Back to school in Forest Park

 

Forest Park’s students, parents, and administrators grapple with the past and future of their school system

 

By Jewel Wicker

Contributing reporting by Angie Tran, Ann Pellegrine, and Rachel McBride

Photos by Rita Harper

September 13, 2021

 

  The Forest Park Issue

How we reported this story: Canopy Atlanta asked more than 120 Forest Park community members about the journalism they needed this past spring and summer; this story emerged from that feedback. The contributing reporters on this story are Canopy Forest Park Fellows, community members whom Canopy Atlanta paid and trained to learn reporting skills to better serve their communities.

IN FOREST PARK, as news of the highly transmissible Delta variant raised new concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and another rise in cases in Georgia, parents, students, and administrators were preparing for in-person classes at schools throughout the city for the first time in over a year. 

 

The 2021-2022 school year brings different challenges for parents and students attempting to adjust to the classroom, COVID-19 safety protocols, and more, while administrators struggle to decide the best way to address the grief and increasing instability some students face during the global health crisis.

 

Several people involved with the school system say the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated issues of inequality that were already challenging for many families in Forest Park. In this community, nearly one in two children was living in poverty before the COVID-19 pandemic began last March. And, even as the Clayton County School District continues to work to rebuild its reputation after losing accreditation in 2008, school officials say they still face a number of challenges, including having to contend with some of the highest student mobility rates in Georgia. 

 

Canopy Atlanta spoke to eight people involved with Forest Park schools about the complications and concerns they currently face and what each sees as the best path forward. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.  —As told to Jewel Wicker

Different Perspectives on Forest Park Schools

Forest Park High School counselor

After nearly two decades working with Forest Park schools, high school counselor Kashera Guy-Robinson has witnessed the various changes the community has endured and the impact those changes have had on education efforts. While teachers were encouraged to implement new practices to engage students virtually in 2020, Guy-Robinson says her biggest concern during the 2021-2022 school year is addressing the grief and trauma students have encountered since the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person learning last March. 

 

Kashera Guy-Robinson, Forest Park High School, school counselor

I’ve worked for every school in Forest Park. I got hired in March 2004, in the middle of the school year because somebody quit. At that time, there was a lot of transition in the community. It was going from predominantly Caucasian and switching over to more minorities. I remember a lot of stuff with gangs and fire alarms being pulled. Shortly thereafter, we had a lot of stuff going on in the school district with us losing our accreditation

 

Mr. [Derrick] Manning, our current principal, has been here for over 10 years. Our mascot is the panther, and Mr. Manning calls himself “panther one” because it starts with him. The teachers feel safe and supported, but the kids also feel safe. We don’t have major discipline issues. He doesn’t play, but the kids know he loves them. He’ll get on the announcements and say, “You may not have heard it today, but I want you to know I love you, I care about you, and I want you to have a good day.”

 

We had someone from United Way come in and do a presentation with us before the pandemic. Out of the 13-county region that makes up metropolitan Atlanta, Clayton County was the most impoverished, based on the Child Well-Being Index. We are a community of haves and have-nots.

 

We have a lot of students that live in hotels and motels in the community. One year, I had a student and her sister who were both enrolled at Forest Park, and they were having some issues with running away. They were a family of seven children and two adults who were living in one of those extended-stay rooms. She said, “Mrs. Robinson, I just can’t get my work done. I have to go to the bathroom to have peace and quiet to do my homework.” The people at the extended stay were getting complaints because a lot of the kids were hanging outside. They didn’t have anywhere to play. 

 

We have a lot of immigrant families that live in our community. The Hispanic population is our largest ethnic group right now at Forest Park High School. During the Trump administration, a lot of our kids had parents that were getting deported. Our attendance secretary is from the Latin American community, and she knows a lot of the families. What she has told me is that quite a few of our kids, because of COVID-19, have gone back to their or their parents’ home countries. 

 

Being a social worker, you just have to be quick on your feet. Even this summer, Dr. Angela Horrison-Collier [director of student services for Forest Park schools] assembled a group of us to go out knocking on doors looking for kids. We have kids that we haven’t seen since March 13, 2020, our last day in the building before COVID. One mom had multiple children in the house who were all trying to use the internet at the same time. She had a hot spot that the school system gave her, but it just wasn’t enough tech for all of those kids to be trying to be logged on at one time. Another child dropped out to enroll in an online program because she had a kindergarten-aged sibling who had to have someone to help her get online. Her mom was at work. A lot of our kids weren’t logging on because they’re working. That’s not just happening here, it’s a national problem.

 

— As told to Jewel Wicker

Read other perspectives on Forest Park Schools

(Disclosure: United Way of Greater Atlanta is a philanthropic supporter of Canopy Atlanta.)

Forest Park high school students (and alumni)

A child of Vietnamese immigrants, this student, whom we are calling John, really values his high school’s diversity. He’s excited to interact with his peers in person again, following a year of virtual learning and despite his COVID-19-related safety concerns around returning to the classroom. If he had to choose one thing he’s most excited to do once school regains a semblance of normalcy, he says it would be attending field trips. 

 

Going back to school was exciting and scary. I was worried that the whole school was too clustered. Everyone I saw was wearing masks, but I was scared the virus would spread to me, my friends, and others. 

 

I prefer learning in person. Trying to do multiple things at once was a challenge during virtual learning. I would try to watch videos while trying to listen to my teachers. I’d get distracted because no one was watching over me. When we were virtual, it was very nonsocial. People wouldn’t raise their hands or answer questions. Now, people are more willing to be more social with others. 

 

— As told to Jewel Wicker

Lucia Campos lives in Forest Park but attends Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts in Jonesboro, because she plays in the orchestra and saw attending school elsewhere as an opportunity to get a better education. Lucia contrasts her high school experience with that of her younger sister, Natalie. A freshman at Forest Park High School, Natalie enjoys going to the school in her neighborhood because it allows her to stay connected with her longtime friends. (“My school isn’t the best, but it’s not the worst,” Natalie says.) When Lucia completes her senior year next year, she hopes to travel to Sweden to continue her cello training. 

 

My cousins are older than me, and they went to Babb Middle School and Forest Park Middle School. They experienced what the schools were like, and it wasn’t a good experience. There was theft and drugs and stuff like that. My brothers and I went to school outside of Forest Park, but my sister goes to Forest Park High School. The schools I went to, you have to apply and audition for, and my sister didn’t qualify for that. The bus comes to Forest Park High School and picks up everyone who lives in the area to take us to school. In general, I feel it’s a better environment for me because it’s a smaller school.

 

— As told to Jewel Wicker

Nadege Jones, a former Forest Park resident and a student who experienced homelessness, says she graduated from North Clayton High School in 2019 because by the time she and her mother moved to an extended-stay hotel in Forest Park, she was a senior. 

 

As a homeless student who lived in Forest Park for four years with my mother, there were no resources. You go up to your social worker, and it’s like, “There’s not much I can do, but do you want a backpack and some pencils?” I think someone paid our room rate for a week, but that was it. As a senior, I missed out on absolutely everything, from the trips to the yearbook. I almost missed out on prom. Students shouldn’t have to miss those things because of their situations. We were excluded because we didn’t have money. It really did hurt to have to sit back and watch everyone else enjoy those things.

 

If you go to school in APS [Atlanta Public Schools], when they know you’re traveling via public transportation, you can go to your social worker and they make sure you have the money to get to school. They give you a MARTA card. One time I walked from Forest Park to North Clayton High School because I couldn’t afford to miss school. 

 

— As told to Jewel Wicker

Forest Park Middle School principal

Forest Park Middle School principal Monique Drewry wasn’t equipped for the amount of social work that would come along with being a principal. Her time as an administrator has made it clear to Drewry that there’s no way to improve education in a city such as Forest Park, where more than 25 percent of residents live below the poverty line, without first addressing some of the basic needs of housing- and food-insecure students within this community, made more challenging now by the pandemic. 

 

Monique Drewry, Forest Park Middle School Principal

I was an assistant principal at Forest Park High School for almost two years. I went to a couple of different schools — North Clayton High School in College Park, Mount Zion High School in Jonesboro, and North Atlanta High School [Atlanta Public Schools] – and then I found my way back to Forest Park Middle School. I’ve been there since 2011. I have the pleasure of being the principal to one of my former student’s children. Being here so long, I get to see generations pass through. Whatever was going on 10 to 15 years ago in Forest Park, with gangs and drugs, is no longer attractive here.

 

Our demographics have changed. We’re almost 50 percent Hispanic here at Forest Park Middle School. We do a survey that’s required by Title I, where we query our parents about what their needs are. Our Hispanic parents said, “We need to be able to come into the building and talk to someone who speaks Spanish.” We have been very intentional in diversifying our staff. We now have several bilingual staff members. I need my students to know that everybody is welcome here, and if you have a need, it’s my job to solve that need.

 

I really believe Forest Park is divided by a railroad track, because there are several schools on the other side of Forest Parkway that have more housing, better apartments. Their parents have mortgages, not leasing agreements. We deal with a homeless shelter and lots of extended stays. My biggest challenge is, we have a revolving door. In a school year, 50 percent of my students who I start with in August will not be with me in May. We’re pouring into kids that we won’t get the return from. 

 

Before I became a principal here, I could talk to you about lesson planning, putting out fires with parents about behavior, but not issues such as “Ms. Drewry, I’ve gotten evicted.” Or “I have seven kids, can you help me?” Help you do what? I can’t take you in. But we’ve partnered with United Way, Housing Plus Inc., and the Rock Church to combat some of these issues.

 

Now we need help with the academic needs. My goal this year is to really, really do a better job of engaging my community and asking them to support the school that they’re so fond of. I want to be able to recognize my teachers and their hard work and say, “Hey, here’s a gift card somewhere.”

 

— As told to Jewel Wicker

 

(Disclosure: United Way of Greater Atlanta is a philanthropic supporter of Canopy Atlanta.)

Parent of elementary and high school students in Forest Park

Tessa Griffin moved to Forest Park from Tupelo, Mississippi, in 2017, a few years after her mother passed away. The move allowed her to be closer to family and get additional help for her son, a high school student who is autistic. Both of her children are still learning virtually this year. Griffin’s son misses interacting with his teachers, while her daughter misses her friends. 

 

The school system is so unorganized as far as a kid with a disability. I had to constantly go up to the middle school, because he came down here in eighth grade. I already had the paperwork from his psychiatrist as far as what he needed, but I had to really break it down. As far as his Individualized Education Program (IEP) being transferred, they informed me he had to be tested in Georgia. He got tested, and then some of the teachers did not want to accommodate him. I had to go to the Board of Education and through the court system. They kept saying, “It’s going to take some time.” I was patient, because I understand we moved and everything has to be in order. If I’m coming here and I’m getting everything needed, it shouldn’t be a second guess. It literally took a year. 

 

Tessa Griffin with her son Xavier.

And, when he got to high school, I had to do it all over again. It seemed like the school system changed psychiatrists every year. This year, even with COVID, it’s been going pretty well. I informed my son’s case manager that I am very thorough with his education. And this is his last year, so I want to make sure his classes are together. 

 

My son is very reserved, but he clicked with some of the teachers that he had. Some of them were very patient with him. He missed having those [teacher] interactions virtually. This year, they’re both still doing virtual learning. My nine-year-old daughter did not like virtual learning. She did not understand why she had to stay at home. She didn’t have a problem keeping up with the virtual learning; she struggled with the social aspects of being stuck at home.

 

— As told to Jewel Wicker

Forest Park Local School Council chair

As the current chair of the Forest Park Local School Council and parent to a senior at Forest Park High School, Kesha Crockett says she has spent a great deal of time picking her battles with school leaders. Crockett isn’t short on ideas when it comes to things that can be done to improve the school system for students and parents. But she’s wary of coming across as a constant complainer who is difficult to work with, and she attempts to include more parents in discussions with Forest Park school system administrators to find viable long-term solutions. While school administrators have expressed a desire to have parents be more present and engaged in their children’s education, Crockett says administrators haven’t always been flexible enough to make parental involvement easy. One program the local school council recently brought to the high school is Enough Entertainment Academy, which provides after-school workshops to introduce students to careers in advertising, sign-making, and manufacturing. (Disclosure: Crockett served on Canopy Atlanta’s Forest Park Community Editorial Board, a group that helped guide story topic choices for this issue. Learn more about how we produced this issue.)

 

Kesha Crockett, Forest Park Local School Council

I don’t really think a lot of people know how much power the school council has. It’s composed of teachers, parents, and business owners in the community. 

 

I’m not worried about my son. We come from a family of educators. I’m more concerned about the kids that don’t have the home support being left behind. My thinking is, we’re all in the same boat. If we put all our resources to the kids we know are going to make it, then we all drown.

 

Based on the bylaws, the school council is supposed to review the budget of the school and see what they’re spending their money on. I asked for the document several times and didn’t receive it. They’re asking for our opinion on the Title 1 parent compact, but not giving us the budget or what they’re using the money for. Then I started reading it, and I was like, “This is not a language this community can understand.” It was more collegiate and not in layman’s terms. In this community, we do have collegiate parents and professionals, but a lot of the parents are not that. I realized they made that document for their peers; they don’t really make it for the parents to get involved. I know I was perceived as an issue because I was asking questions that people weren’t asking. And I was expecting answers. I realized, “I’m not going to be able to effect change if I’m not invited to the party.” So, I backed up and said, “How do I voice my concerns more strategically?”

 

School administrators always say the parents are not active. That’s not true. You have to be welcoming. You have to speak their language. You have to bring them in, and they will participate. [Forest Park] parents are working two jobs, or sleeping through the day and working at night. The liaison said, “We can only work 40 hours.” OK, well, your 40 hours can’t be bankers’ hours. We’re not a 9-to-5 community, but we’re governed like we are. 

 

— As told to Jewel Wicker

 

This story was updated on Tuesday, September 14 at 9:20 p.m. to update Crockett’s comments for clarity.

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