Atlanta Public Schools to hire chief equity and social justice officer

New Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring speaks after after being sworn-in on June 30, 2020.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
New Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring speaks after after being sworn-in on June 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta Public Schools is conducting a national search for a top administrator to focus on equity and social justice.

The person picked for the newly created, cabinet-level job will report directly to Lisa Herring, who took over as superintendent this summer. The post will be funded for the first year through the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other donors.

The district’s first chief equity and social justice officer will lead efforts to make education in APS more equitable, with a focus on creating programs and policies to help marginalized students.

As protests over racial injustice and police brutality continue, Herring said it’s important to listen to those voices and address how APS “can educate and inform and empower.”

Ricardo Miguel Martinez, president of the Atlanta-based Latino Association for Parents of Public Schools, called the hiring decision the “right first step” to show the district is listening to parent concerns, though he doesn’t expect change overnight.

“Everyone is looking at us to lead, and this is one of those moments where we are leading," he said.

In 2019, the board approved an equity policy aimed at eliminating learning gaps between white students and students of color, which research shows is closely linked to income disparities. Herring told the school board recently that the district’s white students are nearly 4.5 grade levels ahead of Black classmates.

The equity push also is reflected in the district’s new, five-year strategic plan. The new leader will be tasked with keeping equity at the forefront of decision-making.

Some other districts are also creating equity positions, including Marietta City Schools, which recently committed to hiring someone to do that work. Gwinnett County Public Schools did so last year. Marietta

Dena Keeling, the chief equity officer for the Orange County School District in Hillsborough, North Carolina, said she noticed an uptick equity postings last year, when she became the first person to hold the job in that district.

She said districts are responding in part to racist acts and violence that have shaken communities and schools in recent years, such as the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

During her first year on the job, Keeling worked to identify inequalities in the district. She organized training sessions and assisted with efforts to recruit diverse employees. She’s also focused on improving literacy for students that have been underserved.

“We have pushed them to the margins,” she said. “We have made them academically vulnerable. … It’s not us fixing them. There’s something we need to fix in us.”

Missouri’s largest district, Springfield Public Schools, hired Yvania Garcia-Pusateri as its chief equity and diversity officer in 2019. She said other people had been doing equity work, but when she arrived the position was elevated to a top-level that reports to the superintendent.

That makes her privy to all district decisions, which she can help frame through the lens of equity.

“I think it ensured that equity is at the forefront of what we are doing,” she said.

The equity job in Atlanta is among a handful of APS administrative changes and additions made since Herring’s arrival. All told, APS expects to spend an additional $450,000 this fiscal year as part of a larger organizational restructuring. Herring announced she will cut two previous administrative positions and add five.

The changes include eliminating the role of deputy superintendent, previously held by David Jernigan who left APS in the spring to lead the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta. In addition to the equity chief, other newly created posts include a chief academics officer, chief of schools, chief of staff and a senior administrative manager.

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