Gov. Nathan Deal cites ‘rescue’ of DeKalb schools in rare graduation address

Gov. Nathan Deal exhorted this year’s graduates from Ronald E. McNair High School to “learn to set your own alarm clock,” to never settle for “good enough” and to lead a life of learning after they go out into the world.

His speech Tuesday evening before a packed hall at the Georgia World Congress Center was the first of two high school commencement addresses Deal is giving this spring. The other, on Friday, is also for a DeKalb County school — Chamblee Charter High. And that’s no coincidence.

Deal began his 10-minute address by highlighting the risk of accreditation loss that may have been averted after he suspended two-thirds of the county school board. He appointed six replacements, and then the new board and a new superintendent, Michael Thurmond, “rescued this district … from the brink of what could have been disaster,” Deal said.

In December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, citing mismanagement, put DeKalb on probation and threatened to strip its accreditation. More recently, the agency’s leader, Mark Elgart, told the district that it would likely keep accreditation. Among the concerns cited by the agency when it put DeKalb on probation was a stagnation of academic achievement.

McNair High is among the county’s troubled schools. The governor noted that some of the senior class didn’t make it to graduation day.

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If last year’s numbers are a guide, only half did. The Georgia graduation rates for the class of 2012 were released hours before the governor’s speech. They show McNair High’s graduation rate was 47 percent last year — down 6 percentage points from the year before.

Paul Green, whose niece was among the graduates, liked the governor’s message extolling hard work. “The parents and the students needed to hear it,” Green said. “They don’t need it sugarcoated.”

Thurmond, speaking minutes before Deal, said this was the first time a sitting governor had given the commencement address for McNair High. “Don’t let anyone try to tell you what you cannot become,” he told the graduates, the girls in silver robes, the boys in red. “I come here to tell you tonight that God don’t make no junk,” he said to cheers.

Thurmond also addressed the district’s accreditation, giving his “word” and “bond” that the district will not lose it.

The school board fight is not over. The six members appointed by Deal will serve through 2014, the district’s next election year, unless two things happen. A lawsuit now led by the former board chairman is before the Georgia Supreme Court and could undo Deal’s action. Also, Deal could decide to reverse the suspensions he ordered.

Five of the suspended members petitioned for reinstatement, with only Nancy Jester of Dunwoody refusing to do so.

On Friday, Deal will give his second DeKalb commencement address, this time for north DeKalb’s Chamblee Charter High, where the graduation rate last year was 82 percent. That event is 5 p.m. at North DeKalb Stadium.

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