If you ask the students, teachers, and staff at Sutton Middle School to describe what sets their school apart from other Atlanta schools, they all agree—it’s the school’s diversity.
“Sutton Middle School is very diverse. It has a lot of different cultures and people, which I think is really cool,” says Isabela, a sixth-grade student at Sutton. “If everyone was the same, it would be kind of boring. Different cultures and different people make school more interesting because you learn something new from everybody.”
Embracing diversity represents a core value at Sutton that stems, in part, from the school’s own demographics. Among Sutton’s 1,633 students, about one-third are Black, one-third are Latino, and one-third are White. Additionally, almost one-third of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and nearly one-fifth are learning to speak English as a second language. Meanwhile, the school also maintains a diverse teaching staff that includes educators from five different continents.
“Based on our feeder zone we encompass this amazing area of differences—racially, religiously, and socioeconomically. We’re able to expose our children, both formally and informally, to differences in culture, differences in communication, differences in morals and values, and guide that experience through the guardrails of education,” says Gail Johnson, Sutton’s principal. “This is not something that most kids get in a middle school experience. Through the programming and work we do in teaching that diversity is something to embrace, [the students] are able to meet and experience these differences from a growth mindset and a positive mindset.”
Additionally, embracing diversity is central to Sutton’s curriculum and its participation in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme—a rigorous curriculum and instructional philosophy that promotes active lifelong learning through interdisciplinary planning. The IB course of study encourages students to question and evaluate information critically, seek out and explore links between their classroom subjects, and develop an awareness of their place in the world, an approach that supports deeper learning. Sutton Middle School and North Atlanta High School, the high school that Sutton feeds, received joint authorization to offer the IB curriculum in 2008, becoming the only public or private schools in the city of Atlanta or Fulton County, Georgia, to offer the program. Offering all students this rigorous course of study combined with necessary supports has results. On its Georgia school performance report card, Sutton qualifies as a school “beating the odds,” meaning that its students perform better academically than those at schools with similar demographics.
“Our founding principles are those of the IB philosophy, which provides an international mindedness to students through all content and curricula,” Johnson continues. “Our approach is to make sure that students are not just learning academically but they are also learning how to be global citizens and how to apply their content to a diverse world and, within their own school setting, to the diversity that exists in their everyday lives.”
The pursuit of continuous learning does not stop with the students either. Sutton nurtures that mentality among its faculty as well and supports teachers with ongoing IB training.
“Sutton is a vibrant growth center where we are constantly trying to grow our teachers professionally,” says seventh-grade teacher Billie Edwards-Rucker, who teaches individuals and societies. “It’s like we’re all in school together and we’re all growing to become better versions of ourselves. We make our students aware of when we are going to our different professional learning meetings because we want them to see that they’re not the only ones who are still learning.”
Sutton is one of two new schools featured in “American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action,” an online gallery of nearly 500 original print-quality, royalty-free images of teachers and K–12 students engaged in the learning environments and teaching practices that foster deeper learning. The collection includes about 200 new photos captured in the weeks immediately preceding the national school closures that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) created the gallery with generous support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to demonstrate to school leaders, teachers, parents, and students that deeper learning can succeed in schools of every type with students from all backgrounds. The gallery also includes images from UCLA Community School in Los Angeles, California; Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, DC; Skyline High School in Oakland, California; and MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio. To see more photos from the collection, visit all4ed.org/images.
Kristen Loschert is editorial director at All4Ed.
Photos by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action