BeltLine Connections Series: A Community of Shared Experiences
The same people working behind the scenes to bring the Atlanta BeltLine project to life are also working in communities across Atlanta – sometimes in unexpected ways – to be good neighbors and make the project as inclusive as possible. This post is the first in a new series called BeltLine Connections, which will feature timely stories of service by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. staff that highlight important issues facing Atlanta communities.
Atlanta’s schools are an integral part of the Atlanta BeltLine, as their students represent the diverse local communities who will inherit and shape the project in the years to come. Last school year, Atlanta Public Schools served nearly 52,000 students in 89 schools across the city. One in four of these schools are within the BeltLine Planning Area, a roughly half-mile zone on either side of the Atlanta BeltLine corridor that encompasses everything within walking distance of mainline trails and transit.
These schools influence the project at the neighborhood-level through the subarea master planning process, guiding decision-making about where to enhance parks and green spaces, where to focus most on pedestrian safety, and where to encourage mixed-income housing so that kids can safely walk to school. While this kind of long-range strategic planning is important, the immediate experiences of Atlanta school children today – in 2019 – are also critical to the future success of a BeltLine that is equitable, inclusive, and benefits all Atlantans.
- Atlanta Public Schools (APS) served over 50,000 students in 89 schools in 2018-19
- One in four APS schools are located within the BeltLine Planning Area
- The “summer slide” can cost students two months’ worth of learning and disproportionately affects children from low-income families
- Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. sponsored the end-of-summer cookout for the Freedom School program at Emmaus House in Peoplestown
- ABI staff served lunch to K-5 students – along with their families and teachers – to celebrate their achievements at the end of a six-week, reading-focused curriculum
In Atlanta and across the nation, one of the biggest challenges facing today’s students, parents, and educators is the “summer slide.” The annual phenomenon can claim up to two months’ worth of material learned during the school year, and it accounts for over half of the achievement gap between students from lower- and higher-income households. For this reason, addressing the summer slide is essential for pursuing equity in the City of Atlanta, which has the three highest-poverty rate schools in the state at every grade level – elementary, middle, and high. And looking beyond city limits to the state of Georgia, where 66% of fourth-graders are not proficient in reading, underscores the need for summer learning that focuses on reading skills in particular.
One summer program trying to do exactly that can be found in the heart of the BeltLine geography in the historic Peoplestown neighborhood. There, Emmaus House, a faith-based non-profit organization serving the neighborhood since 1967, operates a six-week reading program for Atlanta students from kindergarten to fifth grade who may have limited access to books and other learning opportunities during the summer. The program is based on the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools model, a literacy and cultural enrichment program rooted in the Civil Rights Movement and nonviolent community activism in 1960s Mississippi. Last year, Emmaus House was one of 183 program sites serving nearly 12,000 students in 28 states across the country through the summer curriculum, which emphasizes small class size, culturally relevant reading material, cooperative learning, and hands-on activities like music and dance. The program shows promising results: according to Emmaus House, on average 85% of their Freedom School scholars maintain or advance their reading level after six weeks.
Because the Emmaus House program is based at Barack and Michelle Obama Academy, an elementary school is just two blocks from DH Stanton Park and the future Southside Trail, it made perfect sense for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) to get involved. But the partnership initially grew out of another Freedom School program 700 miles away in Cleveland, Ohio, where ABI Community Engagement Advocate Kathrine Morris had volunteered while working at a community development corporation focused on affordable housing. Kathrine joined ABI in September 2018, the same month ABI’s Planning and Community Engagement team kicked off a half-year campaign to update the Master Plan for Subarea 2, which includes Peoplestown. When developing such significant documents – the first plan had been in place for almost a decade – ABI strives to enlist as many community voices as possible through its public meetings in order to make the process accessible, inclusive, and participatory. Still, knowing that conventional public meetings are only one piece of the equation when building relationships and visibility in local communities, Kathrine looked for ways to get involved with a major non-profit and elementary school serving the subarea.
Last month, the community engagement team at Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. was honored to receive an invitation from Emmaus House Executive Director Greg Cole to participate in one of the program’s morning “Read Aloud” sessions. Read Aloud guests are people with a unique connection, interest, or background in the local community who visit to read an engaging story of their choice – typically a favorite children’s book – to Freedom School scholars. ABI Vice President of Planning, Engagement and Art Beth McMilian jumped at the opportunity. Her selection? “This Jazz Man” by Karen Ehrhardt, a colorful and rhythmic reinterpretation of the old nursey rhyme “This Old Man” that introduces kids to legendary African-American jazz musicians.
The following week, ABI sponsored a cookout for the Emmaus House Freedom School end-of-summer celebration. The event capped off six weeks of programming with a full-class presentation and performance for scholars’ families to showcase everything they’d learned, read, and accomplished during the summer. Staff from ABI’s Planning, Engagement and Art team (and one very gracious spouse) hauled in a grill and hundreds of hot dogs, prepared plates, and served students and their families. Most importantly, they had an opportunity to connect with community members in a new way, outside of the standard public meeting – and to build a foundation for deeper partnership with future generations of BeltLine neighbors.