FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE: Inside the daunting quest to improve an Atlanta school

In a first-grade classroom, teachers hand out alphabet letters printed on yellow paper and call out a word for everyone to spell.

“Your first word is ‘any,’ ” a teacher announces.

Scrambled piles of letters are dumped onto desks, and fingers sift through them. The teacher tells everyone to write a sentence using the word. Start with a capital letter and end with a punctuation mark.

The school day ended hours ago. The people learning to play this game aren’t students, they’re parents.

VIDEO: ‘Together we can and together we will’

Harper-Archer Elementary School principal Dione Simon Taylor has worked for Atlanta Public Schools since 1999. During the 2017-2018 academic school year, Taylor was honored as APS principal of the year while at G.A. Towns Elementary School, an academically troubled school on Atlanta’s west side. For four years Principal Taylor and her staff at Towns Elementary School worked to raise students’ test scores. Her focus has now shifted as she has been tasked to turn around Harper-Archer Elementary School, a school that was created to consolidate her former school and another academically troubled school. Taylor admits that efforts to change the school will be a heavy churn but she says anything possible with a hope. “Poverty is a thing that stands in the way of high performance sometimes,” Taylor said. “But with the right people and the right work I believe that we can show people that the zip code doesn’t matter.” (Video by Alyssa Pointer, Story by Vanessa McCray, Photos by Alyssa Pointer and Bob Andres)

Parent engagement is a key driver of student success, and in schools with many poor families such as Harper-Archer Elementary, it’s a priority that requires removing barriers and changing mindsets. The school offers extra services to parents, teaches them how to help their children at home and emphasizes the importance of learning.

“We’ve got to make them value education as much as we do, and a lot of them don’t because (they’re) in survival mode,” said LaJuana Ezzard, the partnerships and programs director who works to increase family engagement.

She needs parents to know that education gives children a way out of poverty.

A first grade parent cuts out letters for at home learning with their child during an Academic Parent Teacher Teams meeting after school, Monday, January 21, 2020. Teachers encouraged parents to engage their students academically when they are away from the classroom in order to encourage continuous learning. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
A first grade parent cuts out letters for at home learning with their child during an Academic Parent Teacher Teams meeting after school, Monday, January 21, 2020. Teachers encouraged parents to engage their students academically when they are away from the classroom in order to encourage continuous learning. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Parents are responsible for making sure their child comes to school. They set behavior expectations at home that carry over to the classroom. Because instructional time in school is only about 12% of students’ year, parents can greatly help their academic progress by reading books at home and playing educational games like the one they learned at that January parent night.

Principal Dione Simon Taylor calls parent engagement an Achilles heel for Harper-Archer: Research shows that without it, school turnaround will be almost impossible.

Numerous obstacles make it difficult. Some parents work multiple jobs or night shifts that keep them from after-school events and homework coaching. Many are busy single parents or grandparents raising grandkids. They don’t all have transportation.

Some parents mistrust teachers and schools because of their children’s previous bad experiences. Some may feel lost in the shuffle amid Atlanta’s many school closures and mergers.

Some don’t have the education themselves to help their child with school work.

Jason Highsmith (left) takes a photo of his son, Harper-Archer Elementary 4th grader Gavin Highsmith (right) and his wife, Jessica Fullington (center), after Gavin received an award for most improved in math during the school's first awards ceremony, Friday, January 24, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Jason Highsmith (left) takes a photo of his son, Harper-Archer Elementary 4th grader Gavin Highsmith (right) and his wife, Jessica Fullington (center), after Gavin received an award for most improved in math during the school's first awards ceremony, Friday, January 24, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Harper-Archer is trying hard in its first year to make it easier for parents to participate in their child’s academic life.

A parent center just inside the school’s front entrance offers help with everything from job searches to using the online system that tracks students’ grades and attendance.

At parent nights, staffers served pizza and salad. The school provided child care and a Spanish-language interpreter. Teachers gave out educational activities and demonstrated how to play them. They explained data, set student goals and encouraged parents to turn daily events into learning opportunities. A trip to the grocery store? Sound out the labels. Driving down the street? Look at license plate letters and numbers. Playing dominoes? Make it a mini-math lesson.

The approach, trying to build a partnership between parents and teachers, goes far beyond traditional parent-teacher conferences. Harper-Archer started with kindergarten and first grade classes. By the time those children reach third grade and start taking state tests, Taylor hopes the school will see positive results of the effort.

Staff said they try to win trust and to connect in ways that work for parents.

When the mother of a first grader who struggled to read contacted a teacher to explain she couldn’t help her child because she hadn’t finished school, the teacher recorded a video showing how to review sight words. The teacher sent the video to the mom and said the student began to catch up.

When parents call or text with questions, fifth-grade teacher Alecia Westbrooks answers, even if it’s the weekend. You have to prove yourself to them, she said.

Teachers tell parents: We’re not asking you to take over as your child’s teacher, but we need you to be our partner, and here’s how.

Harper-Archer Elementary fifth grade teacher Alecia Westbrooks (right) speaks with some of her student's parents during a parent engagement meeting at the school, Tuesday, November 19, 2019. Westbrooks, a former teacher at Fain Elementary school, says she is focused on praising her students for their efforts instead of focusing on solely academics for their growth. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Harper-Archer Elementary fifth grade teacher Alecia Westbrooks (right) speaks with some of her student's parents during a parent engagement meeting at the school, Tuesday, November 19, 2019. Westbrooks, a former teacher at Fain Elementary school, says she is focused on praising her students for their efforts instead of focusing on solely academics for their growth. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Encouraging involvement

Taylor Robinson had never joined a Parent Teacher Association before she was elected as the Harper-Archer group’s first president.

It’s a small PTA, and Robinson, a mother of three, knows growing participation will be tough. She’s starting with a modest goal to sign up 5% of parents.

“A lot of times,” she said, “the school’s as good as the parents.”

The association’s rules require a minimum of 25 members to organize. At the first meeting in December, officials kept checking to see if they’d hit the magic number.

Several staff and parents trickled in wearing Santa hats or reindeer antlers as the count inched up. Finally, enough people had paid the $5 dues, and the officers were sworn in.

Amid cheers, someone exclaimed: “Hallelujah, 25!”

Thirty people joined that night, a tally that included many school employees and two officials from the state and Atlanta PTA who came to help run the meeting.

When the group met again in February, however, the first votes were to replace three officers who had stepped aside or weren't involved.

Robinson is thinking up ways to reach more parents, such as livestreaming meetings or holding them at different times so it’s convenient for parents who work night shifts.

She’s planning events with food — always a draw. She wants to persuade parents who would rather be doing something else to get involved in their child’s education.

For some, school isn’t a priority.

“Find that same energy … you found to get up at 1 o’clock in the morning to go to the club before they closed, find that same energy to say, ‘Hey, let’s read a book before you go to bed tonight,’ ” she said.

Harper-Archer staff know parents have limited time and money. But in some cases, Ezzard said parents have to make the decision to be involved in their children's education.

“[I’ve] just got to get you to choose differently, make a different choice for you and your family,” she said.

She said it’s about showing children and their families, some of whom have lived in poverty for generations, that education has the power to break that cycle.

“It’s up to you: What do you want? What do you want? And if you don’t want it, can I give it to your child?” she said.

Harper-Archer Elementary school's inaugural PTA president Taylor Robinson fills out her membership card during a meeting where parents, faculty and staff created the school's first official PTA group during a meeting in the school's media center, Wednesday, December 18, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Harper-Archer Elementary school's inaugural PTA president Taylor Robinson fills out her membership card during a meeting where parents, faculty and staff created the school's first official PTA group during a meeting in the school's media center, Wednesday, December 18, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Adapting tactics

Ezzard, known as “Ms. E” to everyone at Harper-Archer, is constantly dreaming up ways to reach families and changing her approach if they don’t work.

The school threw one of its first big events in early September. Several dozen visitors met in the media center for Grandparents Day. Joan Francis, the parent liaison, discussed the services available — counseling, therapy and a social worker who helps families find resources to meet basic needs, like housing and food.

Francis stressed the importance of student attendance. “If a child is out for any period of time, that affects their learning, correct?” she said. “We’re a family. We’re here to support you and get them back into the classroom.”

At the end of the event, grandparents visited classrooms, and Ezzard invited everyone to return in a few weeks to join the school’s new Growing Grandparents Club.

“Not only do we want to help your grandchild, we also want you to know we’re here for you as part of this community. So whatever we can do to assist you, that’s what we want to do,” she told them.

Harper Archer Elementary School on Grandparents Day.  Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Harper Archer Elementary School on Grandparents Day. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

On the morning of the club’s first meeting, a bright tablecloth covered a library table, and beverages and snacks were ready to be served.

Ezzard had promoted the event for about a month. She brought in an expert to lead an exercise class and planned to combine health education for grandparents with information about how they can help improve their students’ learning.

But the room was empty, and the sign-in sheet was blank.

She refused to be upset as she packed up: “This is one disappointment. I’ve had many of these disappointments.” She’d made the effort, now it was time to think about what she could do differently.

Because she knows parents and families will come out to see their child perform or receive an award, the school hosts events with a dual purpose.

ExploreMore stories from 'Fight for the Future'
Why the AJC is writing these stories

In some schools, students just don’t have the same foundation for learning as others. It’s a problem Atlanta’s school district has been confronting for generations, and the district has been in a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project aimed at helping.

Some steps, such as turning six schools over to charter groups to run, have been controversial and watched nationally, since educational inequity is a problem all over the country, not just in metro Atlanta.

Teachers know that whatever they do in the classroom, they can’t control some factors – parental involvement and generational poverty, for example – that have powerful influence on their students’ ability to learn. Atlanta’s results so far underscore just how difficult turnaround is. Schools have seen some gains, but there’s minimal evidence it’s because of the turnaround investments.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to know: Just how does the school give students the proper education they’ll ultimately need to compete with their peers for adequate jobs, and to be responsible, productive citizens in our communities?

To answer that question, we knew we had to be in the classrooms and hallways of a school trying to find solutions to these challenges.

We knew we had to speak to community residents and parents.

The AJC asked Atlanta school officials to give us unprecedented access to a school being targeted for special attention because of its long-standing challenges.

Harper-Archer Elementary, the “turnaround school” the district selected when the AJC proposed this project, is new. The west Atlanta school opened this year to serve neighborhoods that are among the poorest in Georgia.

School officials allowed our reporter and photographers a close-up view of the people and the everyday goings-on in the life of that school community.

Over several months, AJC reporter Vanessa McCray and photographers Alyssa Pointer and Bob Andres spent many days observing, interviewing and recording the efforts and the motivations of the dozens of people who are trying to ensure that what’s in store in the lives of the children there can be brighter than their beginning.

Successful communities support and invest in the education of children. Strong schools use that support to set high expectations and to execute bold, cutting-edge initiatives.

Not every school in Atlanta can claim such success. For some city schools, the challenges seem too great to overcome.

Students at Harper-Archer Elementary School come to class each day from Atlanta neighborhoods struggling with the harmful side effects of generational poverty. They also suffer from inconsistent parental engagement and many of these children lack basic reading skills – the foundation for academic accomplishment.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to know, just how do teachers, principals, counselors, and other school staffers try to give these children the proper education they’ll ultimately need to compete with their peers for adequate jobs, and to be responsible, productive citizens in our communities?

Atlanta Public Schools gave the AJC unprecedented access to the inner workings of its efforts to turnaround this school. The stories inside this special section are the result of our reporter and photographers spending dozens of hours at Harper-Archer over several months.

If the folks at Harper-Archer are successful with their bold plans, the school will serve as a template for other urban schools struggling to meet basic standards.

We interviewed school leaders, teachers, community residents, and parents, to get the full picture of the magnitude of the challenge and of those who are trying to find solutions.

They are stories of determination and hope.

- Todd C. Duncan, Senior Editor Local Government and Education

In late February, a couple hundred people showed up to the school’s Black History Month celebration. Parents cheered the step teams and stood for the choir’s rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At a vendor fair before the event, parents picked up information about health insurance, finances and legal services. Robinson greeted people from behind a PTA table, and Girl Scouts sold boxes of Thin Mints.

“What I’ve learned is that I have got to create a climate where they feel comfortable enough to just come up at any time whether their child is on stage or not,” Ezzard said.

Teachers said many parents are responsive when they reach out with concerns or updates. Just because a parent doesn’t show up to an event, that doesn’t mean they are disconnected from their child’s education.

But maintaining open communication is key. Teachers need to know what’s going on at home in order to solve problems that crop up in the classroom.

At a family night in November, Westbrooks huddled in her classroom with a handful of fifth grade parents. She explained she’s not being nosy when she asks about their children’s challenges and personal interests.

“You know them better than I do,” she said. “So the more that you can tell me about them the more that I can help them.”

Gary Jackson reads the book “Hair Love” to his fourth grade daughter Melasia Jackson during an event at Harper-Archer Elementary School on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gary Jackson reads the book “Hair Love” to his fourth grade daughter Melasia Jackson during an event at Harper-Archer Elementary School on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

School staff knocks on doors when phone calls and standard communication isn’t enough.

Taylor grew concerned about student attendance over the autumn months. Like other Atlanta schools, Harper-Archer struggles with absenteeism. Some days, more than 40 children were gone. Other days, more than 60, or nearly 10% of the school’s 698 students.

The principal told her teachers to start calling parents of absent children daily, a task previously assigned to the front-office clerk. Hearing directly from the teacher would underscore the importance of coming to school and give teachers a chance to ask if there are any problems they can solve. The school also sends robo-calls, so parents should be contacted twice when a child is absent.

Fewer kids show up if it’s cold or rainy. When one child is out of school, siblings often are missing too. Sometimes the school finds out a family has moved or there’s been an emergency.

After teachers began calling, attendance initially began to improve. But when it started to slip again Taylor went deeper. Taylor dispatched teams to go door-to-door after the holiday break. They visited the homes of chronically absent students to ask how they can help. The school can’t solve every problem, but staffers stress the importance of coming to school.

“This is killing me. I don’t understand why we have so many kids who are not coming to school because when I talk to children they say they love school,” she said in January.

Pearl Lilly attempts to get her grandson, Corbin, out of bed so that he can get ready for school on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Pearl Lilly attempts to get her grandson, Corbin, out of bed so that he can get ready for school on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

School like a family

Some days, it takes an extraordinary effort for Pearl Lilly to get her two grandsons to school.

She’s raised the boys since they were infants, becoming their caregiver because of her daughter’s mental health issues.

Lilly, 49, is used to working, but said she hasn’t been able to lately because of a heart condition. Government aid and support from a foster grandparent program help her squeak by.

Last summer, she moved into a two-story apartment off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, about a mile from Harper-Archer. If it weren’t for her grandchildren, Lilly said she would have considered living in her car. But she needed an affordable, stable place for them and the houseful of relatives who are frequently there. She can just barely cover the $1,287 monthly rent for the sparse apartment where water seeps in after heavy rains.

Pearl Lilly irons a pair of pants for her grandson's school uniform as everyone gets ready for school on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Pearl Lilly irons a pair of pants for her grandson's school uniform as everyone gets ready for school on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

She didn’t know what to expect from the newly opened school. Her fears melted away when Harper-Archer staff welcomed her warmly: “It was like a community, a family.”

The school has been especially good for her grandson with autism and behavioral and mental health problems.

Mornings are tough for him. Sometimes he’s so upset he won’t board the bus. On bad days, they drive to school, and teachers and staff coax him inside.

“It’s like I don’t have worries anymore as far as his education. I know that they have him, and they support us,” Lilly said.

School is a respite. At the apartment, she frets about neighborhood crime and what her grandchildren might see if they look out the window facing the parking lot. For a while, she nailed up a large green sheet to block the view. There’s been prostitution and violence, she said.

Harper-Archer Elementary School staff walk Corbin into the school after retrieving him from his grandmother, Wednesday, February 26, 2020.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Harper-Archer Elementary School staff walk Corbin into the school after retrieving him from his grandmother, Wednesday, February 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

In 2019, there were 318 police calls from her roughly 120-unit apartment complex, according to Atlanta police records. Fights prompted about a quarter of those calls; more than a dozen were reports of shots fired.

When her grandson hears shooting at night, he asks his grandmother if they’re going to be OK.

She’s concerned her apartment might be one reason the family has been sick so frequently this year. The sharp smell of bleach lingers, a testament to her daily battle to keep the place clean. She’s received letters from nurses stressing the need for her second-grade grandson, who has severe chronic asthma, to live in a mold and allergen-free home.

Despite the struggles, she holds onto encouragement passed down from her grandfather: Keep striving. She knows education can open up more opportunities, so she’s continuing hers by pursuing a doctorate degree in human services. When the boys return from school, they do homework together at their round dining room table.

On a winter afternoon, her grandsons tumble in the door with big grins. They toss a ball around the living room, pull out a basketball hoop and do headstands against the wall.

Their grandmother plays along and then says, “Let’s check backpacks.” They bring out snacks, go over sight words and read a book about frogs.

Lilly said Harper-Archer’s help makes hard days a little easier.

“Wrapping the arms around the child, giving the child a high-five, a smile it goes a long way,” she said. “I honestly think I wouldn’t be able to make it. Sometimes, I used to feel like just giving up. I’m thankful for them.”

» NEXT STORY: Teachers try to fill academic, skills gap

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