Interim DeKalb superintendent Michael Thurmond marked his 45th day on the job by speaking this morning to a packed gathering of Leadership DeKalb and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. Along with business leaders, the audience included the newly reconstituted school board and DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.
I have now heard Thurmond speak six times, and he continues to deliver the same broad message of optimism: DeKalb schools will get on track, but it won’t be overnight and it won’t be easy.
Thurmond avoids specifics, artfully dodging questions about whether he intends to fire any of the central office holdovers from previous administrations. He responded today that new leaders err when they fire everyone on their first day. Then, the leaders devote the next six months to coping with the fallout. He intends to find out who he needs and who he doesn’t need over time.
Asked how he will stem the exodus of unhappy teachers from the system, Thurmond said he will show them greater appreciation and eliminate unnecessary tasks. “I can’t offer more pay,” he said. “I have directed the people at the senior level to inventory what we are doing. What things we can eliminate, we will eliminate.”
In his first 45 days, Thurmond has crisscrossed the county, speaking to parent groups and neighborhood associations several times a week.
In a question and answer session with moderator Dennis O’Hayer of WABE, Thurmond talked about the link between governance of the school system and what occurs in the classroom.
“Governance begins at the top and encompasses the whole organization,” said Thurmond.
Thurmond listed what has become his canon of leadership: 1. Open lines of communication. 2. Transparency. 3. Listening. “In order to govern anyone, you have to be willing to listen,” he said.
O’Hayer pressed him on how he will improve academic performance. Thurmond said he’s looking to reallocate resources to the classroom and ensure that everyone believes every child can learn. But he noted that he’s deliberately avoided new edicts and marching orders for teachers frustrated with the revolving door of new reform plans over the last few years.
What about resources, O’Hayer asked. How do you plan to dedicate resources to the classroom and move things around to do that?
“First, we have to get our fiscal house in order,” Thurmond said. “We’ve been granted public trust and that requires us to manage the resources we have in such a way as to support academic achievement in our classrooms. We are suffering like every other school district because of the lack of resources. But that does not excuse us from taking advantage of the resources we do have.”
Thurmond said DeKalb’s property digest fell from $25 billion to $18.9 billion between 2008 and 2012, a drop of 24.9 percent. And the state cuts continue.
“We will do a better job of using the resources we have. We have lost our way,” said Thurmond, adding that DeKalb became too caught up in “politics and adult messes.”
He said he would not seek a tax increase until the school district demonstrates it is properly using the resources it has now.
While DeKalb needs funds, that’s not the greatest challenge, he said. “It’s how we govern. Money is tight, but money is never really the primary challenge; it’s the lack of will, lack of ideas, lack of innovation. Seven-hundred-and-fifty-million dollars is still a lot of money.”
Thurmond reiterated that he follows an assets-driven strategy. He repeated the story — you’ve read this before here on the blog — that someone recently asked him, “What assets do you have in DeKalb?”
And he replied: “The first thing, we have 98,000 assets. Those are our beautiful, bright wonderful students. Once you recognize that, all the other problems pale in comparison with the opportunities we have.”
Thurmond says he has been meeting with communities across the county, spending time last night with the mayor, council and citizens of Brookhaven.
While the drive from his Stone Mountain home to north DeKalb is a matter of a few miles, Thurmond said the politics make it seem as if 2,000 miles separate them because of historic divides in the county.
“We have to recognize that some of the dysfunction we have seen in the school board is really dysfunction in the county,” he said.
He said schools will not thrive unless communities can find common ground. “We will learn from the mistakes that have been made, and I will be the first to tell you that mistakes have been made. But I will not dwell on them,” he said.
While people keep hearkening back to the greatness of DeKalb schools 30 years ago, Thurmond said the system that existed three decades ago is not the system that exists now.
“That population today has 71 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunches,” he said. “Not that those children can’t learn and can’t be successful because I qualified for free and reduced lunch. I was the grandson and great grandson of Georgia sharecroppers who could not read and write.”
He said 20 percent of DeKalb’s students are English language learners or have parents who only speak English as a second language in the home or not at all. “We have not engaged or understood the great opportunity that presents,” he said. “One mistake we did make is we fired all the interpreters.”
Asked about the stubborn racial divide in DeKalb, Thurmond shared again that he graduated Clarke Central High in Athens 42 years ago — in the first year that the black and white schools were consolidated. He spent 11 years in segregated schools and was 18 before he spoke to a white peer in school.
An historian by avocation, Thurmond said African-Americans were denied any access to education for 250 years and then faced separate and equal schools for the next 150. It’s only been four decades that blacks and whites have learned side by side in Georgia, he said.
“You cannot undo 400 years of history in 40 years. It doesn’t bother me when I meet people who may not have evolved on the race issue. The nation is still addressing the vestiges of a history that we luckily have put behind us,” said Thurmond
He noted that his high school still has two class reunions by race. “We have come a long way. But we have a long way to go.”
“If you are going to be a successful leader or you are going to be a successful anything in the 21st century, you have to engage with and work with people of different races and creeds. You just have to,” he told the crowd to applause.
“At some point, we have to deal with young people who come from high poverty backgrounds, who may not live in our neighborhoods, who may not attend our schools,” he said. “It is okay to be self interested. You must be self interested about your children. But leaders have to help other people’s children.”
Thurmond then went onto one of his favorite topics: How parents are the most important factor in a child’s educational success. He noted that DeKalb’s bests schools have the most active PTAs.
“We have allowed politicians like me to shift all the burden to educate our children on teachers. It is just not right. Studies show the greatest influence is parents,” he said
Thurmond recalled his father helping him with his homework throughout elementary school. So, he was shocked in middle school when his mother told him, “You know your dad can’t read or write.” Thurmond realized that it was his father’s presence in the room as he did his homework that had been so helpful.
He intends to use Title 1 funds to find ways to strengthen parental involvement in low-income schools. “I was disappointed in the lack of plans we have to encourage parental involvement in high poverty schools. That is going to change,” he said.
Thurmond tells parents he sees “shoulder to shoulder” at high school football games that they also need to show up at conferences and PTA meetings.
The complaint that north DeKalb schools enjoy greater resources than south DeKalb sometimes reflects fund-raising by the parents in those northside communities, he said. “What people don’t know is that the parents raised thousands of dollars for the new band equipment,” he said. “Some schools have outstanding parental involvement and what you are seeing in the dichotomy in funding is not necessarily from the central office.
Thurmond said he also understands that some parent communities can’t raise thousands of dollars. “That is the demarcation line and bridging that will be the challenge,” he said.
The final question focused on whether Thurmond will stay on as DeKalb school chief. “Well, I have a 12-month contract,” he replied. Will he stay beyond that, as did Erroll Davis in APS?
Yes, was his reply. “I am here to do what I was called to do.”
When he does leave the interim post, Thurmond said he intends to turn over a functioning and achieving district to a new school superintendent.
“He or she won’t walk into the situation that I walked into. People deserve better than that.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog