Five-and-a-half years later: An update on Benteen Elementary School

Andrew Lovett has been the principal at Benteen Elementary School since the 2016-17 school year. (Kaitlin Kolarik/For WABE)

In April 2017, we profiled an Atlanta principal named Andrew Lovett. It was his first year leading Benteen Elementary School. Atlanta Public Schools considered closing Benteen, but after the community pushed back, officials decided to keep it open with Lovett at the helm.

That was about five-and-a-half years ago. WABE went back to Benteen recently to see how the school, and Lovett, are doing.

Moving to a ‘vacation home’

Benteen is literally in a different place now. The original building in Southeast Atlanta is getting an upgrade, so Benteen is temporarily in a building about 15 minutes away in East Lake.

“We’re super excited to be in our ‘vacation home,’ as we call it, while our primary campus is being renovated,” Lovett says.

Lovett is as cheerful and welcoming as he was in 2017. Like everyone, the school has weathered a pandemic, and he says he’s had some staff turnover. That’s on top of convincing parents to send their kids to a school 15 minutes away for a year.

“I said, ‘Trust me for a year,’” he says. “I said, ‘You … need to make this trip with us for one year, then we’ll come back to a renovated Benteen.’”

Despite the relocation, Benteen’s enrollment increased by more than 30 students this year.

Background on Benteen

When we visited In 2017, Benteen was under some pressure. It’s a Title One school, meaning most students come from low-income homes. Test scores were low and voters were about to decide whether to give the state the authority to step in and take over schools with low performance, like Benteen. At the time, Lovett said that was his primary concern.

“Our biggest struggle at Benteen is getting the achievement to go up,” he said in 2017.

Almost six years later, achievement has improved. Lovett says a higher percentage of students scored in the top levels of the statewide test last spring than they did in 2019, before COVID-19.

Of course, no one saw the pandemic coming at the time, but in 2017 Lovett outlined the changes he wanted to make in the upcoming years.

“I hope we’d be a school of excellence, a Title One distinguished school,” he said. “I think we’re on the cusp of making a huge difference and making a huge impact. We front-loaded everything we could to make sure we’re going to be successful. So I feel like this may be the turnaround that takes us to the next level.”

Benteen hasn’t achieved those honors yet, but Lovett’s confident it will get there.

“I feel like over time as our achievement continues to improve, that we will hopefully reach that designation,” he says.

A new chapter

Meanwhile, Benteen has made other changes that Lovett hopes will help boost achievement. Under his leadership, Beenteen has become an International Baccalaureate school, meaning it teaches a rigorous global curriculum.

“We’re basically teaching the kids how to be worldly thinkers, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, with the government and our different systems that we put in place,” says Kai Jackson, who teaches second and fourth grades. “I think that’s very beneficial for the students too because they get to have a more worldly view of what the world is, versus [being] in their little cocoons.”

Jackson teaches in the school’s Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program. Students who participate spend half of their day learning in English and the other half in Spanish. The program is part of Lovett’s long-term vision for Benteen. Thirty percent of the school’s students are Latino. In 2017, Lovett said he wanted to hire more Latino teachers. Now he has at least eight native Spanish-speaking teachers representing countries like Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico.

“It is absolutely super-important for kids in the school community to see people who work in the school look like them,” says Ronn Nozoe, the National Association of Secondary School Principals CEO. “[One reason] is so kids can envision themselves in these other roles, ‘I can literally be anything I want to be.’ They have to see themselves in order for that to be true.”

In 2017, we spoke with first-grade teacher Angela Wilder who described Lovett as “supportive.” We wanted to see what she thinks four years and one pandemic later.

“Nobody’s perfect,” she says now. “But he’s learning and he’s doing a great job. He’s a leader. He shows empathy, compassion. He shows equity. He does it all. He’s amazing. I love my principal.”

Assistant Principal Christian Padgett says Lovett has a way with people.

“I’m a very straightforward person,” he says. “I’m the person that can be like, ‘We need to make sure things are very done systematically,’ and making sure that we are task focused, but sometimes in that you can lose sight of people. So, he has [reminded] me of that.”

“Sometimes the job can be so overwhelming and … you feel like, ‘Oh my God, I was awful today.’ It’s okay to acknowledge that maybe the circumstances got the better of you today, but you have a fresh chance tomorrow.”

Andrew Lovett, principal of Benteen Elementary School

Going the distance

Research shows for school leaders to really make a difference they need to stay for more than a few years. Often, talented principals are promoted to administrative positions. But Lovett, who was recently awarded a prestigious Cahn fellowship, says he plans to stay at Benteen.

“I probably would miss an opportunity to see the harvest for what I planted for the last six, seven years,” he says. “So, I plan to stay around longer if they’ll have me.”

Next year, when Benteen moves back into its renovated building, Lovett plans to keep focusing on increasing enrollment and achievement. It’s a heavy lift.  He and his staff have worked through a pandemic to keep kids, parents and teachers engaged. Lovett admits the job can take a toll.

“There are some time[s] when the job can be so overwhelming and a lot happening and you feel like, ‘Oh my God. I was awful today,’” he says. “It’s okay to acknowledge that … maybe the circumstances got the better of you today, but you have a fresh chance tomorrow.”

To stay motivated he often repeats a quote he once read.

“On your worst day, you’re someone’s best principal,” he says.

A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.

For the original profile of Andrew Lovett click here.