On her first day of school in August, also her first as Atlanta Public Schools superintendent, Lisa Herring visited the David T. Howard School in Old Fourth Ward, where Martin Luther King Jr., Walt Frazier, and Vernon Jordan attended elementary school. APS had just invested more than $50 million to renovate the facility. By the end of the same day, she was helping hand out free groceries to parents of students in need. A Macon native and Spelman College graduate, Herring left her job leading Birmingham, Alabama schools and “ended up where she started” in Atlanta, where she succeeds Meria Carstarphen, the energetic superintendent whose contract was not renewed late last year, despite politicking and lobbying efforts by supporters such as Shirley Franklin and John Lewis. It’s hard enough starting a new job. Try doing it during a pandemic.
The first day of classes of this new school year was completely online. How did it go?
After visiting David T. Howard, I virtually “dropped by” a class taking introductory Chinese. The students were highly engaged, and one asked a very good clarifying question, [acknowledging] she felt overwhelmed. With online learning, the older they are, the more finesse they have with navigating the technology. The students can express themselves. They even shared their fears. So did some of the teachers. But there’s also this camaraderie and this authentic sense of We’re in this together. I also “popped into” a kindergarten. I thought, Woo, yeah, this is kindergarten. It tugs at your head and your heart at the same time. Even though I was involved as far back as 2008 in developing “anywhere, anytime” learning environments, I never thought one day it would be the sole form of teacher-student interaction. After that, I got an email from Zoom saying there was a nationwide outage. I almost threw that phone out the window [laughs]. But I was in constant communication with the principals, supervisors, staff, and the board. We made it.
Roughly 63 percent of third graders in APS aren’t proficient in English/Language Arts. How do you change that?
We need the right interventions, the right practices executed with fidelity, the right teacher professional development, and, to be quite honest, [for] principals as well. We’ve got to get some individuals who are certified in the science of reading, not just generalists in early education. The other part: We’re trying to do that in a pandemic. I can’t stand over young Lisa’s shoulder or have a high level of assurance that a virtual assessment of her reading skills is being done with fidelity. On top of summer learning loss, now we have Covid learning loss. How do we make up months of this type of disruption?
City government and the school system, though independent of each other, have to be partners. What advice did Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms give you?
The educators and leaders who’ve been here longer than both [the mayor and me] have a voice. They have raised their hands and lifted their heads. [We] have to respect and honor that. And I’ve tried to be responsive and respectful of that insight, and it’s benefited me as a result. I get requests from all pockets of the community that they want to talk with the superintendent, they want to have a sense of where I’m going. If I want to have a sense of where I’d like to take us, I need to honor a bit of what’s been behind us.
Your first day seemed like a crash course in the disparities facing APS, viewed through the pandemic. Your day ended with a grocery giveaway. What are your plans on using APS to address those issues? Or can you?
Certainly, I think about where our disparities and our inequities are. The work that is in front of me as the new superintendent is vividly clear. Upon arrival, I created a chief equity and social justice officer position—someone who can keep all of us accountable, including me.
At town hall meetings, one parent asks about International Baccalaureate, and the next asks where the grocery giveaway is. How do we balance those needs? The pandemic has pushed these inequities in front of us. [In some circumstances,] families may have hired an instruction facilitator with other neighbors to help manage their children’s online learning. [In other situations,] there could be what I also saw in a virtual classroom: a kindergartner flipping back and forth across the bed. When I interviewed with the board, we discussed the five-year strategic plan around equity. As a board member said to me: “We need you to be bold.” And I said I will.
Equity includes [looking at our curriculum]. Maybe we omitted many cultures [in our history classes]. Those are courageous conversations. Social justice has become, just like this pandemic, a question of life and death. Lives are being lost. What role does public education play? Any superintendent could argue that this isn’t the thing we need to be talking about right now. Quite the contrary: I believe this is exactly what we need to be talking about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
This article appears in our November 2020 issue.