Dione Simon Taylor directs traffic in a Harper-Archer Elementary School hallway as an avalanche of children pours through the doors.

It’s a tick after 7:30 a.m. Dawn’s first pinpricks brighten the dark sky. Breath turns thick in the late October chill.

Yellow buses had arrived after winding through Atlanta’s west side, picking up students from some of Georgia’s poorest neighborhoods. The children start their school day with a hug or shoulder pat and a “good morning” from principal Taylor, free breakfast, gentle reminders to get in line, go to their classroom.

The parade of backpacks — pink sparkly ones, Spider-Mans, cheetah prints and Batmans— stream past her each morning. Attached to each: a child, a challenge, an opportunity.

02/26/2020 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Students walk through the hallway during at Harper-Archer Elementary School in Atlanta, Wednesday, February 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Harper-Archer opened in August after the merger of two academically troubled elementaries and an $11.6 million building renovation. Atlanta Public Schools identified it for the deepest level of help, as one of the schools with students the furthest behind. Taylor was charged with a task that some days feels almost impossible: Turn it around.

“My heart’s desire is that we revitalize the community and change generations to come, and I may or may not live to see it, but we are going to try,” Taylor said.

It took years to get to this moment, the starting line.

It could take years longer to see big improvements.

Experts say chronically low-performing schools need three to five years to achieve major gains. Even then, success is fragile, susceptible to backslides.

APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen calls the districtwide turnaround effort, aimed at lifting Harper-Archer and about two dozen other Atlanta schools, a “20-year proposition.” Even then, she said there are systemic problems — chief among them intergenerational poverty — that schools can’t solve alone.

This is year one at one turnaround school.

About Harper-Archer Elementary School

  • Opened: August 2019
  • Enrollment: 698
  • Race/ethnicity of students: 93% black, 6% Hispanic
  • Number of employees: 115
  • Budget: $9.1 million
  • School mascot: Trailblazers

In August, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained permission to observe the daily triumphs and struggles at Harper-Archer. Over six months, a reporter and two photographers got an up-close look at the work of teachers and leaders, spoke with parents, and witnessed the early effort to boost student learning.

» RELATED CONTENT: Dealing with coronavirus

In March, the coronavirus shuttered Georgia’s school buildings. For Harper-Archer, the closure threatens to hinder academic progress and hurt the vulnerable children who depend on the school as a lifeline for services as well as learning. On the last day before the shutdown, Taylor sprang into action. She made sure parents knew where to get free meals, sent iPads home with some students and told teachers to keep in constant contact with families.

Still, she worried it would not be enough.

“We have worked really hard, and any kind of bump in the road like this can derail everything that we’ve planned for and hoped for regardless of how long it’s going to be,” she said.

She’s always understood the magnitude of the turnaround battle and also the urgency.

“I want us to be excellent today. I don’t care what the research says,” she said, weeks before the closure. “That keeps me up at night. How do we get better, quicker?”

She had seen the challenges as principal of Towns Elementary, which, along with Fain Elementary, closed at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. Both received failing grades on Georgia’s school report card. The majority of the schools’ attendance zones lies in the poorest 10% of Census tracts in the state.

The new school to serve those students opened in a renovated mid-century building on Collier Drive that had started out as a high school and then became a middle school.

It would now be Harper-Archer Elementary.

Hopeful leader, harsh realities

The principal had to be a dynamo, someone who could knit together two school communities with decades-long histories, hire and inspire staff, and develop a plan to help students catch up.

The big job keeps Taylor’s days full. On a blur of an autumn afternoon just before classes dismissed, she paused outside her office after a second staff meeting. She’d spent the day strategizing with teachers, observing classes, honoring the students of the month, answering emails and discussing the carpool lane and cheerleading squad. In between, she’d discreetly comforted a crying staff member and popped by the gym to say hi to hula-hooping kids. She did all of it while wearing striped socks for Wacky Sock Day.

Erick Metzger, a social and emotional learning coach, stopped to ask if she had eaten. No. He gave her a slice of pizza.

Choosing the right principal for this school, Carstarphen said, “really came down to the grit and the heart and the experience of the leader and being able to bring a staff along with them.”

Harper-Archer Elementary School Principal Dione Simon Taylor comforts a student who got hit by a ball during the monthly "Gym Jam," an event to reward students who have earned enough points to attend on Oct. 24, 2019. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

A strong leader might not guarantee success, but without one turnaround is very unlikely, said Kerstin Carlson Le Floch, managing researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

Taylor, 45, had won the district’s Principal of the Year award at Towns. Test scores rose, though the school remained significantly below state averages.

In Towns’ final year, 13.2% of third graders scored proficient or above on the state reading and writing test. That’s considered a critical academic marker, since students who haven’t mastered reading by that point are likely to struggle in later grades.

At Fain, the problem was even more dire. Only 3% of third-graders could read proficiently at the end of last year. That put Fain in the bottom three of more than 1,200 Georgia elementary schools.

About the principal

  • Name: Dione Simon Taylor
  • Age: 45
  • Hired by Atlanta Public Schools: 1999
  • First APS job: Math teacher at Mays High School
  • Other APS jobs: Mays High School assistant principal, Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy middle school principal, Towns Elementary School principal
  • APS principal of the year: 2017-2018
  • Education: Bachelor's degree in mathematics education and a master's degree in mathematics from Southern University; doctorate in school improvement from the University of West Georgia

Taylor came to Harper-Archer, where she enrolled her stepdaughter, with a plan and with hope.

Her new school would grapple with two harsh realities. In addition to being far behind academically, most students live in poverty.

The median household income in Harper-Archer’s overwhelmingly black neighborhoods is an estimated $27,175 a year. That’s less than half of the city and state’s medians, according to an AJC analysis of census data. By contrast, in the most affluent Atlanta elementary school attendance area, the mostly white northside Jackson Elementary, it’s $159,001, according to available data.

In the Harper-Archer zone, at least three-quarters of households where parents are raising their own children are likely headed by single parents, the AJC analysis found — an enormous number that puts it among the highest of all Atlanta elementary attendance areas.

Far fewer people who live in the Harper-Archer school zone have graduated from college than in the city overall and Georgia.

Some students are hungry or homeless. They may be angry or upset about things that happened at home or in the neighborhood. Those problems don’t disappear when they walk in the school doors and can lead to behavior issues in class.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to help meet those needs and educate children at the same time,” Taylor said. “We knew what we were up against. The question is ‘How do we change this?’”

Dione Simon Taylor, principal of Harper-Archer Elementary School, participates in a staff meeting on Oct. 24, 2019. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Seeking joy in the mission

One of Taylor’s first tasks was to hire her staff.

She had a $9.1 million budget, including more than $600,000 the district provided for turnaround work.

Taylor said it would be the people in the building that would make the biggest difference.

Most principals don’t build a staff from scratch, but Fain and Towns teachers had to apply to work at the new school. Taylor sought out strong teachers who could engage students, solve disagreements with parents and show data to prove they were effective instructors.

She also looked for something tougher to measure. She wanted joyful teachers willing to put in the work and found many staffers willing to do more than their job description.

“I cannot coach you into believing that our children can learn at high levels,” she said. “You can teach anywhere, but teaching at Harper-Archer is different, and I wanted people who wanted to be a part of that difference.”

Harper-Archer Elementary school fifth grade teacher Sheree Thomas goes over a practice Georgia Milestones Assessment prompt during class at Harper-Archer Elementary School in Atlanta, Wednesday, February 26, 2020. The Georgia Milestones Assessment System is a statewide test that evaluates fifth graders in the following subjects: English Language Arts, mathematics, science and social studies. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Harper-Archer enrolled 698 students as of Oct. 1, and employs 115 people. The typical lower-grade classroom has 20 to 22 students, while some upper grades have classes in the mid- to high- 20s. Many teachers have an aide.

Taylor hired three assistant principals, more than usual for an Atlanta elementary. The school’s three deans of culture focus on disciplinary issues and work with students, staff and parents to set behavior expectations. A team of instructional coaches help teachers craft and improve lessons, set goals and review data to see what works and what doesn’t.

After the first few months, some students had begun to adjust to the larger school. Fifth-grader Simora Gaines previously attended Fain, and said she most often sees her new principal in the morning, keeping students in order.

Simora said she’s seen fewer students fighting at Harper-Archer “because there’s a lot of adults around in the building” and in the hallways.

Harper-Archer extended the school day with a robust after-school program. Students take etiquette, chess and fencing lessons and do science experiments.

Harper-Archer Elementary school students learn the different stances in fencing while practicing the sport during an after school program in the school's gym, Wednesday, October 2, 2019.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“You are special. You are privileged,” the young fencers were told as they picked up practice swords that first week. Taylor watched from the bleachers. “So many things will come out of this,” she said. It’s about learning focus, not just a new sport.

That same day in a science classroom, a boy in goggles watched baking soda and vinegar erupt. “My hands smell like chips now,” he said.

The school received hundreds of applications for the free after-school program, but this year’s budget only covered about 80 kids. They eat a snack and dinner and get a ride home at 5 p.m.

‘A little bit more love’

Providing extra support to help students and families is a key part of the district’s overall turnaround strategy. At Harper-Archer, a social worker provides resources for housing, food and clothing. Two school counselors offer students individual and small group counseling. A mental health nonprofit provides therapy and crisis services.

Early in the year, Harper-Archer doubled as a food pantry site, giving away boxes full of cereal bars, macaroni and cheese, condensed milk, potatoes and apples. The school provides uniforms and personal hygiene items to needy students, and there’s even a washer and dryer used sometimes to launder students’ clothes. A mobile medical clinic that regularly visits 10 needy Atlanta schools is often parked outside the front door to treat students with asthma, and a dental van also stops by.

Providing basic essentials, such as hot meals for students, is also part of Harper-Archer’s mission. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com  

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Getting parents involved in their children’s academic success would be critical, but also tough since many parents are stretched thin. Some work multiple jobs, have children in different schools or don’t know how to help their child with school work.

The school has a parent liaison to make connections, and staff also visit surrounding neighborhoods to seek out parents.

Harper-Archer, like other Atlanta schools, focuses on social and emotional learning. Students learn decision-making skills, how to manage their emotions and to be caring.

At a September event for grandparents, Metzger explained the approach. He asked each grandparent to introduce themselves by naming a food they like that begins with the same letter as their name.

“My name is Erick, and I love eclairs,” he began.

Despite some initial shyness, the game took off. Kimberly liked kiwis, Henry liked honey.

After each grandparent had a chance to share, Metzger asked who remembered the most food pairings. Several rattled off a long list.

“How many minutes did it take us to feel like it mattered? Not very many, did it?” Metzger said. “We want the kids to know that they belong.”

Taylor wants to lead with love. Her reason? “I was loved as a child. I was loved by my teachers. I was loved by my parents.”

She’s quick to laugh, generous with hugs. She calls her students sweet angels and superstars. After school, she rides along on a bus full of students who earned a reputation of being “very energized.”

“They just need a little bit more love, and they need my love on the bus,” she said.

‘Most meaningful work’

More people are watching what happens at Harper-Archer than just those who work and learn there.

The Georgia Department of Education’s school improvement team is monitoring efforts. Because Fain had been among the state’s lowest performing, high-poverty schools, Harper-Archer is now one of 104 schools flagged for the state’s most intensive support.

The school received $150,000 from the state and is assigned a school effectiveness specialist. Devonne Harper meets weekly with Taylor and coaches her on leadership and teaching practices.

Opening a new school that’s also designated for turnaround is an extra challenge.

“I do see that they’re on the right track, and I tell her constantly when we talk: ‘I cannot wait to see how things are this time next year,’ ” Harper said.

In November, Taylor stood alongside school board member Erika Mitchell, Carstarphen and other officials as they cut a shiny blue ribbon to celebrate the school’s opening. The moment marked a fresh start built from a rich legacy, Taylor told the applauding crowd. She tipped her head back and laughed when the ribbon fell.

Taylor led a smooth transition, Mitchell said as the second semester got underway in January. Mitchell joined the board after the decision to close Fain and Towns, which drew neighborhood opposition. Residents in her westside district want to make sure that kids are getting the resources they need.

School isn’t just a place to learn, Mitchell said. It’s a safe haven. She and others say APS needs to evaluate its turnaround plan and carefully track the results.

First-year teacher Jocelyn Davis wanted to work with students who don’t have the same advantages as her son.

A few years ago, she quit her job with the American Cancer Society where during a 16-year career she’d advanced to the level of managing director. Her son was struggling a bit academically, and Davis, ready for a change, decided to stay home and help him catch up.

She is quick to acknowledge the privilege of her position: “I was living in my little bubble.”

Her family lived in East Cobb. Her child went to a well-regarded public elementary school where parents and supporters give more than $150,000 annually to a foundation that pays for additional instructors, iPads, teacher training and science labs.

Davis, who had entered the U.S. Army after high school, decided to go back to college and become a teacher.

“I just started looking at it through his journey and thinking that it was really unfair that he had so many people in his court fighting for him and that that wasn’t true for kids who lived 20 minutes away,” she said.

Teaching is the hardest job she’s ever had. Nothing prepared her for how helpless she’d feel when she called to find out why a child wasn’t in school and learned the family was homeless. She realized quickly that she had to unpack all of the emotional baggage that students brought to her classroom because they couldn’t learn if they weren’t happy.

“I did not anticipate leaving every single day feeling completely exhausted, but it’s also the most meaningful work I’ve ever done,” Davis said, as she sat in her windowless classroom surrounded by child-sized furniture.

Harper-Archer Elementary School third grader Mahogany Love (right) is leading the pack as she and her peers participate in a race during an after school program in the school's gym, Wednesday, October 2, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

When the work gets overwhelming — on days when Taylor says “you can cry for sadness as opposed to joy” — the team remembers why they do it.

At a teacher meeting on a busy October morning, instructional coach Justin Browning planned to review reading strategies, but first he asked everyone to take three deep breaths. Then, they read an inspirational passage together out loud.

The message was about showing up and doing the work, no matter what anyone says. It was about grit and hope.

Everyone paused to reflect.

“We have to just believe that what we feel like is impossible is going to happen,” Browning said.

Taylor reminded the teachers that hope is free. Hope can carry them through.

“It gets heavy, and it gets hard, and it seems impossible, and you don’t want to get out of bed,” she told her teachers. “Being hopeful about the future and about what this could be for our kids is what stuck out to me today. Just maintaining hope. We can do this work.”

Harper-Archer will need committed teachers and leaders, engaged parents and focused strategies to pull off the turnaround Taylor wants to see.

She glimpsed what’s possible on an evening in late February as a couple hundred students, parents and staffers gathered for a Black History Month celebration. Taylor’s T-shirt announced the night’s theme: “What will you be the first to do?”

She took a front-row seat in the gym of the school she launched six months earlier. She watched as students sang and danced, recited poetry and performed a play. At the end, she took the microphone.

“I am so proud,” she said, stretching out each syllable, voice quivering, the crowd cheering. “This is what we planned for.”

Most days there is no spotlight, no gym full of clapping parents, no costumed kids commanding a stage. In recent weeks, the building emptied as the virus swept the nation. Each morning, teachers clocked in from home.

There’s still the work. And hope.

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Our journalists

Vanessa McCray is an education reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She moved to Georgia in 2017 to join the AJC's education team and cover Atlanta Public Schools. Previously, she wrote about K-12 schools, colleges and universities for The Blade newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. She worked for more than a decade at newspapers in her home state of Michigan.

Bob Andres has been an AJC staff member since 1998. A native San Franciscan, he also worked as a photographer and photo editor for newspapers in California and Florida. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Bob has also worked as the AJC's metro photo editor, and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.

Alyssa Pointer has been an AJC staff member since 2017. She spent time documenting communities in Wisconsin, Kentucky and Illinois before relocating to her home state of Georgia. Pointer spares no effort when tasked with creating impactful images of the people and places within their communities. Alyssa is a proud graduate of Western Kentucky University.

Jim Pelfrey has been with the AJC 12 years, the last six as an editor working mostly on education stories. He had worked as a reporter or editor on newspapers in Virginia, Washington state and Tennessee before coming to Georgia.

Todd C. Duncan is the senior editor for the AJC's Local and Education team and has been an editor here for more than 27 years. Prior to coming to Atlanta, Todd was a reporter with The Advocate in Stamford, Conn. A graduate of the City University of New York, Todd also produces the AJC Classic Cars video series, and he has taught journalism at Clark Atlanta and Georgia State universities.

Jennifer Peebles and Nick Thieme are newsroom data specialists.