By David Schutten
Michael Thurmond is a proven and accomplished leader who has undertaken a daunting, difficult and perilous job as interim superintendent of DeKalb County School System, a system that appears to be in a tailspin.
Much like the passengers on US Air Flight 1549 crashing into the Hudson River, I feel as if I am on DeKalb Air Flight 2013 crashing into the granite face of Stone Mountain. In the midst of the tailspin we have switched pilots.
Thurmond faces many daunting tasks. The first is leading the school board and the school system off of probation. To accomplish this, he must have the full cooperation of the nine board members. I heard each of them testify before the state Board of Education that they would and could work together to move the system off of probation. However, three weeks later, they were unable to muster a simple majority to elect a chair.
Employee morale is at an all-time low. We are hemorrhaging good teachers and administrators to other school systems. People can go to some neighboring school systems and receive significantly higher paychecks. If something is not done soon, DeKalb will have few veteran teachers left.
Thurmond must find a way to bring class sizes lower. Students, parents, and teachers are frustrated by the increase in class size. Kindergarten classes of 29 without a paraprofessional will result in long-term negative consequences for our children. Students, parents, and teachers are also frustrated by the myriad of tests to which students are subjected.
School administrators must be encouraged and rewarded for using shared decision making. Morale is much higher in those schools where many staff members had input.
We must impress upon students and their parents the importance of coming to school, and on time. Also, a little bit of time teaching younger students to become organized will pay off later. Have you looked into the lockers of middle school students recently? Students must also be taught to value their textbooks and other resources. When you walk into many high schools and middle schools, you see textbooks laying in front of the school, in the hallways, gym, and cafeteria. Parents must play a role in this.
The sooner we realize that young children cannot sit still for long periods of time, and adapt our teaching methods to take this simple fact into account, the more successful they will be. Parents must help in teaching children self-discipline. In too many classrooms, one or two students disrupt the learning environment for 20 or more other students.
The promotion policies and procedures must be fair and transparent. Former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson made strides in reducing the nepotism, but questions still haunt the school system about the fairness of promotions. The school councils must be brought back into the process of selecting school administrators. They should not have the final say, but they should have input and the opportunity to meet the candidates.
Finally, the citizens of DeKalb need to take a break from cynicism, negativity, and constant criticism. It appears that we have a large percentage of people who are hoping leaders, teachers, and students will fail, instead of rooting for them and helping them to succeed. Instead of constantly pointing out what is wrong, take some time to make things right. Stop believing everything you hear. Stop taking everything anonymous bloggers post as the truth. Volunteer to read to students and tutor them. Help a primary student learn their basic math facts and vocabulary.
It will take everyone in DeKalb to come together to bring the system out of the tailspin in which we find ourselves. Each of us must do our share. If you are not willing to help, stop constantly criticizing those working each day to make a difference in the lives of DeKalb’s children.
David Schutten is president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.