New DeKalb school chief: “We are a step away from great.”

Cheryl Atkinson

Cheryl Atkinson

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

47 comments Add your comment


October 26th, 2011
4:01 pm

Maybe, just maybe… DeKalb may be on the right track. But I am not holding my breath.

Dunwoody Mom

October 26th, 2011
4:06 pm

Dr. Atkinson, part of the problem with the “culture” starts with the Board of Education and there is nothing you can do about those clowns.

I will anxiously hope and pray that she follows through on her promises.


October 26th, 2011
4:19 pm

Diplomatic speaker, nasty person, expected weak follow thru and passing the buck based on past behavior. Ultimately, Dr. Atkinson is Dr. Atkinson.


October 26th, 2011
4:20 pm

The plan looks good…let’s give her a chance because our children desperately deserve an exceptional education. All of the bickering does nothing but impede progress. I hope that “Dunwoody Mom” will work WITH


October 26th, 2011
4:20 pm

…work WITH the school district and not AGAINST. After all, Dunwoody is an integral part of the DeKalb County School System.

Dekalb taxpayer

October 26th, 2011
4:38 pm

She says some good things but if she thinks the system is just “a step away,” she is seriously out of touch.


October 26th, 2011
4:46 pm

I think you are confusing the blog alias of Dunwoody Mom with the tens of thousands of taxpayers that make up the area of Dunwoody. Dunwoody Mom is a blog alias. Dunwoody is an area in north Dekalb. I did not read Dunwoody Mom’s post as critical of Dr. Atkinson. I read it as concerned that the BOE members who have many, many “friends and family” in highly paid non-teaching posts will be reluctant to support Dr. Atkinson on necessary reforms.

Taxpayers will be looking to see if resources are driven down to the classroom level.

This was posted today on the DeKalb County School Watch blog regarding the RFP to standardize non-teaching salary positions and ensure they are in line with other school districts. As to the sheer numbers of non-teaching personnel, I don’t know if that will be address in this study:
The following RFP was posted today by DCSS. Let’s hope it’s a sign that they mean to really shake things up. I am ‘cautiously optimistic’. The request begins:

The DeKalb County School District (“DCSD”) is seeking professional services from highly qualified and capable offerors having salary, position specification, and organizational restructuring experience with K-12 school districts comparable to “DCSD.” The selected offeror will review and provide an in-depth, detailed recommendation regarding an appropriate organizational structure for “DCSD.” Additionally, the selected offeror must modify, update, and develop position specifications for all positions in the restructured organization compliant with applicable local, state and federal laws and regulations, as well as policies of the DeKalb County Board of Education (“Board of Education”).

This project will be conducted in two phases. Phase 1 will focus on Central Office staff, Principals, Assistant Principals, and Instructional Coaches. Phase 2 will focus on all other DCSD positions.

The selected offeror will:
(1) Review and recommend a DCSD organizational restructure, based on national benchmarks, industry standards, and best practices of other K-12 schools districts comparable to DCSD;
(2) Review, modify, and/or create position specifications based on the recommended restructuring of DCSD; and
(3) Recommend the appropriate salary range for each position title in the restructured organization.
The selected offeror will manage all aspects of the areas listed above, including, but not limited to: job analysis; salary evaluation; position and pay classification; and preparation of requested reports. DCSD, at its sole option, may engage the selected offeror to manage the implementation of accepted findings and recommendations.”


October 26th, 2011
5:08 pm

I really hope Dr. Atkinson makes the necessary changes that will make DeKalb schools better than they are currently. I am sending my son to a private school because the schools in my neighborhood were not up to par although my taxes have increased substantially every year. Any attempt to turn things around in DeKalb County Schools is welcomed.


October 26th, 2011
5:36 pm

Sounds good, but let’s wait a year and see what’s happening then. And I’d be curious to know what she thinks of discipline in the schools/classroom.

Teacher Reader

October 26th, 2011
5:42 pm

Atkinson is saying the right things, but I am skeptical that she will be able to do as she says she wants to. I hope that she looks at salaries, not just as if people are being paid enough, but if they are being paid too much-which in my humble opinion is more of a problem than getting paid too much.

Dunwoody Mom is correct. The board of ed is a huge problem in the district, but she cannot control who sits on the board. Hopefully she works hard and screams and kicks to get her “agenda” done, but if she is meek and mild nothing much will change.


October 26th, 2011
5:45 pm

Voters in DeKalb must do their part and vote this BOE out of office, and they must vote for competent and reputable people in the ensuing process. The “friends and family” employed in highly paid non-teaching roles is an enormous problem for her to overcome.


October 26th, 2011
5:46 pm

That DeKalb school watch blog is about the most negative blog I have read, there is absolutely no pleasing that cult over there.

Dr. Atkinson was a terrific hire.


October 26th, 2011
6:00 pm

I hear she is already making some changes within the School’s Administrative Office. This is a step in the right direction. In fact most of the folks that are leading her Departments from the old regime needs to go. She needs to clean up the IT Department, the Accounting Department, etc. Get some new people in those leading positions.

Maureen Downey

October 26th, 2011
6:06 pm

@GaNative, She hired a new CIO from her old district, Lorain, a new curriculum and instruction director from Kansas City and a schools leaders and operations person from Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Dunwoody Mom

October 26th, 2011
6:12 pm

@justjanny…I have never worked AGAINST DCSS.

[...] After meeting today with the new DeKalb school chief, it seems to me there could be a lot of change ahead for metro systems. (We will have to see what changes the new Fulton superintendent has in mind for his district.) [...]


October 26th, 2011
6:29 pm

@ DannyX maybe it’s because we know what is really going on and aren’t impressed with words. We prefer actions! Having taught in DCSS much of what is posted is the truth. Maybe you’re a DCSS friends and family member and can’t handle the heat.


October 26th, 2011
6:35 pm

Maureen, I really feel like Dekalb Schools would be way ahead of where they are today if they had kept Dr. Johnny Brown as Superintendent. His problem was he didn’t clean house of the old regime and they stabbed him in the back.


October 26th, 2011
6:42 pm

“Dr. Johnny Brown as Superintendent. His problem was he didn’t clean house of the old regime and they stabbed him in the back.”

No. His problem is that he TRIED to clean house of the old regime and they stabbed him in the back.


October 26th, 2011
6:48 pm

LOL, well that too Dekalbite. :) They run the school system like a bunch of Chicago Gangsters during the Al Capone days. I personally know of the IT Department hiring a mechanic or someone from the maintenance department for a job in IT and dissing well qualified candidates.

Capsized in DeKalb

October 26th, 2011
6:59 pm

Dr. Atkinson,

You bring up a very good point in your last statement regarding the cable news channel within DeKalb County School System. PDS – 24.

I agree it’s not good at all.
Here is the problem, the director of the department has NO experience in broadcasting other than she broadcasted to former superintendents that she is the daughter of a former school board member.
Philandrea Guillory is the daughter of former board member Francis Edwards and has no broadcast experience EVER in her semi-professional life. $120,000 for a person who can’t create a YouTube video much less run a communications department?
Let’s not stop there, her husband, David Guillory, is the Director of the Transportation Department at DeKalb County School system. He also makes $120,000 for running a school bus transportation department that he has NO professional experience running! The transportation department doesn’t even use the routing software that it purchased in excess of $500,000!
Then there is Jamal Edwards, the 2nd child of Francis Edwards who was promoted last year to the within MIS department and because he didn’t show up for work for SIX MONTHS! How does someone NOT show up for SIX MONTHS, taxpayers complain to the administration and the result is he gets PROMOTED with a PAY RAISE!

That’s the problem within DeKalb County School System Dr. Atkinson.
Welcome to DeKalb, good luck.


October 26th, 2011
7:02 pm

“Maybe you’re a DCSS friends and family member and can’t handle the heat.”

Far from it. Not a big fan of the board myself. Heat is fine, but that blog is repeating the same thing over and over and over again. I at least thought they would give Atkinson a chance but the same constant negativity and bad mouthing is still constant there.

I used to frequent that blog a least a couple times a week but stopped. I already know what the people there are going to say. They are entrenched in their negativity.

The fact is Dr Atkinson seems to agree with most of the things that the school watch blog brings up, but you people can’t see it through your negative lenses. She is about to do great things for our schools.


October 26th, 2011
7:06 pm

LMAO @ Capsized in Dekalb. So true and right on point. Also today I found an article that Dr. Atkinson is hiring a consulting firm to look into positions to eliminate to save money. Here’s the link:

If Dr. Atkinson would just happen upon a certain convenience store not too far from the central office she would find a lot of her administrators sitting around playing lotto for quite some time. I Hope she gives them their walking papers.

Teacher Reader

October 26th, 2011
9:03 pm

Danny, not enough parents, or tax payers realize how broke the system is. I only realize, because I taught there for 3 years. I believe that people are giving Atkinson a chance, but are skeptical, and who can blame them because of the bloated salaries, millions upon millions wasted on lawyers and law suits, the way the cell phone towers were handled, and oh so many things. I believe that Atkinson has until June, and if things don’t look they are going to change (some people are let go and not offered contracts, salaries right sized, the right number of administrators, etc) that she will be facing many angry people. I believe that June is enough time for her to show that she has the kids best interest at heart and is not like those before her.

Former SPARK parent

October 26th, 2011
10:46 pm

This ridiculous woman just proved all her critics right. The last thing you want to do coming in to a situation like DKSS is a bunch of spin and PR. You want to rally the troops–that’s fine. But you want to try to tell the rest of us–who know better– that this train wreck of a system is “one step” away from greatness? Please. Who’s going to take you seriously now? Not me.

Please put the Keith Bromery “tell-’em-what-they-want-to-hear” playbook back on the shelf, put your serious hat on (if you have one), and come to work like Erroll Davis, ready to get started on solving your district’s massive, overwhelming problems, not obfuscating them.

Zachs Mom

October 26th, 2011
10:52 pm

Dekalb schools were once great! Mr. Halford was in charge, there were very few non-whites and parents were involved. Then PC happened and it was down hill from there. I miss Idlewood Elementary and Mr. Lavender the principal. He knew your parents and man…if you got in trouble at school…..there would be MORE at home.


October 26th, 2011
11:08 pm

She’s saying all the right things. I just hope she’s the real deal.


October 26th, 2011
11:10 pm

All I have to say is good luck Dr. Atkinson because you are going to need it. She also needs to look at all of the departments at East Campus where the rest of the New Birth, Fraternity/Sorority mafia, Friends and Family clan are quietly being tucked away. These incompetents do nothing but sit in their cushy offices and work on their online degrees all day.


October 26th, 2011
11:17 pm

Hey I have a bright idea. Start by firing all of the people in Human Resources because they were in on some of this mess. If they weren’t rubber stamping some of these hires, DeKalb would not have some of the problems it has.


October 26th, 2011
11:19 pm

They have turned DeKalb into a jobs factory for the incompetent and well connected.

Ole Guy

October 26th, 2011
11:25 pm

Could these remarks reflect the mentality of a leadership which chooses to completely ignore present-day realities while inventing a “NeverNever Land” of educational “peaches an’ cream”.


October 26th, 2011
11:31 pm

Teacher Reader, I fully understand the problems facing DeKalb schools. I totally respect your attitude and position, you are giving Atkinson a chance to succeed, the DeKalb School Watch blog, not so much.

Dunwoody Mom

October 27th, 2011
6:56 am

@DannyX, is your name David or Eugene?


October 27th, 2011
8:27 am

Told you she’s great at PR. But just watch nothing happen. Cracks me up she is doing the exact same thing she did here. LOL. Sorry Dekalb, you were warned.

Dr NO / Mr Sunshine

October 27th, 2011
8:34 am

“new DeKalb School Superintendent Dr. Cheryl L. H. Atkinson said, “We are a step away from great.”

Thats laughable at best. Yet another stupid, overly paid ninkompoop opens their mouth giving the confirmation.


October 27th, 2011
9:06 am

“@DannyX, is your name David or Eugene?”

No its not. Very immature response Dunwoody Mom. I guess after reading your posts at the DeKalb School Watch blog it pretty much fits your pattern and does not surprise me a bit.

I am going to continue to support Atkinson until she does something to change my mind. Right now she seems to understand the situation and is going to need the support of the community. I think it should be obvious why we should encourage her to succeed.

@ Danny X

October 27th, 2011
9:14 am

When she said that “We are a step away from great.” she showed that she has no clue about what is really happening in DCSS. Shoot she can’t even get that we are a school system and not a school district correct.


October 27th, 2011
10:24 am

“When she said that “We are a step away from great.” she showed that she has no clue about what is really happening in DCSS.”

This is so petty. Lol.

Dandy Jack Robinson, Th. D.

October 27th, 2011
10:42 am

I remember back in the 1990s when Superintendent Joe Hairston kept saying that Clayton County was poised for greatness, as the school system kept going on a downward spiral. Poised for greatness? A step away from greatness? Greatness in education (private or public) begins with discipline. Platitudes do not bring about greatness. Platitudes can be O. K. in and of themselves, but they have to be accompanied by real action. What DeKalb County Schools need more than anything is discipline. The teachers need to be empowered to do their jobs, like my cousin John Trotter has been saying for years. Anything less is just empty, hollow, and meaningless platitudes.

Former SPARK parent

October 27th, 2011
11:32 am

Praise without accomplishment wreaks terrible havoc in inner-city education, and here goes Atkinson falling into that trap. Don’t tell kids they’re great; tell them the truth: their schoolwork is subpar and they need to work harder. Tell them they’re LOVED, but don’t tell them they’re great unless they EARN it.

The same goes for the employees Atkinson was presumably speaking about. No, they’re not a step away from greatness–they’re just one more misstep away from causing a parent revolt.

I expected better of you, Dr. Atkinson, and am severely disappointed in this early misjudgment on your part.

Beverly Fraud

October 27th, 2011
3:11 pm

Other recent quotes:

Muammar Gaddafi: “I’m one breath from being alive”

Five Points street vendor, selling “Molex” watches. “It’s one R from being a state of the art timepiece.”


Once Again

October 27th, 2011
3:22 pm

The government will never admit its own complicity in its failures.

End all government schooling. End the criminal, socialist funding mechanism. Restore responsibility to parents and a truly free market in education. Show your committment to education through your voluntary contribution to charity schools, scholarship programs, or helping make homeschooling possible for your friends and neighbors.


October 27th, 2011
5:03 pm

Since things are so bad in the country and has been for so long, why haven’t the parents blogging overwhelmed the board meetings and demanded change over the years? This system is in the mess it is because people complain to one another but never make a stink about things.

HS Public Teacher

October 27th, 2011
5:49 pm


Free up the teachers to do ‘their own thing.’ Allow teachers to teach. Allow teachers to prove themselves and create super lessons for kids to learn. Stop making teachers do absolutely silly things like word-walls, essential questions on the board, GPS posted in the room, etc. These things have not (and will not) magically increase student learning. This will free up time for teachers to focus on student learning – won’t that be nice for a change?

Then – and only then – will you be able to clearly discern the “good” teachers from the others….. but that would be something like the NUMBER TEN MOVE.

My 2 cents

October 28th, 2011
3:57 pm

So how much will be spent on an external evaluation and how can we justify spending the money on this when it will be ignored by the politically connected? We did not need to hire Pollyanna, we need to hire someone who will crunch numbers and make things work. If this goes through I want to see her get the recommendations applied – not hidden.


October 28th, 2011
4:03 pm

Dr Atkinson

Congrats on your appointment. My request is simple – please make every effort possible to end the RAMPANT NEPOTISM that exists within the DCSS. Please mandate that each current & past board member must submit to you a list of each and every family member who is also currently employed by the DCSS. I think you will be staggered.

Good luck. You will need it.


October 28th, 2011
4:50 pm

HS Public Teacher
October 27th, 2011, 5:49 pm


Free up the teachers to do ‘their own thing.’ Allow teachers to teach. Allow teachers to prove themselves and create super lessons for kids to learn. Stop making teachers do absolutely silly things like word-walls, essential questions on the board, GPS posted in the room, etc….
Then – and only then – will you be able to clearly discern the “good” teachers from the others….. but that would be something like the NUMBER TEN MOVE.

AMEN, AMEN!! I couldn’t agree more!!