — underserved and overlooked.

The disparities in the identification and support for these children contribute to a cycle of inequity that can impact their educational and social development for a lifetime. This moment, at the beginning of a leadership change under Johnson, requires us to act decisively to enhance the educational services for all students, particularly those with special needs.

The APS Board of Education must prioritize effective special education practices now, ensuring that our next superintendent continues the vital work begun by interim Superintendent Danielle Battle without interruption. There are several items that need to be addressed urgently by our new superintendent.

First and foremost, we must address the children who are either undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or yet to be identified. A quality education must include clear and effective ways to evaluate students’ progress. In addition, labeling behaviors without understanding their context or root causes can lead to misdiagnoses and inappropriate educational tracks for students. APS must invest more in social-emotional learning and supports that consider the whole student, fostering an environment where every child can thrive.

Second, the ongoing issues of redistricting and school overcrowding often overshadow the need for robust special education services. As schools in the Washington, Jackson and Douglas clusters are reshuffled to address capacity issues, the core needs of students with special needs are often sidelined. This approach does not solve the root problem but merely relocates it. Let’s not just shuffle students around; let’s commit to providing every child with the support they need to succeed.

Moreover, many parents carry the burden of uncertainty about asking for evaluations due to fear of stigma or bureaucratic red tape. Our APS leaders must foster an environment where parents feel empowered and supported to advocate for their children’s needs. This includes ensuring that they are present at IEP meetings and fully informed about the processes and supports available.

Finally, the Atlanta Board of Education must support our new superintendent in facilitating community meetings to ensure a plan of action for providing an equitable education for each and every student, no matter their abilities or learning styles. It is imperative that the board’s actions reflect a commitment to all students’ success, grounded in equity and inclusiveness, because when we say, “We Believe in All Kids’ Potential,” we must commit to making that belief a reality for every student, no matter their ability.

To the more than 640 Atlanta parents, educators and community members who already stand with us, your voice is crucial. Join Atlanta Thrive in demanding that APS not only plans for the future but also acts in the present to provide the high-quality, inclusive education that our students with special needs deserve.

Together, we can ensure that the transition in leadership strengthens, rather than disrupts, our progress toward an educational system that values and uplifts every student. Together, we can prioritize critical areas such as literacy, special education, family engagement and most importantly culture and climate to ensure every child in our district thrives.

Let’s hold all of our leaders accountable and ensure that no student is left behind in our pursuit of educational equity.

Kimberly Dukes is a mother of 10 children. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Atlanta Thrive and serves as the executive director. Atlanta Thrive seeks to empower parents to address inequities In education.