I have been getting an earful from readers unhappy with a column I wrote on DeKalb’s divisive search for a new school chief. (I also received some responses in agreement.)
Here is an excerpt of my column. Below are some critical responses shared with the writers’ permission:
Unfortunately, the debate over whether Atkinson is the right choice has assumed the racial overtones that mar most discussions about schools in DeKalb, a county whose rich diversity often becomes a point of strife rather than strength.
Atkinson is black. An earlier white female candidate —perceived to have the endorsement of many north DeKalb parents — withdrew in the midst of contract negotiations. A Texas candidate favored by some board members was Hispanic.
Many questions about Atkinson’s qualifications come from white parents and board members in north DeKalb, while her staunchest support seems to be with black parents and board members in the south.
The intense public focus on Atkinson stems, in part, from the risky belief that DeKalb’s new school chief represents the system’s last hope, that she swoops in as a savior to rescue the schools from lethargy and apathy. (That hope also reflects the despair with which many DeKalb residents view their school board.)
DeKalb would be better off if it accepted that no single person will end the apathy and lethargy in its schools. Rather than measuring her for a superhero cape, Atkinson ought to be assessed on her ability to set a higher tone and expectations, hire and inspire good people and impose and enforce accountability.
Turning around DeKalb County schools will take the collective commitment and effort of every principal, teacher and parent, and it will not happen overnight. At times, it will take the willingness of DeKalb parents of means and influence — whether on the north or south ends of the county — to recognize that giving their own child an edge is not always as important as giving all children a chance.
The divisions among DeKalb parents reflect income as much as race, said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.
“I see the dividing line of I-285 with Columbia, Towers and McNair high schools struggling on one side, and M.L. King, Southwest Dekalb, Arabia Mountain and Miller Grove high schools, which don’t have those same struggles, on the other side, ” he said.
What connects most of DeKalb’s middle-income parents, said Schutten, “is they don’t understand how much more exposure their kids have to daily learning in their homes compared to low-income kids and how much these kids need. “People can come together across differences if they will sit down and listen to each other and not talk at each other.”
Here are the criticisms, starting with parent Calvin Sims:
“I am a black parent in south DeKalb, and I have raised concerns about Dr. Atkinson’s record, and so have other black parents. The Lorain, Ohio, school district where Dr. Atkinson has served four years as superintendent has had no marked improvement, according to the record. The district is now on Academic Watch, one level from Academic Emergency. The district met only 1 of 26 state indicators (writing), and the district also did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress. Thirteen hundred DeKalb Students requested transfer’s this year as a result of 22 schools failing to make AYP. Therefore, is there a rational basis for the DeKalb School Board selecting Dr. Atkinson as Superintendent? No.
DeKalb School Board members Nancy Jester and Donald E. McChesney were right to bring out the facts regarding the Lorain, Ohio, district. The public had the right to know, and we must know the facts to properly influence the political process in the interest of good education in a Democratic society. Honestly, if the DeKalb school board is genuinely concerned about significantly improving the quality of education for the children of DeKalb (and I believe they are), then they will act rationally and look further for an exceptional superintendent. Our children deserve nothing less.
And retired educator Maria C. Pico said:
I retired last year after 29 years as a high school and middle teacher with DeKalb and after reading your recent opinion piece wanted to chime in. Let me also say that as well as raising children of my own during my career I taught at both south side failing schools and north schools which had the highest scores in the system so I come with a perspective few have.
For you to suggest that typos in a job application or doctoral dissertation are unimportant for someone assuming the top leadership position in a major metro school system is really absurd and then to imply that the whole thing is racially motivated makes me think perhaps you need to do a little field work to get a reality check. You should go to the DCSS website and sign up to substitute teach so that you too can experience much of the the sub par mediocrity in leadership I was forced to work with for the last two of my nearly three decades in that bureaucracy.
I applaud the parents and board members who are asking questions about the selection of Atkinson and her inability to lead. There will be little change for the better in the DCSS until both elected and appointed leaders are selected on the basis of merit, service, outstanding work history, integrity and ethics.
And parent Cortlandt Minnich wrote:
You unfortunately took the bait on race in your “reporting” today. I have heard this argument so many times it makes me nauseous. The typically DeKalb argument is, as usual, a side-show to hide the complete incompetence of the school system. I can’t represent all the feelings of the “wealthy, white” segment of the county who oppose Dr. Atkinson; I can only share my own views. I think that Dr. Atkinson is probably a fine administrator. Her credentials appear quite good for a superintendent position of some scale. Her credentials do not however portray her as the best choice of any superintendent candidate in the country. You are patently wrong; DeKalb desperately needs a superhero right now. Between the investigation and the interim status, we have been without clear leadership for at least three years. It is clearly time for a reformer to come and re-make the system. The majority of the school board is too dysfunctional and entrenched to recognize this fact.
As an example, while the APS interim was charged with seizing an opportunity to clean house, our insider-Interim was apparently charged with keeping DCSS on-track. So, at the same time the recruiting criteria are understated, we are hiring what appears to be an average candidate. To make it even more tragic (there is just no other word for it), the contract is generous enough to be nationally competitive and has a long term termination clause.
Please don’t contribute to this ridiculous notion that race has anything to do with the disappointment of a large segment of parents (who are not all white and are not all from the north side). A portion of this segment of the parent population happens to be accurately represented by Ms. Jester, and Mr. McChesney. Other portions of this dissatisfied group are poorly represented by their school board members. Please put on your reporter shoes and visit Dunwoody High School, North Druid Hills, Chamblee Charter High School, and Tucker High. You will not find the purported majority white, wealthy, North DeKalb student population stereotype that you have been so adeptly sold. We are a mixed bag of parents who are fighting for our kids to have even an average chance of competing against other successful Georgia districts, the 47 other states with better public schools, private schools, and now students from other countries. Why would we not demand to get a world-class leader?
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog