Organizational Collaboration not Fragmentation Will Help Atlanta Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools (APS) relies heavily on human and financial resources from non-profit organizations to support the system in educating Atlanta’s youth. Fragmentation of Georgia’s non-profit sector has diluted the pool of resources so sorely needed by APS, and as a result, those who would benefit the most – children and families – end up not receiving the support they need.

Rendell Jackson, Assistant Director of Athletics, Atlanta Public Schools; David Jernigan, Atlanta Public School Deputy Superintendent; Isaiah Jimerson, L.E.A.D. Ambassador, Benjamin E. Mays High School c/o 2019. Isaiah donated $1,000 to his middle school alma mater Jean Childs Young as the recipient of the APIVEO Player of the Month.

Georgia’s fragmented non-profit sector exists, in part, because organizations that focus on the same issues – poverty, for instance – are unwilling to work together for the betterment of who they wish to serve. These organizations may understand the various causes and effects of poverty, but they each have their own ideas about how to deal with it – sometimes to the detriment of those they are looking to serve. In my experience, when the leadership of an organization focuses on their own interests instead of the needs of the ones they are trying to help, then service or charity becomes patronizing and toxic. There is a big difference in providing people what they need as opposed to what one thinks they need and wants them to have. (A great read on this topic is a book called Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton.)

As an APS partner, L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) provides resources that empower inner-city black males to create a sustainable life for themselves for the betterment of their communities. We work, and have worked, with organizations that understand what it means to serve and those that just don’t get it. For instance, in 2010, we started working with another non-profit organization who admired the work that we were doing and wanted to become involved in APS. We thought we could work together towards a positive outcome for APS, its students and families. As we began to cultivate a relationship with this organization, I started seeing signs of fundamental differences in how our organizations sought to serve. One day it became very clear at a weekend youth baseball game.

L.E.A.D. invited the other organization’s members to come out to a Saturday baseball game in the fall of 2010, to show support for our players and witness the partnership in action. When my family showed up at the field, we saw a table piled high with used clothes. After wading through several disgusted stares from our families, we found out that the items were intended for them. Needless to say, I was incensed. Neither our leadership nor our families ever indicated a need for clothing, used or otherwise, and no one from the other organization ever asked us if this was a need we needed to fill. This action showed a lack of organizational collaboration and a lack of understanding of what it means to serve in such a way that others maintain their dignity. Although they may have had good intentions, their actions ended up sending the wrong message to our families who are looking for empowerment and not hand-outs.

Lesson learned: Many want to serve in the inner city of Atlanta, but few know how to do it in such a way that those being served are given the opportunity to maintain their dignity.

We’ve also had times when we’ve had to admit that some of our own programs weren’t working. Just this past year, we had to humble ourselves and realize that the education piece of our programming wasn’t working the way it needed to in order for our Ambassadors to improve academically. Since math is an area where most students struggle, we decided to implement a math camp as part of our summer programming. I can only describe the two years we did this as a “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” experience. There were a few good outcomes of the pilot, but not enough to justify keeping this aspect of our programming in house. That’s why this year, we partnered with Odyssey Atlanta; an educational non-profit organization that serves students in grades 1st-12th from economically disadvantaged communities. Odyssey’s academic enrichment program focuses on students with unmet potential, preparing them for high school graduation and supporting them on their path to college. It made absolutely no sense for L.E.A.D. to provide a math camp, or any other kind of academic offering, when Odyssey has an established track record of excellence in this area.

The lack of mutual support among Atlanta organizations has not always been the case. I remember like it was yesterday, as a Grove Park Elementary School student in the early 80’s. Dr. Alonzo Crim was the Superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools back then. In fact, in 1973, he became ”the first Black Superintendent of schools in a major city in the South”. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who was the President of the Atlanta Board of Education at the time, had recommended him for the position.

Dr. Crim began an initiative that he called a “Community of Believers” – a network that consisted of Atlanta organizations and individuals who believed in the potential of the City’s children and who were willing to invest time and money into that potential. When Dr. Crim became superintendent in 1973, he promised to build a school system ”where students would know that people cared about them” and would help them achieve.

Under Dr. Crim’s leadership, students’ performance levels in basic skills rose to above the national average, attendance increased significantly to over 92%, and the graduation rate rose to more than 70% (Page, 2000). He was the longest tenured African-American superintendent in the nation by 1986. Dr. Crim’s legacy is captured and continued at the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence at Georgia State University

I look forward to a time when we can get back to a collective focus among Atlanta’s organizations, and that it rivals that of Dr. Crim’s Community of Believers. I also look forward to the time when, through a concerted, authentic effort, Atlanta Public Schools become the school of choice for Atlantans, and there will be no need for voucher programs. In order to break the cycle of poverty, we must come together with collective influence and understand that new voices with proven track records deserve a seat at the table.

C.J. Stewart speaking to United States Senator David Perdue about L.E.A.D. at U.S. Military Academy Day 2015