After over two years of searching, DeKalb County School System has a new superintendent. Following a heated discussion in which the gloves came off, tempers flared, and three school board members (Jesse Jay Cunningham, Donna Edler, and Sarah Copelin-Wood) walked out, with a divided 6-3 vote, the school board voted to ratify the contract for Dr. Cheryl Atkinson of Lorain, Ohio, on Monday morning. Dr. Atkinson is set to start in her new job on September 15.
The three dissenting voters, Nancy Jester, Pam Speaks, and Don McChesney, have all pledged to give Atkinson their unwavering support despite their disapproval of her contract. In a statement on her blog on Monday afternoon, Jester stated that “no one will work harder than me to make Dr. Atkinson a successful superintendent. My greatest hope is that in 12, 24 and 36 months from now, I can report back to you on her successes. As she begins the leviathan task of improving our district’s academic achievement measurements, I will give her clarity on my perspective of the challenges and solutions. Please join me in this effort. Now is not the time to disengage from the system. Please continue to participate by letting your voice be heard and working to improve the educational lives of nearly 100,000 children.”
Many parents echoed her sentiments with cautious optimism. Jennifer Hatfield, an Evansdale parent who was very outspoken in both the recent redistricting process as well as the superintendent search, stated that “it was nice to hear Dr. Atkinson speak of her personal education experience and get a sense of her background… to hear that she was a teacher, and her mother was a teacher and her grandmother was a teacher.” Hatfield said that after so much secrecy on the part of the school board concerning the release of Atkinson’s credentials, she “said everything that I as a parent needed to hear. I would relish the opportunity to sit down with her at one of the roundtables she’s spoken of and speak to her as a parent and an educator about how we can improve things.”
Leah Lewis, a Druid Hills High School parent, said that “if Dr. Atkinson follows through on the promises that she made at the Meet and Greet, I think the public will be willing to support her and open a dialog with her for the betterment of our children, our communities, and the education that lies within. If she is slow to start or is unable to clarify her leadership and her vision (through changes), I think the public will react to her much as they are reacting right now, as a group of dissatisfied parents who have many differences but one commonality—the desire for our children to get the best education possible no matter what school they attend or who their teachers are.”
Bernadette Cotton, a South DeKalb parent who drives her daughter to school in Tucker every day because of failing test scores in her home school, echoed the sentiment that parents of DeKalb County need to unite in their common desire for the best education possible for their children, regardless of race, geographic location, or individual school. “I still have concerns about Dr. Atkinson because of her record of achievement or lack thereof,” she said, but parents “need to get behind Dr. Atkinson and hold her accountable for the promises she’s made, and we need to hold the school board accountable, as well."
"People should not be serving on school boards for twelve years,” she said. “It’s not a career. And we need to educate ourselves and our neighbors before we vote. I’ve had people tell me they went into the voting booth and just voted for the name they recognized. We can’t do that. We must educate ourselves. We owe it to our kids.”
Amy Trocchi, parent of children at Briarlake and Kittredge, stated that "While we may never know if Dr. Atkinson was the best candidate we could have gotten, we all must stand behind her now for the sake of our kids and schools. She is the new blood we've been waiting years for. More importantly, we must keep a close eye on how our board works with Dr. Atkinson to achieve her goals. I was embarrassed at some of the statements from the board this morning admonishing the members who have been open and honest with their constituents. Elected officials have an obligation to provide information to their voters and taxpayers, and I feel only a few of our board members understand that. Some of our board members act as if they serve on a corporate board as opposed to an elected, public board. We have a lot of dead weight in our system, and hopefully that will be cleaned out in the coming months through firings and elections so that Dr. Atkinson can be left with a group that understands its their primary goal is to provide a quality education to the children of DeKalb County."
Hatfield agreed that holding the school board accountable is in her mind, as well. “They have asked parents to support Dr. Atkinson, and I will do so, but I will watch carefully to make sure they [the Board] don’t interfere with her ability to make the necessary changes. This is about the kids, not the school board’s personal agenda,” she stressed.
Cotton spoke of the divisions within DeKalb County, specifically the Memorial Drive North/South dividing line. In hiring a superintendent, “we have leapt one hurdle,” she said, “but we now have to leap the hurdle that is our Board of Ed. We have a very divided county, and hopefully this new superintendent will be able to act as a bridge and help unify us. If we have nothing else in common, we do all want the best education possible for our children.”
Cotton also spoke of her concern with poor test scores and pass rates in her part of the county. “I know test scores aren’t the only indicator of achievement, but when a school has a 13% pass rate on a standardized social studies test, that’s a red flag,” she said, speaking of Cedar Grove Middle School. “That’s not acceptable to me, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone,” she stressed. She expressed a hope that Atkinson will implement changes that will eliminate memorization and teaching to the test and bring “good old fashioned teaching” back to the classroom. If some schools are succeeding and many are failing, she said, figure out what the ones that are succeeding are doing right, and imitate it “Failing students are a problem for all of us. We need to give them the support and the tools they need or they will be the ones causing trouble, that we have to watch out for, later in life when they lose their way.”
Jester concurred. “I recognize that we have a terrible problem in DeKalb with student achievement. Our achievement measurements lag behind other metro districts and even rural Georgia counties that are identified as being in 'persistent poverty' and spend far less per student. I realize that it makes some of us uncomfortable to admit where we are. Often I hear leaders give soft criticism that is buffered by a retort about how there is much going well. Indeed there are individual stories of success but we mustn’t ignore what the data is telling us in aggregate. We are failing our children. We are failing the taxpayer,” she said.
Dr. Atkinson appears to have a long, hard road ahead of her, but many have said that hiring a superintendent is an important first step. With the support of the school board and the parents and citizens of DeKalb County, it is the hope of many that she just may be able to turn things around.