The AJC interviewed newly appointed DeKalb interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond. I found one of his answers surprising. AJC education writer Nancy Badertscher asked him about his efforts to get to know the district, which began with meetings with parents. She then asked him about meeting with teachers. Here is what he said:
A: “I look forward to spending time with teachers, but not just them — everyone, the bus drivers, cafeteria workers, everyone. I tell people I parachuted into the middle of a firefight with bullets, missiles, projectiles coming in all directions. But things have settled a little bit.”
I think Thurmond has to make a more visible outreach to DeKalb teachers as I am hearing from more of them how discouraged they are. Ultimately, education comes down to a classroom and a teacher. One of the chief reasons there are still students in DeKalb winning science competitions and getting into Duke and Tech is because teachers are still teaching. They are closing their doors to the central office chaos, the warring board egos and the negative press and teaching.
There is nothing wrong with meeting with bus drivers or cafeteria workers. But Thurmond has to acknowledge the segment of DeKalb’s workforce on which the district rises or falls, its teaching force.
Another interesting fact: Thurmond tells the AJC that Gwinnett’s J. Alvin Wilbanks is serving as his mentor. Former school chief Cheryl Atkinson told me that Wilbanks was her mentor and that she sought his guidance frequently. (One thing that Wilbanks should have advised both of them: Develop an in-house communications team that really knows DeKalb schools. Gwinnett still outperforms everyone else in getting out information and responding to the media. I know it costs money, but it is important to deal with the full-throttle rumor mill in DeKalb. In fact, maybe DeKalb should try to hire Wilbanks.)
Here are some of the questions the AJC put to Thurmond, but look at the full story:
Q: On the topic of accreditation, have you talked one-on-one with Mark Elgart? What was the upshot of the discussion?
A: “I met with him the second week. I expressed to him that I will in this administration do whatever it takes to address the issues that SACS has raised and that I need his support to regain full accreditation.”
Q: Do you know why no action was taken on the SACS to-do list from December until when you were hired?
A: “I hesitate because I don’t want to violate any legal confidences. Yes, I know why. I know what I’ve been told. Senior staff was directed not to contact SACS.”
Q: By whom? The former superintendent?
A: (Silent for a moment.) “Senior staff was told not to respond to SACS. I think that’s one of the more compelling unanswered questions from the state hearing. ”
Q: In your mind, did that make the situation worse?
A: “Absolutely. It is an embarrassment. I think it had a tremendous impact on how the state board looked at the school district. How could you go two months on the most critical issue, which is accreditation and it’s at risk. That’s unconscionable. I was relieved to find out it was not for indifference.”
Q: I understand you’ve spent a good deal of time meeting with parents. What’s the upshot of what you’ve gleaned from them?
A: “Many parents are frustrated and angry, which is very understandable. What’s been impressive is so many parents and stakeholders have said, ‘We support you and want you to succeed.’ That is so gratifying to me. I’m not going to let them down. God be my witness. We have to succeed because for the children — their educational careers hang in the balance.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog