Students first: DeKalb school leaders want to rebuild trust this year

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

After a tumultuous few months, DeKalb County School District leaders are looking at the new academic year, which begins today, as an important moment to rebuild trust.

Its schools are facing significant challenges as students return to the classroom: A renewed scrutiny on facilities after poor conditions at one school was put in the spotlight by a group of students. The newly released state testing data that shows only about one-third of elementary and middle school students were proficient in language arts or math. A shortage of hundreds of staff members, including teachers, on the first day of school. An impending search for a permanent superintendent.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

With work to do in the state’s third-largest school system, interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley recently unveiled the district’s guiding words for this year: “Students first.”

Everything from prioritizing school maintenance, to supporting emotional wellness, to crafting the budget is being done to benefit students.

“I became a little emotional (when I saw it),” said board member Joyce Morley. “Because it’s like, that hasn’t been the case for so long and that has to be who we put first.”

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Tinsley came out of retirement to lead the district after four of the seven school board members unexpectedly voted to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris from the superintendent job in late April. Community members were dismayed by the sudden dismissal. Simultaneously, the state was preparing to intervene over unaddressed school maintenance problems. Tinsley was appointed to be a stabilizing force for the district.

“I hope that over time, we will regain trust in our community that we are doing the right things for the right reasons,” said school board chair Vickie Turner.

Parents are looking forward to the upcoming year — even as COVID-19 transmission in DeKalb County remains high.

“I think in general, we’re excited about perhaps the first normal start to a year in several years,” said David Ziskind, echoing what other metro Atlanta parents had to say.

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The feeling of normalcy he’s looking forward to for his three children at Vanderlyn Elementary has to do with the work of school leadership rather than top district officials, he said. But he knows those broader issues can trickle down into the classroom.

“We are hopeful that the DeKalb Board of Education is able to make choices that are in the best interests of the district’s children,” he said.

In DeKalb, uncertainty at the top has become part of the norm. The district has had seven leaders since 2010. The school board will again undertake the task of finding a permanent leader. At a meeting in late July, the board indicated they’re interested in finding a superintendent by the time Tinsley’s contract expires in April.

Morley, at least, said she would be interested in Tinsley staying in the role for longer.

“The history in DeKalb is that each time we’ve had an interim, instead of allowing that interim to stay in place for a while and to have a plan and to be that change agent, the board has oftentimes been so fast in trying to bring someone new in instead of letting some things work,” she said. “It seems to want to court an interim and marry someone new coming in.”

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Deborah Jones, the president of the DeKalb Organization of Educators, agreed with Morley.

“I think if they would allow Dr. Tinsley to do the job that they hired her to do, then DeKalb would come out from under this cloud they’re under,” she said.

The board plans to discuss the search for a superintendent more in August.

For her part, Tinsley is going into the school year with her attention on how to best move the district forward.

“At this point in time, I would say that I am just focused on what we’re doing right now,” she said last week. “We want to make sure our students are ready (on) Day One to learn. We will do everything we can to support them.”