Opinion: Atlanta needs a superintendent with an appetite for urgent change

The Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education (shown in January 2024) is in the process of choosing a new superintendent. (Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bita Honarvar

Credit: Bita Honarvar

The Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education (shown in January 2024) is in the process of choosing a new superintendent. (Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Ed Chang is the executive director of the nonprofit education reform group RedefinED Atlanta. In this guest column, Chang presents a wish list for the next superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

Atlanta has laid crucial groundwork that could make our city one of the best places in America for a child to get a great public K-12 education. Whether we get there depends, to an enormous degree, on the choice of our next superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

It’s the right time to talk about what our next leader needs to bring to the job to succeed. The Georgia Milestones state tests results show that just 33% of APS students are proficient or better in reading and writing. Only about 30% meet that bar in math. And right now, Atlanta’s school board is conducting a national search to find our district’s next leader. The search process will run through this spring, and our city’s schools will have a new leader in place for the start of the 2024-25 school year.

Strong academics, data-driven results, student well-being and mental health are a few of the focus areas any potential superintendent would commit to, and rightfully so. They’re all important and we can expect to hear such priorities elevated in conversations with search committee members and community members alike. But what should finalists bring to the table? What can we rely on as being the most critical proof points to translate into measurable, urgent change for Atlanta’s schools?

As longtime advocates for great public schools, we believe this city has put several critical pieces in place for a future that looks very different from our past and present.

Ed Chang is redefinED atlanta’s founding executive director. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Most important among these foundations is a set of commitments, adopted by the Atlanta Board of Education in 2021, called Goals and Guardrails. The goals reflect a set of shared agreements on what all our students must learn to be prepared for a thriving future — meaning, proficient in reading and math, and ready for graduation and for college and career. The guardrails reflect how we honor shared values while making fundamental changes such as intensive and high-impact support for schools that have not historically had all the resources needed to meet the demands of their student population.

Goals and Guardrails has provided the district a strong framework for change, and our next superintendent must publicly commit, be ready to act upon and champion those values and targets. Significant persistent gaps still exist for Black students, students with disabilities and learning differences, and those experiencing poverty in Atlanta. The educational and whole child needs of our students create a clarion call for a superintendent with an appetite for urgent change and a real track record of success in navigating and implementing the systems it will take to get this work done on behalf of our children.

You might be asking, “What does that look like?”

Atlanta’s next superintendent must have deep experience leading a district with different types of quality public schools, including some combination of traditional neighborhood schools, in-district charter schools, partnership schools and innovation schools. They must have a strong orientation toward whole school and districtwide innovation, and a proven track record of improving student learning by developing, managing, learning from and scaling bright spots, innovative practices and school models so that new ideas can break through and more families have access to public schools that fit their child’s specific needs.

This new leader must ensure these diverse school models do more than create variety; that they result in better outcomes for kids. This is especially important for the students whom our district has served least well — Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities — so that ZIP code, identity and learning differences no longer determine destiny, and so that our city’s children don’t have to wait for schools that meet their needs now while we work together to realize the full potential of districtwide transformation.

Atlanta’s next superintendent must be a relationship builder, willing to check their ego and work closely with others to move the needle forward for our children. The next superintendent must come from a district where individual public school principals have been given significant autonomy to respond to their community and deliver what their students need. In practice, that means the next superintendent has experience holding school leaders accountable for student outcomes and in exchange, provide those school leaders with significant autonomy and flexibility over certain areas of school management like staffing structure, hiring and firing, curriculum, school schedule, and more.

They must be adept at building coalitions and authentically engaging in partnerships with families, educators, local communities, nonprofits, and civic leaders. In order to overcome our current student achievement, teacher retention, and staff and child well-being challenges, we need our next superintendent to work with school board members and staff to create new solutions for old problems. It is imperative that they be a savvy political operator in the best sense — one who knows how to build a team ready and willing to make the hard decisions needed to drive large-scale, systemic change to better serve students.

Finally, Atlanta’s next superintendent must know they’ll have a historic opportunity. Atlanta stands as one of America’s most vibrant cities, which, among other things, is home to one of its strongest and most enduring Black communities. But our children — and especially our Black children — do not have wide-scale access to schools capable of delivering on their extraordinary promise.

Our city must become an educational beacon as well as an economic and cultural one. Please talk to your school board member today and let them know the time is now for a superintendent who will turn that potential into reality.