Ex-DeKalb chief hired by program she promoted

The former DeKalb County school superintendent has landed a job promoting an educational program that she brought to the district at an expected cost of nearly $5 million.

Cheryl Atkinson started last week with the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation, whose program she researched for her doctoral thesis and then implemented in DeKalb. She also had brought it to Lorain, Ohio, where she was previously superintendent.

The DeKalb school board voted in May on Atkinson’s request to bring the reading program to 26 low-performing elementary schools, using federal grants.

Atkinson left the DeKalb superintendent’s job early this month, halfway through her three-year contract, after negotiating a severance package of more than $114,000.

Nancy Madden, president and CEO of the nonprofit, said Atkinson is director of district relations and will travel the country promoting the program.

“She’s been aware of the research behind it since graduate school and has implemented it,” said Madden, a co-founder of the organization. She said Atkinson used Success for All early in her career as a principal in Virginia and Florida, and when Atkinson’s own children were struggling academically she moved them to a Success for All school.

Atkinson could not be reached for comment. Madden said her departure from DeKalb “doesn’t have anything to do with us. It’s really unfortunate.”

DeKalb apparently did not compel Success for All to compete for the business. Documents produced for the May 14 school board vote indicate it was a “sole source” contract, meaning the service is unique and does not have to be bid.

The contract was for $4.6 million in the first year, plus about $100,000 for books.

The school board approved a three-year contract starting last July that must be renewed annually. The long-term future of the program in DeKalb is unclear now that all the board members who were around to approve it may be removed.

On Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal suspended the six board members who were in office last year. He was responding to a recommendation from the Georgia Board of Education based on an accrediting agency’s decision last year to put the 99,000-student system on probation. The removal process will take months.

David Schutten, a teachers advocate, said Success for All has not been popular in DeKalb, in part because teachers had no choice about whether to use it. Schutten said teachers normally are supposed to vote on implementation, but that didn’t happen under Atkinson.

“I would say, at this point — this is conservative — 80 to 90 percent of the teachers hate it,” said Schutten, who is president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators. He said most of the complaints are about the “scripted” nature of the teaching method. “Maybe it worked in a tiny school system like, where did she come from, Lorain?”

DeKalb interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond said he’s heard half the teachers like the program and the other half don’t. He plans to review the performance before recommending whether to renew the contract.

Tom Tucker, the new superintendent of Lorain City Schools, said reading test scores have been “kind of flat, overall” during the five years since Atkinson implemented Success for All there. “Basically, we’re looking at a couple of gains in some areas, and a couple of losses in other areas, all within 5 percent.”

The 7,000-student system is reviewing the program to determine whether the contract — from $1 million to $3 million a year — should be renewed.

Jim J. Smith, a Lorain school board member, said teachers there have complained about the program. He said Atkinson substituted Success for All for another reading program in 2008, “touting its virtues. But the results do not seem to back up her belief in it.”

Don McChesney, a former DeKalb County school board member, said he’d heard some teachers here didn’t like Success for All, but he said teachers typically don’t like new programs because it means more work to learn new material. McChesney is a former history teacher himself. “I didn’t like change either,” he said.

McChesney was on the board when Success for All was approved. He said he and another board member used to joke that Atkinson would wind up working for the group.

“I don’t know if there’s a conflict of interest. I mean, she’s always been a supporter of theirs,” McChesney said. “It’s nice to be able to land on your feet like that.”