Schools overflowed amid communication gap, some parents say

Plenty of problems have gone unresolved in the Cross Keys cluster of DeKalb County schools, though none is worse than the overcrowding.

Lunchtime is extended to three or four periods to accommodate all students at some schools. Playgrounds are covered with parked cars. Some classes are in temporary spaces called “portables” — trailers — that hold about 17 students.

Last month, Superintendent Steve Green announced plans for single-grade academies and building new schools to lighten the load, with redistricting to be part of the long-term fix.

But how did it get so out of control? Parents and district officials point to a language barrier between district officials and parents who mostly speak English as a second language, who are seeing education in the United States for the first time and have nothing for comparison. So, many didn’t recognize the crowding as unusual. Also, some say many parents don’t feel included by the school district.

“It’s not that it’s better or worse,” said Magaly Baron, president of the parent council at Sequoyah Middle School, about schooling in the Cross Keys cluster. “A lot of parents don’t know how the system works here. Sometimes, they don’t know what are their rights as parents. Nobody told them.”

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Melvin Johnson, chairman of the DeKalb County Board of Education, said no one could have guessed that DeKalb would become the go-to location for immigrants and refugees.

“There was a trend that there would be fewer people here than (the number of schools) called for,” he said. “The main thing to focus on is the history of what we’re trying to fix. We have over a half billion dollars in needs, and you can’t fix it unless you’ve got the money.

“No one ignored it. It just ballooned at a faster rate.”

DeKalb County has become the unofficial resettlement district in Georgia for immigrants and international refugees, mostly due to the services available for them throughout the county. Because of that, student population in the area is expected to increase about 550 students per year. That would add another 15-plus portables to the schools each year based on current projections.

The Cross Keys cluster is six schools populated mostly with minority students whose primary language is anything but English. It consists of Woodward, Montclair, Dresden and Cary Reynolds elementary schools, Sequoyah Middle and Cross Keys High. The schools have a capacity for 5,700 students, but more than 7,500 are enrolled.

As of September, 81 temporary classrooms were used at the four elementary schools, with another 32 at the middle and high school. There are an average of 17 students in each trailer.

Laura Velazquez, whose 12-year-old son is a seventh-grader at Sequoyah Middle School, said she was named to the school’s parent teacher association this year after the group had been dormant nearly a decade. She wants bilingual administrators to help bridge the divide for many in her cluster and across the county.

“Knowing we can have access and being involved as a parent” could help, she said.

That’s the reason Baron is on board. School officials approached her about helping communication efforts between the Spanish-speaking parents and the school’s staff and administration.

Velazquez, though, wants more out of the district. She has yet to meet with district officials about what’s needed. She said she doesn’t know which DeKalb County Board of Education member represents her school.

“There’s a lack of information out there for us,” she said. “A lot of parents don’t know there’s more than the principal taking care of the school. They think the principal’s in charge of taking care of the school. We need to be heard.”

Green, the superintendent, is trying to change that. In September, two public hearings were held on the proposed plan to address Cross Keys cluster woes. It was from those meetings that the idea for redistricting came about.

“Dr. Green has made a commitment to make sure he engaged all of the citizens in the county, and for them to have a voice in the solution,” Johnson said. “He elevated” the Cross Keys cluster overcrowding “to a crisis situation, and people responded. It got instant involvement.”

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