Educating about Atlanta’s Education Problems

Courtney English

APS School Board member Courtney English

Georgia’s academic record was a selling point for state politicians, until recently. With an 80.9% graduation rate Georgia was a national standard for education, a budding cosmopolitan of the south, and, perhaps most notably, a reason for companies to do business in Georgia.

The success of Georgia’s education system was called into question three years ago when potentially the largest cheating scandal in American history rocked the Atlanta Public School system. After a long-term investigation it was found that at least 172 teachers and principals in 44 Atlanta Public Schools cheated to raise student scores on high-stakes standardized tests, thus cheating the system and the students. This dishonesty skewed the scores of thousands of students and in turn misrepresenting the success of the students, administrators, and APS in general.

The APS system continues to suffer from the after-effects of the embarrassing controversy. On June 14, a teacher was cleared of the district’s charges of cheating for the first time, and there are many teachers still awaiting their own hearings. According to Courtney English, At-Large Member of Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education and an employee at Child First USA, the board is essentially working on “rebuilding APS from the ground up.”

Georgia’s B-average academic record was blighted once again this past April, when a new federally mandated formula made Georgia revise their stellar 80% graduation rate. This formula, which will make all states more consistent in their reporting of graduation numbers, does not count students as graduates if they took over four years to complete high school, among other changes. The new estimates sent Georgia’s graduation rate plummeting nearly 13 percentage points to a weak 67.4%, meaning that Georgia now trails most of its regional neighbors and now ranks 48th in the country for education.

The statistics are bleak, especially when considering how Atlanta Public Schools play into the mix. According to English, nearly 5,000 students drop out of Atlanta Public Schools each year. In fact, at a low 52%, Atlanta Public Schools hold the second lowest graduation rate among all Georgia school districts. Twenty schools in metro Atlanta failed to graduate even half of their students. Of course, as with all statistics, these should be taken with a grain of salt; with the new calculation, if a child withdraws from school on Friday but then returns the following Monday, he is still counted as a dropout.

Of course, the reason for this blog is not to depress Atlanta residents or ward parents away from sending their students to Atlanta Public Schools. Rather, these facts are being shared to incite a change.  There is clearly a problem with our education system, one that can only be repaired by the dedication and support of teachers, students, administrators, APS Board members, and community groups and members. At Child First USA, our goal is to take a seemingly broken school system and help fix it. By specifically helping those most at-risk of dropping out, African American and Latino males, we are hoping to do our part in reversing the decline of the Atlanta Public School system. With your support, we believe we can rightfully and truthfully return the graduation rate of Atlanta Public Schools to 80.9% — or higher.

Intern Spotlight: Derrick Pittman, Case Manager

If there is such a thing as an ideal route to public service, Derrick Pittman did not take it. Already an experienced loss prevention specialist, Pittman became interested in making a difference in the community while taking college courses at the age of 28.

“[What] inspired me to pursue this field was the sight of college students struggling in certain classes. Somewhere on their journey, [students] missed some important points that would have made their travel a lot easier. Children are our future and it is important to help lay the proper foundation for him or her to follow,” Pittman said.

Wanting to help struggling students both in college and high school, Pittman found a suitor for his ambitions and services at Child First USA.

“What attracted me to Child First was the sincerity of helping children. There are many nonprofit organizations out there that tailor to the recovery of the unfortunate situations of children. However, this is the first organization that I have been a part of that focuses on annual support for students in the academic, emotional, and physical realms,” explained Pittman.

Pittman has taken on the internship role of “Case Manager,” meaning he is in charge of coordinating Child First’s various tutoring and mentoring services. Working with his mentorship team, Pittman has dedicated himself to intellectually and emotionally aiding students attending Atlanta Public Schools.

“What I hope to accomplish with the students is building self-esteem. These students have experienced a lot in their lives and building that confidence and motivation will allow them to tear down some of the bricks that continuously hold them back. I also want to inspire them to want more out of life,” Pittman added.

As a mentor, tutor, student, father, and friend, Pittman believes that one his greatest offers is commonality.

“I can relate to the students and can understand (to some degree) his or her struggles. My approach is to be encouraging, patient, and always ready and willing to listen. Relationships take time to build. Letting the law of nature run its course in time will lead to forming a rapport,” Pittman continued.

A rapport has already formed amongst Pittman and his team of fellow dedicated interns at Child First. “It is good to see a group of inspired, intelligent, and ambitious students together without any quarrels or egos,” said Pittman.

The 35-year-old Pittman calls the births of his children (twin daughters, 12, and a son, 7) and graduating from college his proudest moments. Asked to describe himself in a word, Pittman responded with “perceptive.”

With individuals like Derrick on the team, Child First USA’s ceiling appears limitless. Check back in a week for our next Intern Spotlight.

Child First Internship: More Than Just Fetching Coffee

Typically, interns are thought to be the lowest form of entry level employee. The boss needs coffee? The intern goes to Starbucks. The office manager needs copies? The intern becomes a Xerox expert. A partner’s dry cleaning is ready for pickup? The intern knows the route to the cleaners.

Sounds a little unfair, right? Such has been the case since internships became popular some fifty years ago. Recent or soon-to-be college graduates would bide time at reputable companies in order to pad their resumes, and, if they were lucky, find a permanent opportunity at the company.

At Child First USA, though, that is not the case. In fact, the backbone of the organization’s efforts with the youth of the Atlanta Public School system rests in the hands of those who proudly call themselves “interns”. The 30-member internship group at Child First boasts a diverse group of individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 37, with representation from five continents. The team, which was selected from nearly 200 applicants, melds together students from a wide array of disciplines, ranging from Business to English. The group came together for the first time earlier this week to begin tackling a summer full of goals aimed at the educational and personal development of Atlanta’s youth.

The initial orientation introduced the incoming staff to the Child First leadership. Much like the intern population, the organization’s management is a diverse and multi-talented one. Take a trio of young educators, mix in a financial mastermind with experience in big business, sprinkle with an up-and-comer in the Atlanta school board scene, and top with a veteran of success in student development and educational attainment, and you get an idea of the program’s mentors. LaSheka Beaman, Ted Doukakos, and Brentia Caldwell led the development of the tutors and case managers. Marcus Wright, the Chief Operational Officer, acts as the main liaison between the many groups and their associated tasks. Atlanta Public School Board member Courtney English and Chief Executive Officer Sterling Hudson III round out the Child First USA team.

The group was then shown Oprah Winfrey’s commencement speech at Spelman College. Winfrey, whose popularity allowed the drop of her last name long ago, outlined her three-step plan to a successful life. Oprah explained that before making a way for yourself in life, you must understand who you are and what you want to become. She went on to emphasize the importance of service in life,
paralleling the significance of service to success. Finally, Oprah explained how everyone should strive to do the right thing. “Excellence should be your brand,” Winfrey stressed.

As the orientation moved into the second day, Wright outlined the multitude of roles for the incoming interns to fill. From mentorship to case management, tutoring to administrative duties, a full gamut of planning was laid out for the interns. As the discussions progressed, teams for the variety of tasks formed.

Understanding the school-to-prison pipeline, a report compiled by the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, encompassed much of the orientation’s third day. Doukakos and Caldwell brought a number of statistics to light, emphasizing how the K16 reality has turned upside down. Staggering numbers, such as the fact that as many as 24,000 Atlanta students will dropout by 2016, shed light on the significance of the interns’ work this summer.

Thursday marked the final day of week one. Beaman and Caldwell led the team through a variety of drills/ activities that helped show the interns the importance of support and communication. The team then split into its task-oriented groups for further planning.

Orientation continues Monday, with a focus on each group’s individual focuses. Excitement abounds as discussions continue on how the team will make a difference. There is no fetching coffee here; instead, the interns truly manifest Child First’s motto: “We are the future.”

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Interns brainstorming in their respective teams.

Welcome to Child First USA’s Blog!

Hello everyone, and welcome to Child First USA’s blog. We cannot thank you enough for supporting Child First’s mission, and we hope that you will continue to educate yourself and spread the word about the amazing work that Child First is doing for at-risk high school students in Atlanta.

This blog will serve as a vehicle to communicate anything and everything related to Child First. From tutoring tips to our students’ personal stories, we hope that you find our blog informative, enriching, and meaningful.

If you would like us to cover a specific topic, please write about it in the “Comments” section. Also, do not forget to follow us on Twitter (@child_first) and “like” us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ChildFirstUSA).

Thank you again for your support and please check back soon for updated blog posts.