What traits do students want to see in Atlanta’s next superintendent?

The Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education meets on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, at APS headquarters in downtown Atlanta. The board will soon pick a finalist to become its next superintendent. (Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bita Honarvar

Credit: Bita Honarvar

The Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education meets on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, at APS headquarters in downtown Atlanta. The board will soon pick a finalist to become its next superintendent. (Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Atlanta school board recently crafted a profile of some characteristics it wants for its next superintendent, but what do its roughly 50,000 students want?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to hear from a specific constituency that often gets overlooked in the search process — students.

Some said the next superintendent should prioritize equity, others said mental health should be a top concern and a couple of students suggested changes in the way meals are administered.

The board plans to announce a sole finalist for the job in April or May, with an official start date of July 1.

Here’s what six students who are leaders at their schools told us:

Demar Goodman, 17, senior at South Atlanta High School

South Atlanta High School senior Demar Goodman is involved in several school organizations. He is the president of the Student Government Association, serves on the APS Student Advisory Council and oversees South Atlanta's chapter of My School Votes, which encourages students who are old enough to register to vote. (Courtesy of Demar Goodman)

Credit: Demar Goodman

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Credit: Demar Goodman

Goodman said the next superintendent should ensure all students have access to the same resources, such as technology.

“I think the word of the year is definitely ‘equity,’” he said. “Equity in education is essential. APS has done well to bridge the gap between schools; however, there’s still work to be done. So a superintendent candidate who will continue this work, I think, will be an excellent candidate for us.”

He described what that could look like at his school.

“A superintendent who prioritizes equity for South Atlanta (High School) specifically will be things like … better technology,” Goodman said. “A lot of our students come from below the poverty line. So maybe … more social support for our students in terms of social workers and community engagement opportunities. Safety has become a big issue across the country, a superintendent who prioritizes safety and … knows that careful balance between policing and over-policing, I think, is an important facet ... for any superintendent.”

Tamar Echols, 18, senior at Benjamin E. Mays High School

Tamar Echols is a senior at Benjamin E. Mays High School. She is part of the APS Student Advisory Council, which gives the district feedback on a range of issues, including the superintendent search. She's pictured here during Mays' homecoming game. (Courtesy of Tamar Echols)

Credit: Courtesy of Tamar Echols

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Credit: Courtesy of Tamar Echols

“Hopefully when (the board) say(s) ‘has experience’ (in the superintendent profile), they mean with children,” Echols said. “Something I’ve seen in Dr. (Lisa) Herring and Dr. (Danielle) Battle was that they stayed in schools. They weren’t just in their offices but they (made) themselves present. That’s the only thing that I ask ... is that we have a superintendent that makes decisions solely based on the need(s) and well-being of the students in APS.”

When asked about any gaps or unaddressed concerns a new district leader could fill, Echols said there’s a need for more clubs and incentives.

“I always stress that when we were in elementary school, we were rewarded for academic achievements and reading books within a week, and I never understood why those traditions weren’t carried over in high school,” she said. “Clubs are a heavy conversation for me as well. Other schools have so many cool clubs, but it’s like we don’t have enough because of funding or simple participation and that comes from ... lack of interest to lack of transportation.”

Sloan Mitchell, 17, junior at Maynard Jackson High School

Sloan Mitchell is the junior class president at Maynard Jackson High School in Atlanta. Contributed photo.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Mitchell, who is class president, said the district’s next leader should listen to students and offer solutions to problems. She says the new superintendent should be willing to address mental health issues, like bullying, which she says impacts students more than adults may realize.

“I know that a lot of people don’t think bullying is a thing anymore,” she said. “‘That seems so old school and now it’s all ... online.’ But I really think bullying at school, or even outside of school and then it transfers over into school, I feel like that’s a big thing.”

The number of times Atlanta students were disciplined for bullying increased from 232 during the 2021-22 school year to 356 during the 2022-23 school year, according to Georgia Department of Education data.

Mitchell said an effective leader would strike a delicate balance of providing help without smothering students. She added that school meals could be improved.

“I don’t know if that’s something that the superintendent can fix, but it’s definitely an issue that we brought up many times,” she said.

Josh Prout, 17, senior at Midtown High School

“I would definitely like a superintendent who can empathize with students and really see them as people,” Prout said. “I think it can be hard, because there’s a lot of numbers, whether it’s test scores, how many students, districts and all of that, but each number is a person and I think keeping their mental health in mind especially is really important.”

Prout hoped mental health would be included in the health class he took his junior year, but was disappointed in the course.

“When we tried to discuss mental health issues, it was clear that the textbook we were using was very outdated,” he said. “Thankfully, I think (the textbook) has been changed, but it just left me very concerned.”

Prout acknowledged mental health can be awkward to address, but said Atlanta’s next district leader needs to understand how critical the issue is. About 45% of Atlanta middle and high school students who responded to a health survey in 2023 reported feeling depressed, sad or withdrawn at least once in the past 30 days.

“Nobody wants to talk about depression, anxiety, anything like that,” he said. “It’s an uncomfortable topic, especially when talking about kids. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any (mental health problems), but I think that part of that is the problem ... the more it’s discussed, the more that’s known about it, the better-equipped people will be to deal with it, recognize it, and help others as well.”

Prout also said he hopes the new superintendent will revisit a program that offered free meals to all students in the district.

Iridian Ramos-Santiago, 16, junior at North Atlanta High School

Iridian Ramos-Santiago, a junior at North Atlanta High School, is the president of the Hispanic Heritage Society, a group aimed at improving the success of Hispanic students. She also serves on the school district’s Student Advisory Council, which has been asked to weigh in on the superintendent search. (Courtesy of Iridian Ramos-Santiago)

Credit: Courtesy of Iridian Ramos-Santiago

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Credit: Courtesy of Iridian Ramos-Santiago

Ramos-Santiago hopes Atlanta’s next education chief will focus on literacy.

“We’re living in a very technology-heavy world,” she said. “We need media literacy, we need literacy rates to go up as much as possible, especially for our younger students. So, making sure that every student has the capacity and ability to learn and is given the resources that they need in order for those rates to go up.”

Ramos-Santiago also believes the board members should listen carefully to what students and parents say about the search process.

“Community involvement is hugely important,” she said. “(The superintendent will make) decisions for anything that (students) do, what they learn, what they eat, how they get home. Literally anything you can think of, a decision has to be made about it.”

She said listening to a variety of viewpoints will also help the board meet its goal of hiring an equity-driven leader.

“You can’t have equity if you don’t know what needs people have, and who better to tell you those needs than the people themselves?”

Robert Rumley, 17, junior at North Atlanta High School

North Atlanta High School junior Robert Rumley is a wingback and striker on the varsity soccer team. He also participates in Mock Trial SkillsUSA and is the social media chair for Jack & Jill of America's Dunwoody chapter. (Courtesy of Robert Rumley)

Credit: Courtesy of Robert Rumley

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Credit: Courtesy of Robert Rumley

Rumley, who plays on North Atlanta’s varsity soccer team, gets home late after practice and games. Then he has to tackle his homework.

“I would like to see some study halls for student-athletes,” he said. “It’s on us to get our grades up and things like that. And for freshmen coming in, I could see how their GPAs would be higher if they could get study halls and stuff like that.”

He said having a study period during the day could help him work on assignments and plan for tests.

Rumley would also like to see more food options in the cafeteria.

“I don’t eat meat,” he said. “I’m a pescatarian. (He eats fish, but not meat or poultry.) I usually have to bring food from home.”