DeKalb ignores failings of schools

Today marks the first day of the school year for more than 95,000 students in DeKalb County. For the second school year in a row, the year begins without a permanent superintendent. Criminal trials are pending for the system’s previous superintendent and chief operating officer on racketeering and corruption charges.

Although interim superintendent Ramona Tyson has made some much-needed structural changes, without a strong permanent leader in place, students return to the classroom without the stability and instructional vision they deserve.

The academic performance of students in the DeKalb district is dismal. Only one-third of all DeKalb schools made “adequate yearly progress.” Thirteen of the 19 traditional high schools have been assigned “needs improvement” status because they have not qualified for AYP for too many years. Worse, the actual test scores for students paint an even grimmer picture.

In nearly every subject and each grade level on the CRCT, DeKalb students scored the lowest or near the lowest of all students in metro Atlanta. Tellingly, in 2002, African-American students in the DeKalb system scored 17 points higher on the verbal/math sections of the SAT than the national average for African-Americans.

However, by 2010, African-American students in the DeKalb system were scoring 25 points lower than the national average.

Over the past 15 years, I have been actively involved as a parent of students in the DeKalb system as well as an observer of the politics and policies involved with educating our students. Tyson is the first DeKalb superintendent to admit publicly that these scores are unacceptable.

Very few school board members have shown the same courage.

Donald McAdams, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, wrote, “When a school district fails to improve, it is not the district’s workforce that fails; it is the board that fails.”

Current and past DeKalb school boards have failed the students whom they are charged with educating. The board oversees an annual operations budget of more than $800 million, nearly 100,000 students and more than 13,000 employees.

Yet, academic achievement goals are almost never discussed at DeKalb school board meetings. At any given point, most board members could not answer the question “How are students doing in DeKalb?”

Given the bleak academic picture and the multiple crises the system has faced, it is hard to understand how the DeKalb school board has so badly mismanaged the search for a new superintendent.

Nearly 18 months have passed since Tyson was appointed interim superintendent. There has been ample time and opportunity to bring in a nationally respected turnaround expert to begin the process of fixing this broken system. The obvious efforts, by at least some of the board members, to sabotage the selection process make it clear that some do not want to move forward.

Indeed, the monthly mantra of most of them is look elsewhere; nothing is really broken in DeKalb.

With far less drama, expense and time, Fulton and Cobb schools managed to hire new superintendents, and the Atlanta school system hired a strong interim. Although it has had this task on its agenda longer than those other systems, the DeKalb board has failed to hire a new superintendent.

The adults in DeKalb County also have failed the students. From the majority of the members of the DeKalb House legislative delegation, who refused to pass legislation to overhaul the DeKalb school board, to the county commissioners and CEO who ignore the connection between poor schools and rapidly declining property values, there are virtually no civic leaders demanding change.

In fact, due to the intertwining of the power bases of DeKalb, most remain silent because the status quo works to their benefit. Most parents in DeKalb remain oblivious, often because they believe it is the other schools that are bad or simply because they aren’t aware of the magnitude of what is really happening.

And voters in DeKalb, like voters everywhere, pay little attention to school board races and the consequences of those elections.

There is virtually no pressure being placed on the school board members even as our system is failing thousands of students and jeopardizing their futures. The powers that be remain deafeningly silent.

Things are clearly broken in DeKalb. The school board must hire either a permanent superintendent with a proven track record of improving student achievement or a corrective superintendent with a proven capacity to restructure an organization, recruiting top-tier people to reverse the achievement slide.

Only by hiring such a person and changing their behavior to allow that person to lead can board members begin the long process of reversing the academic declines to restore confidence in the school system.

From AYP status to SAT and CRCT scores, DeKalb’s data show the depth of the problems in the system. Leadership, both civic and corporate, has to admit there is a problem and call on the board to take the necessary steps to improve the system.

Finally, parents and voters must become and remain vigilant during this critical time and hold board members accountable. DeKalb’s children deserve better.

Lynn Deutsch is a parent of three, one of whom is a DeKalb County student. She has served on numerous committees at the local and state level, including the Citizens Planning Task Force and the Master Teacher and Academic Coach Implementation Committee.