Colleagues have been telling Cheryl Atkinson that it seems her first year as DeKalb County school superintendent flew by.
“Maybe to you,” responds Atkinson, who has spent the past 12 months holding fast as hurricane-like winds buffeted her school district.
Atkinson is still standing. And sometimes, she’s still smiling.
Lately, the leader of the state’s third largest school district has had more reason to smile. For the first time in five years, DeKalb saw a jump in enrollment this year, gaining 855 students. (That jump led to math teacher shortages at some high schools, but Atkinson said teachers should be in place now.)
On the newly released SAT scores, DeKalb seniors earned an average combined score of 1,343 for critical reading, writing and mathematics, an increase that was nearly double the statewide average increase. DeKalb still trails the national average of 1,498, but its improvement rate is significant, especially since 70 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. Atkinson hopes to raise scores by having all high school students to sit for the SAT or ACT during the school day.
While the state’s passing rates on the End of Course Tests in algebra and geometry were 74 percent, DeKalb students posted an 89 percent passing rate. The county saw improvement on its CRCT scores as well, exceeding the state standard in third- and fourth-grade reading, sixth-grade social studies and seventh-grade math.
“I attribute that to a focused effort around being accountable and then actually trying to do what we said we were going to do,” Atkinson said in a recent interview.
Atkinson expects academic improvements to continue as DeKalb introduces benchmark testing to chart student growth, a challenge to administer because only 36 percent of the district’s buildings are wireless. She admits “hiccups” in the rollout of the benchmarks, noting, “It really is our trial and error year. We are hoping by the second quarterly benchmark assessments that the majority of students will be taking their assessments at the computer, hopefully at their desks.”
She recognizes the increased burden on teachers from a new round of assessments on top of larger class sizes, which is why she’s advocating for a weekly early release where school would end an hour earlier to provide time for teachers to plan, compare notes and collaborate
“Whenever I go into schools, I ask teachers, ‘Who’s learning and how do you know?’” said Atkins. “Teachers are telling me ‘You’ll have to wait to the weekend so I can get to checking their work and grading them.’ There is just not enough time to retool and to be able to share information.”
As a principal, Atkinson oversaw a school in Florida with high poverty and low parent involvement. To bring parents to the school, she launched evening performances every nine weeks where every student was on the stage so all parents had a reason to come. She held family spaghetti dinner nights. She concluded school 15 minutes earlier to allow children time to do homework, only bringing it home to have parents sign it.
“What is the point of homework? It is practice, not torture,” she said. “Who cares whether children do it on the bus or at home.”
In her first year, Atkinson spent a lot of time countering rumors, which tend to take root and spread like kudzu in DeKalb. She hasn’t been helped much by the DeKalb school board, a feuding group who often add confusion rather than clarity to controversies.
In fact, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — the accrediting agency for many Georgia school systems including DeKalb — plans to visit next week to investigate complaints of board mismanagement and meddling.
While some DeKalb parents expect Atkinson to tamp down the unruly board, Atkinson says, “Boards have to govern themselves. They have to keep each other going in the same direction. Superintendents can share a lot information and certainly talk about reform, education practices, data-driven decisions, strategic planning and execution and all the things we do as educators, but we can’t be the board.”
Despite any clashes and disagreements, Atkinson believes that the DeKalb school board shares both her commitment to student achievement and her belief that equity and opportunity for all students in the county are “non-negotiables.”
“It is a challenge to address issues and move a system forward with competing interests and competing agendas,” she said. “A good system struggles with it, a great school system has mastered it. The board, as a unit, and the superintendent — I see it as marriage. Being divided doesn’t help.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog