David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, wrote a column on the challenges facing new superintendent Michael Thurmond from an educator’s perspective.
His essay will be part of a package in the Sunday op-ed pages on DeKalb Schools. Please check out the entire package Sunday.
By David Schutten
Michael Thurmond is a proven and accomplished leader who has undertaken a daunting, difficult and perilous job as interim superintendent of the DeKalb County School System, a system that appears to be in a tailspin.
Much like the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 crashing into the cold waters of the Hudson River, I feel as if I am on DeKalb Air Flight 2013 crashing into the granite face of Stone Mountain. In the midst of the tailspin we have switched pilots.
As Stephen Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and former Fulton superintendent, stated, Michael Thurmond possesses three of the qualities of a successful Superintendent: 1. Great leadership skills; 2. Political savvy; and, 3. Excellent management skills.
I am personally not bothered by his lack of experience in education. There are examples of great and successful superintendents like the late General John Stanford, who had little or no experience in education before he became the Fulton and later Seattle school chief.
He faces many daunting tasks. The first is leading the school board and the school system off of probation. To accomplish this he must have the full cooperation of the nine members of the DeKalb school board. The board members must learn to work together.
I heard each of them testify before the state Board of Education that they would and could work together to move the system off of probation. However, three weeks later, they were unable to muster a simple majority to elect a chair. What I find disheartening is that Dr. Gene Walker, who remains chair on a 4-3-2 vote, does not recognize this as a symptom of their inability to function as a whole. He and any other board member that do not understand the nature of the problems DeKalb faces should resign immediately.
Employee morale is at an all-time low. We are hemorrhaging good teachers and administrators to other school systems. People can go to some neighboring school systems and receive significantly higher pay checks. DeKalb teachers and other employees are working harder with fewer resources. This is not an easy problem to fix given the current dismal financial state of the school system.
But if something is not done soon, DeKalb will have few veteran teachers left. Employees are making far less than they did five years ago. Couple this with the loss of the Tax Sheltered Annuity promised to employees when DeKalb left the Social Security system, and you have a looming disaster that has already started.
We must find a way to bring class sizes lower. Students, parents, and teachers are frustrated by the increase in class size. Kindergarten classes of 29 without a paraprofessional will result in long-term negative consequences for our children.
Students, parents, and teachers are also frustrated by the myriad of tests to which students are subjected. There needs to be far more time devoted to learning, and far less time devoted to testing.
School administrators must be encouraged and rewarded for using shared decision making. Morale is much higher in those Title 1 Schools where many staff members had input into the Title 1 as opposed to those in which the principal and a few people developed the budget. The knowledge and experience of professional educators must be honored, nurtured, and valued. Encourage people to express their opinions and give suggestions.
We must impress upon students and their parents the importance of coming to school, and coming to school on time. There are too many parents who do not see the importance of this. Also, a little bit of time teaching younger students to become organized will pay off later. Have you looked into the lockers of middle school students recently? Students must also be taught to value their textbooks and other resources. When you walk into many high schools and middle schools, you see text books laying in front of the school, in the hallways, gym, and cafeteria. Parents must play a role in this.
The sooner we realize that young children cannot sit still for long periods of time, and adapt our teaching methods to take this simple fact into account, the more successful they will be. This is another reason class sizes must be lowered. We set up children for failure when we do not give them time to move around. Also, parents must help in teaching children self-discipline. In too many classrooms, one or two students disrupt the learning environment for twenty or more other students.
One issue that is out of the control of anyone in DeKalb is the TKES evaluation system for teachers. The sooner the Georgia Department of Education realizes it is impractical and unworkable, the sooner administrators and teachers can concentrate on delivering quality instruction instead of spending so much time on window dressings such as posting the standards. Is a kindergarten student or first grade student capable of reading them? How is the time spent on this improving instruction? And the evaluations are far too time consuming.
The promotion policies and procedures must be fair and transparent. Former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson made strides in reducing the nepotism, but questions still haunt the school system about the fairness of promotions. The school councils must be brought back into the process of selecting school administrators. They should not have the final say, but they should have input and the opportunity to meet the candidates. Too often the assignment of school administrators appears arbitrary and capricious. All prospective administrators should be required to be required to take and achieve a high score on a writing test before being eligible for promotion.
Finally, the citizens of DeKalb need to take a break from cynicism, negativity, and constant criticism. It appears that we have a large percentage of people who are hoping leaders, teachers, and students will fail, instead of rooting for them and helping them to succeed. Instead of constantly pointing out what is wrong, take some time to make things right. Stop believing everything you hear. Stop taking everything anonymous bloggers post as the truth. If their opinion has merit, they would be willing to put their real names behind their statements. Volunteer to read to students and tutor them. Help a primary student learn their basic math facts and vocabulary.
It will take everyone in DeKalb to come together to bring the system out of the tailspin in which we find ourselves. We all bear responsibility. Each of us must do our share. If you are not willing to help, stop constantly criticizing those of us who are working each day to make a difference in the lives of DeKalb’s children.
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog