DeKalb misses Race to Top deadline; new deadline could have consequences if missed

School Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson was notified Wednesday that the school system has until Feb. 28 to make 15 hires, mostly teaching coaches to help low-income students struggling with math, science and other subjects.

If the system misses the deadline, Atkinson has been warned, there could escalating consequences. The most extreme: loss of the district’s $34 million, four-year federal Race to the Top grant.

In 2009, DeKalb and 25 other local school districts were collectively awarded $200 million through Race to the Top, an education reform program created by the Obama administration.

In exchange, the school districts had to agree to certain initiatives, such as creating turn-around plans for their lowest-performing schools, and to certain deadlines.

DeKalb school officials agreed to but missed a deadline to have the 15 new hires on board by the start of the current school year last August. Their main jobs involved working with students and parents at four of the county’s most economically and academically challenged schools: Freedom Middle School, McNair Middle School, Towers High School and Clarkston High School.

A letter from Teresa MacCartney, deputy state superintendent for Race to the Top implementation, warned Atkinson of potential consequences if those hires aren't made by Feb. 28.

“We’re just trying to make sure all districts are living up to what they promised,” MacCartney said Friday. “There have to be consequences.”

The likely first consequence would be a withholding of some of DeKalb’s Race to the Top grant money, she said.

Walter Woods, spokesman for DeKalb County schools, said the positions weren't immediately filled in part due to the arrival of the new superintendent.

"We wanted to make sure [what we were doing] matched her vision," Woods said.

Math coach positions for Freedom Middle, McNair Middle and Towers High have already been advertised, Woods said. He added the system has every intention of being fully compliant with the state's order. But he left open the possibility that instead of filling the other 12 jobs, the county would submit an amended plan to the state.

"Our plan is being revised so we can ensure it will have an impact on student success," Atkinson said Friday night. "More can be done for students than just hiring people."

Joann Davis, mother of a ninth grader at Towers High, said she was disappointed to hear that the school system hasn't brought the extra people on board.

"The students can definitely use the extra help," Davis said. "My student does fairly well, but any extra help, I'm all for."

Some area churches are also offering Towers' students free tutoring. Davis said.

Towers is in line to hire six of the 15, including a math coach, an English/language arts/literacy coach, a science coach and a social studies coach.

The school also is slated to hire a parent outreach coordinator, whose job will be to improve parent involvement. In addition, the school is to bring in a credit recovery teacher, whose job will be to try to stem the dropout rate by monitoring daily the academic progress of lagging students who are trying to get back on track to graduation.

MacCartney said all of the jobs are geared to helping change the schools' culture by increasing student achievement and parental involvement and by decreasing the dropout rate.

The state letter comes just days after a report commissioned by Atkinson found that the school system is top-heavy and could stand to shed 300 administrative jobs.

The report, released Wednesday, said DeKalb schools have 1,499 employees in the central office, too many for a system its size. The consultant, Virginia-based Management Advisory Group, recommended that DeKalb slim down to 1,162 administrative slots.

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