In January, Charles R. Drew Charter School made the decision to hire its first Director of Culture and Equity. School administrators chose Drew parent Okorie Johnson for the new role. Among his many accomplishments, Johnson previously worked as an English teacher and supported the diversity department at The Westminster Schools. Johnson, who is a professional cellist and composer, has also led several afterschool music programs at Drew, which gave him the opportunity to work directly with the school’s students and engage with parents. He has also written and produced a feature film called Canopy.
Administrators say they decided to create the position to ensure that Drew continues to build and sustain a welcoming and inclusive school culture. Johnson will also work with school administrators to collaboratively develop and implement diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that support Drew’s mission, values and strategic plans as well as develop strategies to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.
As Drew’s Director of Culture and Equity, Johnson will serve the entire Drew community, including existing and potential families who live in the Villages of East Lake. The Villages of East Lake is a mixed-income housing community that was built through a public-private partnership as part of East Lake revitalization efforts. Today, approximately half of the families who live in the Villages of East Lake receive subsidies, while the other half pay market rate.
“Our main goal is to ensure that all Drew students receive an excellent education irrespective of their race, gender, sex, socioeconomic status or other differences,” said Johnson.
Drew administrators made the decision to create the position less than a year after the school reached its goal of establishing a true cradle-to-college pipeline for Atlanta’s East Lake Community. In 2017, the first class of seniors graduated from Drew with more than $5 million in scholarships and a 100 percent college acceptance rate. This year, all of the students who graduated this spring were accepted into college and received a total of $9 million in scholarships. The accomplishments are particularly striking considering that more than twenty years ago, after decades of deterioration, less than 30 percent of those who lived in the East Lake community graduated from high school and the crime rate was 18 times the national average. In the mid-90s, the CF Foundation, the Atlanta Housing Authority, the East Lake Foundation and members of the community began plans to reshape Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood. As part of the transformation, Drew Charter School was founded, the East Lake Golf Club was purchased and renovated, a mixed-income housing community was created and a YWCA and an early childhood center were built.
Now, the socioeconomically diverse school serves as a national model for revitalization and works to empower all of its students to reach their full potential. The school continues to be a vital part of a community-wide effort to help Atlanta families break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
In addition to hiring a Director of Culture and Equity, the school has taken a number of other steps to reinforce its commitment to equity and socioeconomic diversity. Drew is among a handful of Georgia charter schools that have implemented a weighted lottery. Weighted lotteries were signed into Georgia law in 2015 to give educationally disadvantaged students a greater likelihood of gaining admittance to Georgia charter schools. In Drew’s case, educationally disadvantaged students are given five times the chance of gaining admittance into Drew. In addition to utilizing a weighted lottery, the school also took steps in its most recent charter with Atlanta Public Schools and the Georgia Board of Education to give less preference to siblings of existing students.
Drew Charter School currently serves more than 1,800 students in Pre-K through the 12th grade. The school opened in 2000 as the first public charter school in the city of Atlanta. Drew uses an innovative Project-Based Learning approach with the integration of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) curriculum and a strong foundation in literacy.