UPDATE Monday morning: The DeKalb board approved Dr. Atkinson this morning in a 6-3 vote. She is now officially the new school chief of the third largest system in the state of Georgia.
In her first meet-and-greet Saturday morning with the community, DeKalb school chief finalist Cheryl Atkinson came across as open, tough, seasoned and ready for the challenges of the fractured district.
Twice, to applause both times, Atkinson said she had no problem letting people go who are not performing. She also won applause when she said that education takes place in the classroom, not in the central office.
(You gained the sense that the DeKalb parents in the audience believe there is too much dead weight in the central office as the applause was reflexive whenever Atkinson talked about changes at that level.)
“My focus will be on our students and student success first with adults and political issues taking a distant second. Children must come first. Our decisions, my decisions, must first and foremost focus on what is good for all children. My intention is to create an internal structure that will allow effective educators to focus on the core mission improving academic performance. We do not have the luxury of allowing non-academic related issues to consume the attention and focus of all our educators,” she said
She also earned applause when she said that she didn’t believe in teaching to tests, but she did believe in preparing for them, including raising the performance of high school students on the college admission tests, the SAT and the ACT. In Kansas City, she pushed and obtained ACT testing for every student during the school day.
Atkinson called for lacrosse and fencing so more students can participate in sports. She called for updated vo-tech offerings, such as alternative energies. She called for Smart Boards in every classroom. She called for a laptop or iPad for every student.
Her strong performance probably allayed the concerns of some folks, although great rhetoric doesn’t always produce great results. Atkinson’s selection has met with resistance from many parents, who do not believe that she has the depth to manage the 100,000-student urban district and all its problems, including flagging student performance and a stubborn achievement gap.
But Atkinson emphasized that she has done this work for three decades and understands what’s required to boost student achievement and change cultures.
“It is hard work. It is heavy lifting and it will take time. When student achievement is not improving, particularly as it relates to the very foundation for what we do, reading and reading, skills, you can pretty much guarantee your foundation has crumbled and is certainly broken.”
In response to a question on bloat in the central office, Atkinson said the greater question is competency of that staff. She predicted that she would likely downsize, but said her first task would be figuring out who’s doing what and how well they’re doing it. “I have no problem saying to someone you have to go,” she said.
Asked about her husband’s bankruptcy and her failure to list it on her DeKalb application, Atkinson addressed only her own financial abilities, saying that her husband’s small business finances have never affected her abilities to be an effective manager of her schools. She said she has handled complex financial challenges, including in Lorain, and done it well.
Atkinson promised one-on-one meetings with principals, admitting that it would take a lot of her time. “I have some time,” she said. She pledged to meet with teachers and teacher groups, saying that they were critical to her plans to turn around DeKalb schools.
“I never met one kindergarten child who said ‘I am going to drop out in several years.’ Something else happens, and so we have to fix that and we have to stop it,” she said.
In her final comment, Atkinson told the crowd, “It is not all bad. There are some very good things happening in this district. We will built upon those things.”
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog