New Atlanta Public Schools’ Superintendent Lisa Herring has quickly become a familiar face to parents and students, despite only being on the job – officially – since July 1. Herring was the face of a series of online information sessions and town halls over the summer as the district wrestled with the choice of holding in-person or virtual classes with COVID-19 cases on the rise.

Stepping into a high-profile new role during a raging pandemic while the country also reckoned with racial injustice could have easily been a baptism by fire, but Herring has also seen opportunities for better education and equity emerge from the chaos.

Superintendent Lisa Herring. (Special)

The decision to continuing with virtual learning became clear as the district looked at the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in the community, Herring said. “I know parents and students want to be back in the classroom, because I agree that virtual learning is not a substitute for in-person learning,” Herring said. “But it’s a decision we had to make for health and safety purposes.”

Herring said she had been “grieving” not being able to meet more of the staff and teachers in person as social distancing and Zoom meetings have become the norm, and would sorely miss visiting schools to meet students on opening day.

Still, the new superintendent said there were abundant resources for parents and students online to ease into the academic year from home.

“We’ve had town halls for every grade level, and those have been recorded so parents can go back and refer to them for information. We’ve created a new website (atlantapublicschools.us/backtoschool) to access all the information on technology, meals, and we’ll have an overview of the educational platform looks like for each grade level.”

With APS students facing at least nine weeks of learning at home, one of Herring’s top priorities has been making sure every student has access to a laptop, iPad, and internet. The Atlanta Board of Education’s Aug. 3 vote to spend $24.6 million over five years to lease devices for 40,000 students – making sure every APS student has one – was a crucial step toward remedying disparities in education.

Herring said a survey sent to parents received 20,000 responses, with more than 50% of those stating their child needed a device to begin or continue virtual learning.

“There continues to be a need, but we’re in a solid place,” Herring said, directing parents who still need a device or individuals or organizations that would like to donate devices to atlantapublicschools.us/getourkidsconnected.

Since many children rely on breakfast and lunch for their daily nutrition, Herring said the food distribution program started last spring would continue. Five breakfasts and five lunches per week will be made available for each student, and parents must order each week via the APS website. Herring said she hopes that community partners will step in to fill the gap of evening and weekend meals for students.

When classes do resume, Herring said all of APS’s brick and mortar facilities are ready with plans for social distancing in place. Masks will be required for students and teachers.

Herring has also been busy behind the scenes working with the school board to reinstate positions eliminated by her predecessor, along with new hires the superintendent said will be essential to APS’s growth.

Herring received board approval to reinstate four positions including chief of schools, chief of staff, chief academic officer, and senior administrative manager. Herring also got approval to bring colleagues from her previous appointment as superintendent of Birmingham, Alabama’s public schools to fill two of those positions.

Jarod Bishop, who served as Herring’s executive coordinator of policy governance and external affairs, will take the APS chief of staff position, while Anita Williams, who served as instructional superintendent in Birmingham, will become APS’s new chief of schools.

Perhaps the most significant new leadership position will be the Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer, which will be filled after a nationwide search. Herring described the position as a “monumental” step forward for the school district and said she was “super excited” to get board approval for what she believes is the first position of its kind in the region – maybe the country.

“Atlanta is the most unequal city in our nation due to income inequality,” Herring said.  “White students are 4.5 grade levels ahead of their black peers.”

Herring also noted that full-time staff – including paraprofessionals, clerks, custodians, and food staff – would get a pay increase to $15 per hour.

On a personal note, Herring said her return to Atlanta has been a welcoming one despite all the challenges. She said parents have started to recognize her in the supermarket and she’s had quite few conversations about the new school year and those just stopping to welcome her back to the city where her career began.

The Macon native and Spelman College graduate completed her observational field work at APS’s Therrell High School. During her time at Spelman, Herring also volunteered and worked at Warren Memorial Boys and Girls Club of Atlanta. She is a 2008 graduate of Leadership Georgia and spent several years as a school counselor and assistant director of student support services in DeKalb County with a similar role in Bibb County.

“I’m home,” Herring said with delight. “I wake up every morning and I am grateful to be here.”

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is Editor of Atlanta Intown. He can be reached at collin@atlantaintownpaper.com.