Building Momentum at Hollis Innovation Academy
By Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum
The strength of a community is often measured by the quality of its public schools. Ideally, the local school is not only characterized by its academic excellence as an educational launching pad for future opportunities, but it is also a resource hub for children and their families serving as a community anchor and point of connection for its surrounding neighborhoods. The Michael R. Hollis Innovation Academy is building momentum toward becoming just that kind of school for the Westside neighborhoods it serves: English Avenue and Vine City.
Hollis Innovation Academy opened on August 3, 2016 under the leadership of its principal, Dr. Diamond Jack Ford, initially servicing PK-5 students, adding a grade level each year until the school reaches 8th grade (currently it is PK-7). Because education (from cradle to career) is one of the four impact areas of the Westside Future Fund (WFF), a partnership with the Atlanta Public Schools in support of Hollis was a natural and necessary expression of the WFF mission to help the Westside revitalize and grow. As part of the WFF partnership, two members of the WFF Board – Sylvia Russell and I – serve as members of the Hollis school governing body (known as the GO Team) along with the principal, several Hollis parents, and staff and community representatives.
With the generous support of organizations such as SunTrust, The Coca-Cola Foundation, NCR, AT&T, PwC Charitable Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente, WFF, to date, has raised more than $4.6 million in support of Hollis.
These investments have allowed Dr. Ford to increase instructional supports by adding an additional teacher or paraprofessional to each classroom, expand social and emotional supports for children in crisis, and provide after-school and summer academic enrichment opportunities for children who would not otherwise have them. In addition, an on-site health clinic on the first floor of the three-story building, made possible in large measure by The Chick-fil-A Foundation, is available to community residents as well as to Hollis students and their families. The school coordinates a food pantry as well, an important resource in a school that currently serves a community where the median annual family income is less than $25,000.
A team from the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, funded as part of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s gift in support of Hollis, is available to help Hollis families, many of whom are renters, defend against illegal evictions, hopefully making it easier for students to remain in school without the disruption of a loss of housing. Attending to safety, security and other basic survival needs in the school context sets an important foundation for learning, a foundation often taken for granted in more affluent communities.
What every successful school provides, regardless of the income of its students, is an environment of high expectations, one characterized by a stimulating and challenging curriculum and a motivated team of educators with an enduring belief in the potential of their students. Now starting its third year of operation, increasingly Hollis has those ingredients in place. Working in close partnership with Georgia Tech and EL Education for curricular support, whose engagement was also supported through partial funding from the Blank Foundation, Hollis is described as an “EL Education Expeditionary STEM School.” What does that mean? EL stands for Expeditionary Learning. It is a pedagogical approach designed to harness children’s inherent capacities in the service of “developing deep thinkers, lifelong learners, compassionate community members, and creative future leaders.”
At Hollis, the Expeditionary Learning approach is combined with a STEM-focused curriculum, resulting in “Expeditionary STEM,” described by Dr. Ford as “a rigorous, multi-disciplinary, standards-based approach to learning where students use STEM as a tool to grapple with solutions to real-world problems relevant to the community.” She says, “The connection between EL Education and STEM is a perfect match. Our Expeditionary STEM Curriculum Design capitalizes on the connections between literacy, mathematics, science, engineering, and technology. This approach avoids disconnected and isolated experiences for students, giving them an experiential education.”
These academic expectations are matched with social expectations, communicated through the Six Habits of Hollis, visibly on display in classrooms and clearly understood by its students. They are character habits needed for a life of success and effective citizenship in a healthy community: collaboration, communication, creativity, empathy, perseverance and self-discipline.
Is it working? How would we know? Can we see the enthusiasm for learning in the eyes of eager children? Can we hear the sound of children engaged in purposeful, hands-on problem-solving in classrooms as we pass by? Those are certainly positive indicators. We could also point to test scores as measures of school achievement. That data is moving in the right direction, slowly but surely.
Many students arrived at Hollis in 2016 well behind their APS peers and those from across the state of Georgia. At Bethune Elementary, the APS school (now closed) that most of the Hollis students attended prior to the opening of Hollis, test scores were very low. Among Bethune 3rd graders, the end-of-grade test results in 2016 revealed that only 6% of the test-takers were proficient or above in English Language Arts (ELA) and only 8% were proficient or above in Mathematics. Fast forward two years, in Spring 2018, the proficiency scores of the 5th graders at Hollis are nearly three times higher (17%) in ELA and three times higher (24%) in Mathematics than those 2016 results.
Because the mobility rate – how many students move in and out of the school before the end of the school year – is quite high (60%), it is difficult to make direct comparisons from one year to the next. The school population is in constant flux, and not all the 5th graders in 2018 were part of the 3rd grade cohort at Bethune in 2016. Even so, based on the 2018 test results, there is schoolwide evidence that Hollis is improving, and outperforming other schools with similar student demographics.
Are the students where we want them to be overall? Not yet. But expectations are high, the curriculum is challenging, the educators are motivated, and children are learning. With these ingredients in place, momentum is building! WFF is proud to be part of that process.
Beverly Daniel Tatum is President Emerita of Spelman College and vice chair of the Westside Future Fund Board.