Emory leads effort to honor M. Agnes Jones Elementary School namesake
By Adrienne S. Harris, Contributing Writer, Campus Life | Emory Report | Oct. 3, 2019
Emory’s Graduation Generation program spearheaded efforts to create a mural and curriculum in honor of Mary Agnes Boswell Jones, the first African American superintendent in the Atlanta Public School System. The mural now hangs in the Atlanta elementary school bearing her name.
Most of the students who attend M. Agnes Jones Elementary School were not aware that their school’s namesake was a pioneer in Atlanta public education.
That has now changed, thanks to efforts by Emory’s Graduation Generation program and others.
Mary Agnes Boswell Jones was the first African American superintendent in the Atlanta Public School System and first woman president of the Georgia Teachers and Education Association. Hundreds of students, along with their teachers, school staff and parents, packed the auditorium Sept. 27 to see a mural of their school’s namesake unveiled.
The 8-by-8-foot panel hangs above the entrance to the school’s auditorium. It depicts Jones wearing a royal blue coat, matching cloche hat and eyeglasses. The art project was commissioned by Graduation Generation, a program of Emory’s Center for Civic and Community Engagement that aims to help increase graduation rates and decrease dropout rates for Atlanta public school students.
Graduation Generation also developed a curriculum about Jones’ life and career that includes her biography along with a quiz, writing exercise, mathematics problems, word puzzles and coloring sheets.
“I hope this project will help students at M. Agnes Jones understand the importance of education and take pride in their school,” says Barbara S. Coble, education partnerships manager for Graduation Generation.
“The place they come to every day to learn and lay the foundation for their futures is named after a woman who was a champion for education,” Coble adds. “She made a difference and her legacy is continuing.”
To honor Jones’ legacy, Coble collaborated with Emory colleagues and community partners who share her vision for civic engagement.
“This project supports our goal to bring Atlanta and Emory closer together by bringing art into the community,” says Candy Tate, assistant director of Emory’s Center for Creativity and Arts.
Tate recruited local artist Charmaine Minniefield, whose murals are featured throughout Atlanta, to design the artwork for M. Agnes Jones. Purvi Bidasaria, who graduated from Emory College in May, helped paint the mural’s background and is credited as an artist on the project.
Volunteers from Emory’s Center for Women also helped with the mural painting.
“We had a blast,” says Chanel Tanner, director of the Center for Women. “At the CWE, we really try to center the experiences of women of color and we wholeheartedly believe in the value of celebrating the accomplishments of women, past and present.”
Celebrating women – and inspiring young people to achieve their own greatness – is what the artist hoped to achieve through her mural of Jones.
“I create monuments to freedom that lift our ancestors, celebrate our identity and encourage the next generation to invest in our communities,” explains Minniefield, a self-described activist-artist. “I want my art to be examples of the potential we can achieve in our present time.”
Aisha Mahmood, a 2018 Emory College graduate who was a graduate student assistant for Graduation Generation, helped research and write the curriculum about Jones.
“When students learn about people like Mary Agnes Jones, it opens a possibility for their future,” says Mahmood, now a second-year health and policy management student in the Rollins School of Public Health. “Maybe not in elementary school, but by the time they get to middle school and high school, because they have been inspired by what others did, students will find something they’re passionate about and want to do.”
Reaching for greatness
Agnes Jones Elementary is one of only five elementary schools in Georgia, and the only one in the Atlanta Public School System, that is both STEM and STEAM certified (STEM encompasses science, technology, engineering and math; STEAM adds a focus on the arts).
Minniefield praised the students during the celebration for putting the A in STEAM and encouraged them to keep being artists and bringing art to their schools.
Principal Margul Retha Woolfolk said the mural and curriculum will have a positive impact on students’ social and emotional learning.
“This collaborative project with Emory supports the school’s mission and vision by helping the scholars, faculty and staff understand the historical impact Mary Agnes Jones had on the community and the city as a whole,” says Woolfolk, who attended the celebration in a dress, hat, shoes and eyeglasses like those Jones wore. “She was very innovative and continued to reach for greatness, which aligns perfectly to our school priorities.”
How Graduation Generation serves students
Emory’s Graduation Generation was founded in 2010 with a $1 million donation from alumnus and trustee Rick Rieder, managing director of BlackRock Inc. Since then, the program has matched Emory students, faculty and staff with Atlanta area K-12 schools and community organizations to collaborate on empowering students to remain in school, graduate and achieve in life.
“The objective is for students to graduate from high school, on time, with college or career plans in place,” Coble says.
During the 2018-2019 academic year, Graduation Generation served 4,120 students in 10 schools. Nearly 180 students and 50 faculty and staff worked with three dozen community partners to deliver educational programming including a STEAM club, SAT/ACT prep class, reading tutoring, Model UN and robotics labs.
Daniel Hamm is one Graduation Generation success story. Now as an Emory student majoring in international studies, he volunteers through the program to help students at his alma mater, Maynard Jackson High School.
“Grad Gen is a bridge to the next step – whether that’s college, trade school, a job or the military,” he says. “I want to inspire other students to see there are options available beyond high school. There can be more to life than what society tells them they are.”
Eight Graduation Generation students – five from Maynard Jackson High School and three from Cross Keys High School – were accepted to Emory's class of 2023. All except two are enrolled at the university.