In a meeting today with the AJC, new DeKalb School Superintendent Dr. Cheryl L. H. Atkinson said, “We are a step away from great.”
That comment will likely spark some skepticism from parents who contend the troubled system is a step away from falling off a cliff, but Atkinson brims with optimism about her job, although she has been in the position for less than a month.
But she can already name the major problem: The culture in DeKalb.
“We have the opportunity to save lives generationally or, conversely, not. What we have to have is a sense of urgency. I am pushing to get things addressed as quickly as they can without me putting the cart before the horse. We need to make sure that we understand that our role is to serve, period. The second piece is putting your money where your mouth is – we need to start to look at resources and drive them to the schools.”
Atkinson wants an external review of the system’s organization and compensation and is in the process of hiring a company or university to conduct an in-depth study. She reviewed every line of the work order, and is now awaiting proposals. Atkinson already senses that there’s overlap within the system as well as programs that have outlived their usefulness.
She wants the first phase of the study — an examination of central office staff, instructional coaches, assistant principals and principals through a lens of function, organization and salary — to her desk by Jan 15. (DeKalb School Watch has posted the RFP or work order.)
Once that’s done, Atkinson wants the second phase, a review of school building staffing, to be completed in March. “Do we need more literacy coaches? Are we fairly compensating people?”
And if Atkinson finds employees whose pay exceeds their responsibilities?
“I believe we will be within our rights to say we are no longer going to have these jobs. We are going to have new jobs. This is the job, this is the work, this is the salary, based on market studies.”
Atkinson would not predict whether these reviews will produce savings, but said, “This will be more than just organization, structure and personnel. When you combine those with looking at programs that have outlived their usefulness, we will probably get some pretty good numbers.”
Earlier today, Atkinson visited eight schools; she has visited 64 of the 137 in the DeKalb system and intends to get to all of them in her first 90 days, as promised. She admits the visits are quick, often walking and talking at once. And she recognizes that she is coming in the front door and everyone is prepared to shine for her.
But she notes, she has a badge that gets her in the back door and will use it the future. This is just a quick run through. “You can still see culture and you can see the climate,” she said.
Here are some of her comments on other issues:
On access: “We are going to be as transparent as the law allows us to be.”
On whether the costly lawsuit with international construction company Heery/Mitchell can be resolved: “I’m always hopeful with mediation. Because I have talked about compromise. I am very hopeful about it. I do believe that the board is as well.”
On equity versus equal: In one elementary school, Atkinson was wowed by the science lab and asked whether all elementary schools in the county have one. When she was told that they did not, Atkinson said she intends to learn why. “That is something we should have in every school. These are non negotiables that every child should have exposure to in their schools.”
Her own son decided to study to become a cardiovascular surgeon after going to the Cleveland Clinic, meeting a surgeon and holding a diseased heart and a healthy heart in his hands. “If every child had the opportunity to attend this program… think how many more cardiovascular surgeons are out there who we haven’t tapped yet.”
“I think it is important that a child who wants to play a trombone be able to play it, regardless of what school they are in,” she said.
On whether her plans for DeKalb will be impeded if voters reject a new education SPLOST on Nov. 8: “Any time you talk about that amount of money coming in, there will be some handicap if you don’t get it. Call it what it is. It will be a handicap. As you know, we can’t use those dollars for programs or operating costs. So, we are still going to make some very steady changes.”
On leadership: She said she has met with J. Alvin Wilbanks, Gwinnett’s longtime school chief, about his heralded principal leadership program and plans to observe it and learn more. “We need a strong leadership academy for aspiring leaders and current leaders. If you never have seen it, it is hard to know what it looks like. We don’t have one now, but we will. ”
On good teachers fleeing: “The first thing we have to end is the culture of doing it just to do it, not because it makes a difference. I was always, not quite a rebel, but the one who was questioning sitting through meetings with no relevance. We have to be careful that we don’t just make people sit through meetings just to check it off and say it’s done. That is frustrating. People want to make a difference.”
On spending: Now, when asked about grants and new programs, Atkinson said she asks, “Who is it going to benefit? If they can’t tell me, I say take it off the agenda. It puts them in a tailspin.”
But Atkinson said she wants to fully know the impacts and benefits of any proposed new spending, and she wants principals brought in on the discussions to get their input on whether they see any benefits.
On the system’s communications: She agreed communication was a problem, noting that the department was among the smallest in the district. She pointed out that DeKalb has a cable news challenge, but said, “The problem is that, frankly, it is not very good.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog