Alfred “Shivy” Brooks’ outlook as an educator changed at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An economics and government teacher at Clayton County’s Charles Drew High School, Brooks said he would watch his own students, now limited to interacting with him via Zoom, prop their cellphones up to attend class as they worked various jobs across the city.
“To have taught before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and then to have taught after the pandemic are three different eras of education that have to be respected,” Brooks told Capital B Atlanta. “Today’s time is so much more critical.”
That’s when Brooks says he realized the need to reach children and their families in a way no one like him had ever done before — by running for a seat on Atlanta Public Schools’ Board of Education as a full-time teacher.
If elected on Nov. 7, Brooks will become the first active teacher in APS’ 150-year history to serve on the nine-seat board that governs more than 50,000 students across 84 learning sites citywide.
The board’s inclusion of a voice for those on the front lines, who are interacting with students day in and day out, is long overdue, Brooks said.
“I’ve heard some criticisms like ‘Well, we have two people on the board who taught before, and that’s good enough,’” Brooks said. “To me, it shows such a disrespect for education. You would never look at a medical board and say, ‘We’ve got a couple doctors here. We don’t need any more doctors.’”
While his work would be his driving force on the board, Brooks also is active in community organizing with an educational background in public policy, graduating from Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Public Policy in 2011. He has worked with groups like the Working Families Legislative Caucus, Georgia NAACP, The People’s Uprising, and RESPECT Institute of Georgia.
Brooks is the founder of two community-driven organizations: Teachers For Good Trouble, a network of 600 educators nationwide, and the Bryce Brooks Foundation, a local nonprofit created in the memory of his late son, an honor student at Maynard Jackson High School who died trying to save a group of children he saw struggling in the Gulf of Mexico during Spring Break.
Through this work, Brooks says that he has a clear view of the types of challenges voters are facing when heading to the polls this November. A big challenge will be overcoming the lack of civic education that starts in the classroom, he said.
“I teach government in high school, and I’m here to tell you, we focus on the federal government,” Brooks said. “Unless you have the privilege of having a parent or family that would really engage with the civil servants locally, you’re not going to be aware of who’s running.”
In a recent article examining low voter turnout around local elections like school board, Capital B Atlanta crunched the numbers in the 2021 APS board elections and found that an average of about 19% of voting-age residents participated in the three citywide at-large school district races for the Board of Education. The percentage was the same in BOE district-specific races, in which only residents in that district can vote.
Yet, Brooks said he is willing to do the work to reach voters where they are to ensure they hear his stances ahead of Election Day and understand the importance of voting, so they are making informed decisions. If he doesn’t, he says, the children are the ones who inevitably bear the burden.
“We have to be concerned and equipped to respond to all of the needs of our children and our kids,” Brooks said. “They’re dealing with it the hardest.”
Brooks said his three top priorities out the gate would be hiring a superintendent, increasing literacy and math proficiency, and increasing teacher pay so educators can afford to live in the communities in which they teach.
Hiring educators with salaries below Atlanta’s median income level is limiting teachers’ ability to connect with students on a deeper, communal level.
“Our teachers should not be paid less than $65,000 a year,” Brooks said. “It is so important that teachers are able to have a thriving wage so that they can afford to live in the neighborhoods that they serve because real education is in the community. You should want these people to be not just a part of the community, but in the community.”
Brooks said addressing the revolving door of superintendents the district has seen can only be rectified by hiring a well-qualified, innovative leader. His choice would be someone who is “laser-focused” on not only increasing literacy and math proficiency in students but investing into developing a better classroom and workplace culture across APS. Once that’s in alignment, Brook says, everything else will come shortly thereafter.
“When you get culture in alignment, then you get literacy in alignment, you get proficiency in math in alignment,” Brooks said. “You get people bought in and committed. I think that’s what we need more than ever.”
Another goal for Brooks is to utilize the district’s $1.7 billion budget in a way that puts students, teachers and parents at the center of services provided by the district. It’s a holistic approach to get community members to actually want to send their kids to neighborhood schools, he said.
“We need families in Atlanta to choose to put their children in Atlanta Public schools, especially at a time when parents have so much choice,” Brooks said. “We have to make sure that APS schools are the prime choice for any family, no matter what area of the city they live in.”
In order to do that, Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman — who has endorsed Brooks in his campaign — told Capital B Atlanta that public officials such as himself as well as hopefuls will have to listen to their constituents, even in moments of difficulty or anguish from long-standing vulnerabilities of the communities they serve.
“You have to listen and listen again,” Shipman said. “Community has to inform everything we do because these are the people we are held accountable to and for. Without them, we have no ability to decide, and their input must be represented in the work that we do.”
Brooks has also been endorsed by several other elected public officials across the city, like City Council members Matt Westmoreland and Jason Dozier, and education-based advocacy groups like Equity in Education. Brooks said the support is reflective of necessary connections between APS and city and county entities to collaborate on partnerships that will benefit all.
“We are showing up strong, man — my endorsement list is gaudy,” Brooks said with a lighthearted laugh. “But, that’s because when we look at what our kids need, APS isn’t going to be able to have all the answers. If you don’t have those relationships or the knowledge of cross collaboration across different municipal governments to get things done for our kids, then we’re going to continue having gaps that don’t get met.”
Correction: Alfred Brooks is no longer the head football coach at Wesley International Academy. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Brooks’ affiliation with the school.