By Elizabeth Harris
The school official looked me square in the eyes and, in the politest way possible, said, “Enough parents haven’t spoken out about these issues.” These words were spoken to me when I moved my son from a small private school to our neighborhood public school and questioned the intensity of high-stakes testing.
Now, five years later and in the wake of the resignation of Fulton County School System Superintendent Jeff Rose, I had no idea how prophetic those words would prove.
My fifth grader got his start in public school after experiencing a private pre-k and kindergarten program. As a longtime south Fulton resident, I enrolled him in our neighborhood public school in 2014 so we could experience a community school.
Not soon after his first year, I grew concerned about the overemphasis of testing. I observed meetings where parents cited how stressed their third, fourth and fifth graders were over the Georgia Milestones. Unsettled with how developmentally inappropriate this was, I went to a school administrator to ask how the system got to this point. Her response: “Enough parents haven’t spoken out about these issues.”
At that time, I was already heavily involved in my son’s school, but I knew I had to do more. I needed to learn more about the system and work with other parents to figure out how we could come to a resolution. However, at that time I was earning a doctorate and didn’t have the bandwidth to do much more.
Shortly after I completed my degree, I began to notice a common theme among community Facebook groups regarding crime in our area. Multiple people discussed how if the education system were improved, it would deter some of the youth crime.
Out of these community discussions, the Facebook group "South Fulton Parents for Education" was born in 2016. Unlike other groups on Facebook, this group was about sharing ideas to increase parent involvement and improve our schools.
Through many late-night Facebook conversations, text messages and emails, we realized the more involved we became, the more we realized that many of these issues were outside of the control of the schools and needed to be addressed at the district level.
I can remember vividly the day parents in the south county attended a meeting where we met Dr. Rose for the first time. I remember his patience as he listened to parent concerns. Afterward, he gave each of us his phone number and implored that together we would be #onefulton.
His vision of “One Fulton” resonated with the parents. More importantly, we saw him bolster that vision with action. He visited our schools regularly and talked with parents, community members and teachers. He formed several councils for parents and communities so he could get the unabashed issues that faced the district and our schools.
After Dr. Rose’s first year, we saw a change in the conversations in our Facebook group. Parents were hopeful this leader – who came from outside Fulton County -- was going to be able to finally steer the ship in the right direction.
Since Dr. Rose implemented his five-year strategic plan, I have seen good principals become great principals through the partnership with the University of Virginia leadership program. I have seen principals become innovative and build community partnerships to support the schools. I have seen gains within my neighborhood schools. I have watched parents become more involved because there is a superintendent who makes himself available throughout the county.
So, we were caught off guard when we heard Dr. Rose’s contract had not been extended. Parents from the north county reached out to our group, and we merged together to investigate what was going on with his contract. As parents, we started asking our board members about the contract.
Our questions went unanswered. Either board members did not respond to parents’ emails or were told, “Dr. Rose’s contract is a personnel issue and it will not be discussed.” Parents who came to board meetings to ask questions were shut down with the excuse personnel issues “cannot be addressed by commenters.”
South Fulton Parents took the time to draft a list of concerns and issues we presented to the board at the Oct. 18 board meeting. We requested these concerns be addressed within 30 days of receiving the document. We sent follow-up emails. We emphasized our willingness to work with them to continue improving the school system. Not one parent received any response that addressed our list of concerns. One of them was extending Dr. Rose’s contract to allow him to continue his strategic plan as his leadership strategy was working for the county.
Learning that Dr. Rose was choosing to resign added insult to injury to the parents of the county.
I attended that special-called board meeting held in the middle of the workday, undercutting the ability of many parents to attend. After Dr. Rose read his resignation letter highlighting the many achievements of his administration, the room fell somber. I was in utter disbelief because parents were being ignored and board politics, which have reigned for 20-plus years, were taking over.
We thought Fulton County was striving to be #studentsfirst. How is that possible when we constantly change leadership due to petty board politics?
With one exception, the Fulton County school board members are longtime veterans. This indicates the problem rests with the board. Parents whose children graduated are not surprised by this board’s indifference to parent concerns. They describe a similar pattern years ago when musical instruments in the fine arts program were removed from elementary schools.
Now, almost a week after Dr. Rose decided to “resign,” parents are expressing frustration with the school board ignoring constituents and putting politics over children. As a group, we are organized, passionate, and serious about making sure no other parents have to suffer in silence.
Instead, we will use our voices and our votes to exact change -- the way our constitution encourages us to.