On Tuesday night, the Tucker Parent Council (TPC) hosted a meet and greet with Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, new superintendent for DeKalb County School System. The program, held at , had around 80 people in attendance, including principals, teachers, parents, and community members from the seven schools in the Tucker cluster (, , and , , Livsey, , and Smoke Rise Elementary). Also in attendance were several members of Dr. Atkinson’s staff, as well as Paul Womack from the DeKalb County Board of Education.
The meeting began with a welcome from Larry Donroe-Wells, Co-President of TPC, followed by an introduction of Dr. Atkinson by Dr. Melanie Castelle, the principal at Livsey Elementary.
Dr. Atkinson then spoke for about 20 minutes, discussing her leadership philosophy and her vision for the school system.
Atkinson is about halfway through what she said many have called her “ambitious” plan to meet principals and visit every school in the first 90 days of her administration. Thus far, she has visited 111 of 137 schools, and while admitting that she’s “tired,” she emphasized that “it’s not about me, it’s about ‘we’” and said that “everyone” will be important in the process as we move forward together. “The important part,” she said, is “listening – listening to parents, teachers, and administrators about concerns, issues, hopes and dreams for DeKalb County Schools.”
She went on to say that her plan is to get “the lion’s share” of resources back to where they’re needed most, in the classroom, and that she has removed items that cannot demonstrate a “value-add.” If programs are not directly related to children and the classroom, the school system will pull out and not spend money on them any longer. She said that she is in the process of auditing programs and personnel and indicated that expenditures that don’t make a direct impact on achievement and success for students will be eliminated.
“Students must come first,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson closed her presentation by listing her “Five Guiding Principles,” which are:
- Students come first.
- Parents are our partners. “The best staff in the world can’t move achievement without parent partners,” she said.
- Victory is in the classroom. The purpose of the central office, she said, is to support the classroom, not the other way around.
- Leadership and accountability are crucial to success.
- It’s going to take all of us if we’re going to move the district forward.
Following her presentation, Dr. Atkinson and her staff answered questions from the audience.
The first question was in regard to the overpopulation at Idlewood Elementary, stating that the school is “out of compliance” with regard to restrooms, cafeteria size, etc. Dan Drake, Director of Planning and Forecasting for the county, responded, saying that for now, portable classrooms would continue to be the answer for Idlewood, and that redistricting may be an option in the next five years, once the new schools come online. The Idlewood crowd didn’t seem satisfied with the response. Pleasantdale and Smoke Rise Elementary will both receive new schools as part of the recently-passed SPLOST IV, but Idlewood, with over 900 students, was left off the list.
The next question was in regard to the rising number of ELL students (English Language Learners), particularly at Tucker High School, and how the school district plans to handle the issue. Dr. Atkinson admitted that that was not a situation she was aware of, but said that they would “get our arms around the current programming and resources and go from there.”
In regard to SPLOST IV, Dr. Atkinson said “Thank you, thank you, thank you for trusting us and believing in us. We will be accountable.” She mentioned that a Citizens Oversight Committee would be formed to make sure that the projects stay on track and that the money is used responsibly. A follow-up question was raised, asking how that oversight committee would be formed. Atkinson will choose the first six members from a pool of applicants, and then those six members will choose the remaining six. More information is forthcoming, but she indicated that once chosen, the names of the committee will be published, and they will be in communication with the public, providing updates on the SPLOST projects on an ongoing basis.
Another question was raised about the purpose and likelihood of providing wireless access at schools, as well as the dangers involved. Atkinson spent several minutes on this topic, saying that “I’m real big on putting laptops in students’ hands.” It keeps them from having to carry heavy textbooks around, and the technology is out there, “but I know there’s stuff on the internet that makes us all cringe.” She mentioned that discipline programs would have to be put in place regarding wireless internet usage at school, and went on to say that we can no longer shield our students from that opportunity (internet in schools) because it’s the way everything is going, but that we have to teach them to be responsible. “They’re not going to have the edge if we pull back,” she said. “We’re looking for balance. We’re working on how to put those controls in place” to provide opportunities for learning while also protecting students. In her former district (Lorain, Ohio), all 6th-12th graders had all their books on laptop. Parents were required to sign for them, and the schools were very deliberate in the rules and discipline regarding the computers, in addition to keeping close tabs on sites and constantly evolving the permissions in regard to filters and blocking, etc.
Another point that Atkinson spent a fair bit of time addressing was high school math. Many metro-Atlanta counties have made the switch back to Discrete Math after having switched to Integrated Math with the state several years ago. DeKalb County is still on an Integrated Math system, but will be making the switch back “as smoothly and as quickly as we can, once supports are in place,” Atkinson said. She indicated that the switch would take place as early as January 2012.
She also discussed her proposed Theory of Action for Change, consisting of “Performance-Empowered Schools” and “Managed-Instruction Schools.” Performance-empowered schools will be those schools with the leadership in place to move forward, advisory councils (which all schools will soon be required to have), and team leadership, and those schools will have some decision-making autonomy. On the other hand, managed-instruction schools will be those schools needing more support, not necessarily in one particular area, but overall. She said that the criteria will be made very clear and public once it’s implemented and she has the support and approval of the board.
Other topics Atkinson touched on were making discipline and codes of conduct consistent across the district (“students will rise and thrive”), her support of school uniforms (“they bring down competitive issues and put focus back to education”), and a year-round schedule (“balanced calendars help avoid achievement gaps”).
She spoke of her staff as a “strong team,” willing to communicate and answer questions of parents and stated that “you are who you hire, but also who you inherit. I make no excuses for trying to select an ‘A’ team.” She closed by saying that she is committed to the mission to get the work done, and that “I know this district is not short on challenges, but it’s also not short on success.”
The meeting was followed by a reception hosted by the Tucker-area PTAs.
The next TPC meeting will be held January 17. Location and topic are to be announced.