Reaching back a decade and across multiple states, DeKalb County’s new school Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson has assembled her team of top-level administrators, choosing three people she previously worked alongside.
Each commands a six-figure salary on par with some of the top educators in metro Atlanta. It’s talent, Atkinson says, that DeKalb, as Georgia’s third-largest public school system, needs to boost student academic achievement.
Atkinson’s point person for instruction is Kathleen Howe, a former colleague of hers as a deputy superintendent in Kansas City, a district of 17,400 students and 2,300 teachers and other employees.
Kendra March is DeKalb’s new deputy superintendent for school leadership and operational support. March worked with Atkinson in Charlotte at a district of 125,000 students.
Gary Brantley, the chief information officer, will be in charge of all computers and technical equipment, such as digital “smart boards” for the entire district. He held a similar post for the Lorain City Schools in Ohio, where Atkinson was most recently the district superintendent.
Atkinson said that she chose people with strong personalities and a commitment to results.
“I came to DeKalb Schools with a mission to improve student success, and I wanted the people around me to share that mission,” she said. “It’s a new day in DeKalb and we’re just getting started.”
Howe, March and Brantley each received a starting salary of $159,800.
Howe’s post is key because the district of 96,000 students is under pressure to make gains in student performance, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Only one-third of DeKalb’s 137 schools made its benchmark for annual yearly progress.
Howe, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, will impact everything from which textbooks students tote home to whether students tackle algebra before they finish the eighth grade.
She led multiple academic teams of teachers and teaching coaches at 60 schools and managed a $4.8 million reading first grant. She developed a reading program in the 2008-2009 school year that boosted student proficiency by two grade levels in just one year.
“I don’t think DeKalb could have picked a better candidate to help move the district forward,” said Jeannette Nobo, assistant director of school improvement and accreditation for the Kansas State Department of Education.
Howe, who has worked in both Missouri and Kansas school systems, reported to Nobo in the mid-2000s when Howe was brought in to help boost reading levels.
Howe was a classroom teacher in middle and high schools, through most of the 1990s before she was tapped to be a state reading consultant in 2001.
“Our core business is student achievement,” Howe said. “That’s why we’re all here. So what we have to look at is what are the resources needed to support student achievement.
Howe is still combing through data on students’ academic performance across the district, but she’s already noticed too few students are tackling the toughest math classes in high school.
“Low participation is a red flag,” Howe said. “That tells me that we’re not embedding enough math instruction early on.”
Atkinson’s other top educator is March, deputy superintendent for school leadership and operational support. March has been a school principal at all levels to high school, and in affluent as well as economically struggling neighborhoods.
“I was able to improve student achievement in all of those schools,” March said. “That’s what our mission is here in DeKalb.”
Her first priority is to make sure that each of the schools in the district has an effective principal, and in turn, that person sets the tone for the classroom.
March helped school districts boost their student achievement goals by assisting in creating student assessment tools, or ways to closely track student progress. She also helped improve curriculum of science and math instruction.
Atkinson’s third hire is Brantley, who in Lorain helped the district move from relying on printed textbooks to electronic tablets that have all the textbooks loaded on them.
“Society is moving fast and kids today need to be plugged in,” he said. “Technology can help us do that.”
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