By Sigele Winbush
Sigele Winbush is an Atlanta native and true believer in the power of connected communities. She serves the Westside through her work with the Westside Future Fund, supporting the organization’s PR and communications efforts.
While the doors of Hollis Innovation Academy have only officially been open for less than eight months, the results would suggest otherwise as students at the Westside’s newest K-8 public school are thriving and seem right at home.
The STEM-focused Academy is one of the first of its kind in the state – distinguished by its unique partnership with Georgia Tech – and is emerging as a model for other schools looking to travel a similar path. But this success is no accident. Behind the smiling faces of the Hollis students, staff and faculty is the support and leadership of its founding principal – and product of the Atlanta Public School System – Dr. Diamond Jack. Dr. Jack recently welcomed us into Hollis to show and tell the incredible journey to date of the Hollis Innovation Academy. Read her Q&A below and find out why Hollis is getting the gold star from parents, students, educators and community members alike.
How has the inaugural school year been so far? Has it been an easy transition for the students, especially given that many – majority, in fact – transitioned to Hollis from the now-closed Bethune Elementary.
My kids are dynamic. They are charismatic. They have grit. They have personality. They are highly inquisitive. They’re appreciative. They are just great kids. They came over from Bethune and really settled in. But, because they’ve had a lot of transition, consistency has been key.
We also came in with the idea that change will accelerate and propel our kids forward. We were focused on putting together a bang-up instructional program. Focused on putting together safety nets and support through wraparound services. For example, we have a partnership with Chris 180 to make sure our kids have access to counseling, helping them cope with traumatic situations. They also now have access to STEM curriculum, which they’d never had before. And we’ve just really been committed to being consistent and steadfast.
Change is always difficult going from something you know to something different. And having gone through that change myself, I understand. But now seeing the impact and the success that has come out of it, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Walking through the halls and classrooms, there are references everywhere to the Six Habits of Hollis. What is the significance?
Our focus for the first year has been on culture, which we worked towards by developing the Six Habits of Hollis: collaboration, communication, creativity, empathy, self-discipline and perseverance.
The kids latched on to them, and it has helped us to quickly establish community and a culture that has really given them a sense of belonging. We believe the Hollis Habits are the relational and academic characteristics that are important for you in life. Character development is a big part of our academic process. Our students have to be good communicators. They have to empathize with their fellow man. Be excellent in self-discipline, delaying gratification for a greater purpose. And be innovative and creative in their thoughts and what they want to do. It’s really resonated with the kids and they strive daily to embody each of them.
You mentioned Chris Kids. Are there are any other organizations that have formed a partnership with Hollis?
In addition to our partnership with Georgia Tech, we have Hands on Atlanta here. We have Communities in Schools. We have a strong partnership with Spelman College, whose students come in and mentor through GirlSTEM2 and Math Masters. It’s always nice to have them here. Several of my girls have already told me they’re going to Spelman. They have made a big impression on them.
Peachtree Road United Methodist Church (PRUMC) was one of the first community partners to offer their support. Their members raised funds to support our teachers with classroom supplies, smart boards to improve technology resources in the classroom, and student incentives for our school store program.
At the start of the school year, the Paul Millsap Foundation donated backpacks full of school supplies to every Hollis student and has continued to support our other incentive programs.
Chick-Fil-A is also very present here at Hollis. They’ve provided food, book bags and have done our cafeteria, teacher sanctuary, our health clinic. They’ve just been awesome all around.
How did the partnership with Georgia Tech come about?
When Hollis started becoming an idea, there was a launch committee to provide input on the structure of Hollis. Of course, at the table was Georgia Tech because we knew we wanted to go for STEM. We started there forging a relationship. There’s also a connection with Georgia Tech and The Blank Foundation, who ended up sponsoring the partnership. There was a lot of communication from there about how we position Hollis to really provide a strong program that could be duplicated and offered to multiple schools. We began to explore what a place-based university partnership looks like. That really sparked the interest for GA Tech and Hollis to work together. The design and model right now is we have a person here three days to work closely with our STEM teachers and provide them with professional development. Georgia Tech has also connected us with other organizations, like CREATE Lab, who have brought us additional technologies. Earlier this month, our STEM teachers participated in a CREATE Lab workshop using SCRATCH [a programming language] to program little robots!
How have the students responded to the STEM-based curriculum?
The kids gravitate towards it. They are wowed. They currently have 90 minutes a week in our STEM labs and they want more of it. We are currently working to incorporate more STEM into the rest of the curriculum.
What would outsiders be surprised to know about Hollis?
I think they’d be surprised to know that a STEM school is really a literacy focused school. We do cool stuff, but we do a lot writing, reading and research too. Our kids are also super smart, particularly with the technology. I’m blown away by what they’re able to do. They have taken to the computer science arm of our programming. Different schools try and find their niche of what their STEM identity might be. Our kids love coding.
What has the community’s response been to Hollis?
Extremely positive. They have embraced us with open arms. Parents are highly supportive. Businesses and community are always eager to respond to a need. I think everyone has identified that they want a strong school and high education for their kids. Everyone is pushing for that. We have a common understanding that our kids are highly intelligent and highly capable. Sometimes people underestimate them, but our kids are awesome. Our community has been awesome. We feel the love here at Hollis!
For more information on the Hollis Innovation Academy, visit http://www.atlanta.k12.ga.us/HollisInnovation
Interested in volunteering at Hollis? See below for upcoming opportunities to get involved and spread the love!
STEM Night- February 28th from 4-6 pm
Career Week- February 13th-16th
Read Across America- March 2nd
To participate or for more information, please contact Ms. Upenda Dubose at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 404-802-8223.
Photographs by Ms. Upenda Dubose, courtesy of Hollis Innovation Academy.