DeKalb schools still in need of big changes

Is the DeKalb County School District the total disaster it is perceived to be?

As a parent of three students in Chamblee for the past nine years, I say not entirely. It actually does many things well, and has throughout that time, although I’d say much of the positives were accomplished in spite of the school board, superintendents, and central office. Certainly they get little credit. Of course, I only know what I see, and Chamblee has very good schools.

All my three attended Huntley Hills Elementary. Both traditional and Montessori teaching methods work well side-by-side. Next is Chamblee Middle School. It has great success, and not just as a Magnet. The Chamblee “residents” – my daughter among them, perform very well. How? It’s not magic, rather a great principal, staff and teachers, and parents that work with them.

School leaders looking to improve performance overall should visit these schools, and all others that perform well. You’ll find different methods, but a common thread - a team that works in a healthy environment fostered by a principal that “gets it.” They share amongst themselves — it’s time to share systemwide.

And these teachers? Pay them! DeKalb’s teachers have been doing the heavy lifting, all the while taking on so much of the burden with the budget. It is time to shift even more from the central office to the classrooms.

 How? To start, we need a new, highly qualified professional superintendent, and the sooner the better. Now that the state Supreme Court has ruled that the current school board remains in place, finding someone who is both qualified and willing to take the job will not be easy. So get started now. I understand Superintendent Michael Thurmond is now operating with a two-year contract, but nothing in this situation requires him to finish that full term. He would best serve the district by functioning in a transitional role, including working with the board to start an official search, starting with establishing clear job requirements. Remember how long and messy it was last time?

There have been positive steps under Thurmond’s watch, most recently settling the ill-fated Heery construction lawsuit. Sadly, millions were spent on legal fees that should have gone to the classroom. For the first time in years, I’ve heard real hope in the halls of our local schools, following several years of a palpable atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

There has also been some progress in cleaning up the central office, but more is needed, Mr. Thurmond. Many remain who have strong ties to Crawford Lewis, and until they are purged, you are not fulfilling your charge. I applaud you for taking the helm and getting the battleship slowly turning back on course. But the rest of that course correction needs to be executed by a new superintendent, someone trained in that task as a career.

What else does DeKalb need? A sea change in how it engages the community. This should start with the board. The last decade was a dysfunctional mess, marked by arrogance, abuse of power, incompetence, and poor stewardship of our budget, culminating in the current SACS accreditation quagmire. The recent meetings over the Druid Hills Charter Cluster are Exhibit A that things haven’t gotten much better. That’s why you have the parents of even the better-performing schools in Dunwoody and Fernbank leading the charge to break away.

But I do not think that breaking apart the system is the way to go – at least not yet. If more trust can be built, then I think more of the “local control” crowd could be satisfied by engaging the system at the local level.

My third child now attends Kittredge Magnet School, and that leads me to equity.I do see his needs being met more fully by this great school.

But I also see why it’s often a target of those seeking “equity” and I think a portion of the “extra goodies” he gets there should be made available in every classroom.

First on that list would be smaller class sizes. There is no reason gifted students need smaller class sizes than other students.

Finally, DeKalb Schools need to come to grips with the quickly growing Hispanic population. They are not being well-served by the system. They have no seat at the table, thus many of their needs are being ignored. I was disappointed that Gov. Nathan Deal did not select a Hispanic for the replacement board. These children and families value education, they work hard for it, they need to be truly engaged by the system.

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