There is a growing effort under way in DeKalb to oppose the confirmation of educator Cheryl Atkinson of Ohio as school chief.
Parents are using polls and e-mails to mobilize against her appointment, building on the detailed objections laid out in letters from school board members Nancy Jester and Don McChesney.
After reading the hundreds of posts here on the Get Schooled blog for and against Atkinson, I see two major questions reflected in the divided commentary:
Is Atkinson the best choice for an urban district that has lost prestige and academic ground in the last decade? We won’t know the answer until Atkinson comes to DeKalb. A resume only tells a small part of the story. We have all seen leaders with fantastic resumes and great experience fail, and others with limited resumes and unproven experience excel.
The more relevant question is whether Atkinson is a good choice.
I have read her application and her dissertation — neither of which is poorly written, as some folks on the blog have maintained. I have also gone back and read more than a 100 news stories about her tenure in Lorain.
It would be a mistake to cast DeKalb’s new school chief as the system’s savior, as some posters are doing. They are bound to be disappointed. One person cannot turn around a failing school system. It will take every principal, teacher and parent in DeKalb to improve the system, and it will not happen overnight.
Nor can the school system’s fate and fortunes be disentangled from those of the greater community. DeKalb schools are not immune to the failings of the county, which include neighborhoods decimated by foreclosures and high unemployment.
What we should ask is not whether Atkinson has the skills to single-handedly transform DeKalb schools, but whether she can set a better tone and higher expectations, bring in and rally good people and impose and demand accountability.
Can Atkinson work with others? Can she prioritize? Can she figure out the good leaders in DeKalb’s bureaucracy and the worthless ones? Does she care about kids, all kids? Does she have strategies to help children in poverty, of which there are now more than ever in DeKalb.
Atkinson comes from a rare small town with two newspapers, both of which are writing about her selection as DeKalb’s new school chief.
The Morning Journal wrote a complimentary editorial about her in the wake of her decision to come to DeKalb. Here is an excerpt:
The DeKalb County Schools, in metropolitan Atlanta, Ga., will be getting an exceptional superintendent in Cheryl Atkinson. She’s certainly proved that during her four years as superintendent of the Lorain City Schools.
DeKalb has chosen wisely in picking her. Lorain will be hard-pressed to find someone who can match or exceed Atkinson’s vision and her blend of academic, managerial and people skills.
Atkinson is set to start the new job in mid-September. She’s also intent on doing everything possible to get the school year in Lorain started on track.
But that’s typical of this gifted educational leader. In Lorain, she has been committed to accomplishing goals and exceeding expectations.
This past week, Lorain school officials learned that the district’s state report card ranking will move up from Academic Watch to Continuous Improvement. Also, Lorain High School’s latest state rating is rising to Effective, and all the traditional schools in Lorain will have met the state benchmarks for attendance at 93 percent for the first time since Ohio began the report card system.
Under Atkinson’s leadership, high school graduation rates have risen from 75 percent to 84 percent. The district has also successfully opened new state-of-the-art elementary and middle schools, reorganized departments to improve efficiency and put in place practices and programs to improve student academic performance.
Atkinson achieved all this and more despite being met with an unexpected financial crisis when she arrived that led to the layoff of one-third of the teaching staff to balance the budget.
What Atkinson accomplished in Lorain was remarkable and inspiring. Lorain needs someone who can build on the foundation she created and keep the school system on a steady path of improvement.
After being bypassed for the top job at Cleveland Schools, Lorain Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson will be leaving her post after four years to lead the 100,000-student DeKalb County Schools in Georgia.
Word of the decision was met with mixed feelings by Lorain school board members.
“In 40 years in education, Cheryl is the best school administrator I have ever worked with,” Paul Biber said. “I could definitely see her becoming a state superintendent someday.”
Biber praised Atkinson’s prowess with school finances, improving academic performance, raising graduation rates and establishing innovative programs such as the system’s Alternative School for troubled students, which stresses discipline and accountability.
“She was a legitimate educator who never lost sight of the education that goes on in the classroom between a teacher and student,” Biber said. “Sometimes people in those positions become bureaucrats.”
At the same time, he expressed disappointment at the timing of her job search and winning the Georgia school post. Given the district’s rough financial status including projected deficits, Biber said the search for a new superintendent will be a “complicated and difficult process. I’m disappointed in the timing. I thought we’d dodged that bullet.”
“It’s certainly unfortunate to see her leave, and I don’t fault her for bettering her career,” board president Tony Dimacchia said. “She’s done an excellent job, and we’re very happy with the progress we’ve made and the direction she’s sent us in.”
Board member Jim Smith, who has been a critic of Atkinson in the past, declined comment Saturday night.
Atkinson, who could not be reached for comment, was among three finalists for the top post in Atlanta City Schools in June, but she withdrew her name from contention last month amid news that Atlanta school officials were reportedly involved in a large-scale scandal affecting falsifying of student test scores.
Atkinson was among three finalists for the slot of CEO of Cleveland Schools, all of whom were passed over when the district opted to promote an official from within in June.
Lorain faces a projected $11.35 million deficit for the 2012-13 school year, which is expected to double by the 2013-14 school year.
“When you are in a situation like this, it limits what you can offer and who wants to come in,” Biber said. “If levies don’t pass, you go to a bare-bones district. And if you can’t pay enough to keep and grow someone, it makes it very tough.”
Biber and Dimacchia agreed that part of the work facing the school board in finding a replacement for Atkinson will be to determine how much of a salary and benefits package can be offered by the financially strapped system.
“We will definitely have to look at salary,” Biber said. Atkinson earned a base salary of approximately $200,000 when she received a five-year extension in 2009. The Lorain board will have to approve letting Atkinson out of that contract extension via an escape clause, Biber said.
Neither Biber nor Dimacchia said he felt Atkinson used the district as a steppingstone to a larger, better-paying job with a much bigger school system. “She moved us in the right direction,” Biber said. “Our report card is much better than it has been.”
Atkinson said in June that she had been up-front with the school board about looking for another job.
“She worked harder than many I’ve seen and added value,” Dimacchia said. “She was passionate about educating Lorain’s children.”
In Lorain, Atkinson worked with a $91.5 million budget and approximately 8,000 students.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog