Cheryl Atkinson, DeKalb County's new schools chief, promised to focus on students and spend the next 90 days assessing the school district – a process that may lead to administrative changes and some staffing consolidation.
The new superintendent, in only her fifth day on the job here, was light on specifics as she spoke before a group of parents at this morning during the first meeting of the Emory LaVista Parent Council's annual State of the System address. She repeatedly referred parents to her published 90-day plan as a guide of how she will assess the school district before she moves to make changes. So far, that's included visiting more than 20 schools across the county, part of a larger goal to visit every school–more than 130–and meet with every principal at least once this year.
Atkinson, who previously ran a school district in Lorain, Ohio, also emphasized the school system's need to focus on students.
"I believe that as educators, we are in the life-saving business," she said. "What we do, if we do it well, has a generational effect."
Top-level personnel changes could occur within that 90-day period or after, she said, and the district's staffing will also be open to review.
"If we need to do some consolidation we will," she said.
She also stressed that if she felt staff were crucial to necessary programs and educational initiatives that would need to be explained to the public as well.
The district will also undergo auditing, she said, which will help evaluate programs that can be eliminated. More emphasis will be placed on upgrading students' instructional materials, possibly including laptops and digital e-books, a transition that yielded significant cost savings at her last school district, she said.
"We've moved into a digital era, and our children" should too, Atkinson said.
The school district also must work to restablish a good reputation with the county by meeting regularly with local politicians and business and faith-based leaders, she said. When addressing issues, the school district has sometimes left things open-ended.
"I believe that people want an opportunity not only to be heard but to contribute," she said. "I want to make sure that we get the reputation that we close the loop."
The system and the board of education must also improve its relationship with local media, Atkinson said. Critical media coverage of various school board controversies, the indictment of former superintendent Crawford Lewis on racketeering charges and an ongoing accreditation loss scare have strained that relationship over the last several years. The school system needs to open up, she said.
"If you don't share, people have to dig," Atkinson said.
Parents were given an opportunity to ask questions. One parent said she was unhappy with her child's fourth-grade class size of 27 and wanted Atkinson to work to fix that. Atkinson said larger class sizes have become more common in schools nationwide.
She also addressed standardized testing: "I don't believe in teaching to the test. But I do believe in preparing for it."
Another parent responded with a common criticism heard at school board meetings: "We're creating a generation of test-takers."
Another parent asked Atkinson to improve math education at the high school level, which she said was "dismal."
The district also needs to establish a top-to-bottom management system to help the administration determine how and where principals should be supported. When she was administering schools in the Charlotte, NC, area, the school district reached out to Duke Energy to consult on their management process. Something similar might work in DeKalb, she said.
"I believe it's a new day in DeKalb, and I think it's going to be a great day," she said.