Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Dr. Lisa Herring sat down with The Atlanta Voice to discuss her first full year on the job while managing a global pandemic for a district with over 50 thousand students.

Herring, who first moved to Atlanta to attend Spelman College in the early 90s, said she felt like she was coming home when she came back to Atlanta for this position.

“I feel grateful to have been selected to serve in Atlanta as the superintendent,” Herring told The Atlanta Voice.

In a normal year, Herring said she would’ve spent a lot more time doing face-to-face meetings in classrooms, community centers and places of worship to introduce herself to the community. She said it’s important as a district leader to cultivate relationships that build public trust.

“We’ve spent the last several months defining the vision of this administration which is grounded in what we call our APS Five, and a part of that is a focus in whole child wellness,” said Herring.

At the start of Dr. Herring’s administration, the district began to implement universal screeners at the academic and social-emotional level to establish a baseline from which to build. APS then began targeted interventions to address the district’s most vulnerable students in the fall of 2020 before the school buildings opened back up.

“That’s important to note because that was an effort,” Herring said.

In the summer of 2021, the district launched the Summer Academic Recovery Academy, where 11,000 students had class five days a week for four weeks in June to address the learning loss that happened due to the pandemic.

“Those same students entered into this school year with additional areas of focus around intervention and support,” Herring added. Noting that the students had the extra support built into their school day schedule.

Academic performance was one component of assessing a student’s potential needs but the district also looked for students who weren’t connecting virtually or had low attendance.

“We received recommendations from teachers, parents and students around mental health wellness,” said Herring. “That targeted focus allowed for us to provide tiered interventions and support to each of the families, or the students specifically by safely bringing them back into the building in small numbers.”

At the start of 2021, APS reopened school buildings for the first time since the pandemic began. Just under 40 percent of families opted-in to in-person instruction at that time. In February the district began offering voluntary surveillance testing for staff and students.

This fall the district mandated that all employees participate in surveillance testing twice a week. Dr. Herring credits mitigation strategies with preventing the district from having to pivot an entire school to virtual learning due to an outbreak of coronavirus.

“We have had classrooms, but not as many as we thought,” Herring noted. “I think it’s one of our best decisions we’ve made to date.”

When it comes to mandating the vaccine for employees, Herring said that while it is not off the table, the district is not currently planning to require vaccination against COVID-19.

“The vast majority of our workforce is vaccinated,” said Herring. She cited a survey that was answered by 84 percent of employees where over 80 percent said they had received the vaccine.

While the pandemic has had a major impact on Herring’s day-to-day job she is always mindful of how a student’s time in APS will impact their life after graduation. One opportunity that the district has to do this is through the Dual Enrollment program

Through dual enrollment, an APS high schooler can take classes at a local state school to earn college credits and potentially complete an associate’s degree.

Herring said that dual enrollment can not only allow a student to enter college with credits under their belt but also allows students to explore their major and decide if they want to change their course.

“It is an opportunity to ensure that high school students have access to rigor, college readiness, college preparation and most importantly college completion,” said Herring.

According to 2019 data from the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute participation in dual enrollment is only 6.8 percent in metro Atlanta schools compared with 19.7 percent in rural Georgia schools.

While Black and Latino students are underrepresented in the program, data from the last few years show a growing number are participating in dual enrollment.

This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Atlanta Voice through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.

Madeline Thigpen is an education reporter and Report for America Corps Member. She joined the Atlanta Voice in 2021. At the Voice she covers K-12 education for the Atlanta metro region and higher education....