There’s a yawning chasm between what many Atlanta Public Schools students need to thrive and what their parents are able to provide.
Valerie Williams has made it her mission to stand in that gap, to fill the void both by challenging structural inequality and providing materials to meet children’s immediate needs.
She is co-president in the district’s Washington Cluster Advocacy Group (WCAG), which supports six schools, including her alma mater, Booker .T. Washington High School.
When she sees the faces of Washington students, it’s like looking in a mirror.
“I am those students,” said Williams, who grew up in John Hope Homes, a public housing project named for Morehouse’s first black president. “I didn’t have the parental support that other kids had,” she said. “My mother didn’t attend anything I did in school.”
It wasn’t until she was an adult that Williams, 54, learned her mother had a mental illness.
But where her mother couldn’t help, her teachers did.
“Anything I wanted to do, my teachers paid for…. They took care of me,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the teachers in my high school, I wouldn’t have made it out.”
Today, all but one of Washington’s 818 students are black. All qualify for free and reduced lunch.
“My passion is ensuring equality on the west side of Atlanta and to ensure that Washington gets the resources they need to be successful,” said Williams, who has one child.
For example, Washington’s alumni association recently bought students white dresses, white dress shirts and black slacks for senior recognition day. They’ve paid college admission fees for other students and purchased shoes for a homecoming queen.
“My passion is ensuring equality on the west side of Atlanta and to ensure that Washington gets the resources they need to be successful”
But those efforts can’t compensate for the community’s poverty – and her work is no match for the luxuries more affluent parents are able to marshal for their children.
“It’s not that our teachers aren’t passionate about teaching and students aren’t passionate about learning, it’s that we’re not afforded the resources to be successful,” Williams said.
Williams can’t help but notice the extras at other schools, such as North Atlanta and Henry W. Grady high schools. Both schools have far more white students and far fewer students living in poverty.
About 75 percent of APS students qualify for free or reduced lunch, but that falls to 37 percent at Grady and 35 percent at North Atlanta High. Nearly 36 percent of Grady’s students and 32 percent of North Atlanta’s students are white, compared to 0 percent at Washington.
A glaring example of the resource disparity is Grady’s Walden Athletic Complex, Williams says. “They have just built a $5 million sports complex with the Atlanta skyline being the backdrop for one school,” she said.
Williams’ estimate is short by $3 million – the complex cost $8 million. And Inman Middle School will also use the sports complex, which has a natural turf baseball field.
But as long as some students at publicly funded schools have so many extras when others don’t have the basics, Williams will never rest.
There’s a racial inequity that hangs over the disparities, too. Williams has seen an influx of affluent, white families attracted to more affordable homes in predominantly black Westside neighborhoods and she worries about gentrification. The number of white students in APS is up by nearly 70 percent, from just over 4,700 in 2008 to more than 8,000 in 2018, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
To attract more white students, Williams claims, APS has “catered to the north side of town. That’s where the inequities come in.”
When North Atlanta High opened in 2013, it was the most expensive school in the entire state, with a $147 million price tag. The 11-story school has a gleaming lobby, a spiral staircase, a parking garage and a smoothie station.
Meanwhile, Washington cluster students work on aging computers with slow Internet access. “Our parents are not lawyers, so they can’t go to their firm and advocate to get resources. Our parents aren’t part of the Chamber of Commerce,” Williams said.
“We don’t have parents who can come out and say, ‘There’s a need, we’re going to raise money or start a nonprofit.’ Our parents don’t know how to do that. Our parents have to work two and three jobs.”
The WCAG’s plan to help the cluster’s schools combines a rebranding campaign to amplify the schools’ successes, but also practical solutions to address families’ realities.
“I want to get food pantries in for all the schools in the cluster. We need to have a clothes closet for parents when they have a job interview,” she said.
“We have to reach out to the entire household, and not just the child who comes to the school.”
In the end, the oft-used proverb is still true. “We’ve just got to really become the village that we say we are.”