Recently, education reporter Daniel Beauregard spoke with DeKalb County School System’s new superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson about her new position.
What do you enjoy most about being an educator?
The ability to positively impact the lives of children; I’ve always said we’re in the life-saving business. So, we have the ability to touch more lives than any medical doctor ever could. That has been my life’s work, my passion, and I enjoy it.
Are you glad to be back in Georgia?
Yes, I won’t miss the knee-deep snow in Ohio to be honest with you. There are a lot of people I will miss but not the snow.
What similarities do you think exist between your last position as superintendent for Lorain City Schools and a larger system such as DeKalb’s?
You know, I have spent, over the 30 years, the majority of my career in large, very diverse situations and have found that there are many challenges that are the same, regardless of where you are. I think what is very clear to me is that this focus, regardless of where you are, has to be on putting children first and student success–letting the adult issues fall to the side and really focusing on what’s best for children and making those decisions. So, I think the similarities are really focusing on and making decisions on what is best for all of the children in the school district.
How will you prepare the DeKalb County School System for its looming visit by SACS/AdvancED in October?
There are a couple of things: number one, review what has been done up until this point and then certainly have some very deliberate conversations about where we are and what needs to happen, then making those things happen. I think we’ll be ready; there has been much done to this point already.
Is there anything that you see in the system that you think needs to be addressed?
Not yet, I’ll certainly look at it with greater detail as I come in.
Do you plan to require a code of ethics for the DeKalb County Schools Board of Education?
I think that the superintendent and board relationship has to be one of certainly mutual respect and a team. What I’ll be working toward is for us to really be, not only a team on the [easy things], but a team through the tough decisions.
(Question submitted by Parents for DeKalb Schools)
How will you address schools that have been repeatedly in Needs Improvement status as a result of Advance Yearly Progress (AYP) results?
Coming in, I think initially, making sure that the staff understands what the expectations are; looking at all the data, of course; making sure that there’s adequate support; and then looking at the student success. I do believe in first…making sure that everybody has what they need, listening to the staff, teachers and principals and making sure that everybody understands what is expected first, and if we’re still not getting there I am not afraid of strategically staffing schools, I would work on strategically staffing. Sometimes there are people who are a better fit for a certain place under certain circumstances for moving student success forward.
In your opinion, is the AYP system the best way to measure the success of a school?
Sometimes we put so much emphasis just on test scores that we forget the whole child and really—student success—that test score is just one component of that and higher test scores is a result of greater student success. What I will be focusing on is making sure that students are successful—there are lots of components. So, I would agree that we all know that we need to have accountability, we all know that we need to have standards, we need to have benchmarks and we want mastery to occur in this journey of learning. But, it does occur sometimes differently and at different places for students and we have to realize that.
Do you support charter schools?
I have always been a public school proponent but I also understand...like public schools, there are very good private and charter schools. Then there are some that have the same challenges of being able to meet with student success. So, I think it’s about the right fit for children in the right circumstances.
Do you have an action plan if you are hired as superintendent? What are some of the issues you’re going to look at coming in the door so you can hit the ground running?
I will prepare a 90-day entry plan. I can tell you right off I will be focused on the student success piece…The other one is making sure that we look at all the financial resources and making sure we’re fiscally responsible and that shifting the resources from the adult concerns to the student concerns will certainly be something I will look at very carefully—looking at all expenses and budgets. Then, what I perceive to be restoring faith and trust back into the school district and into the leadership, which includes our board. So, accountability, integrity, transparency, all those things will be part of this plan to move the district forward.
(Question submitted by Leonardo McClarty, president of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce)
What do you expect from the business community and in what ways can it specifically support your efforts in improving education?
I always say that the schools are a reflection of the community and any ills in the community come to school. We [will] work hard to help students overcome those challenges. I have said that there is no quick fix. It takes everyone working together and pulling together. So, I will certainly be speaking with our leaders, particularly the business community, about not just dollars but about resources and opportunities for our students.
(Question submitted by Andy Phelan, communications director for the office of Congressman Hank Johnson)
What concrete steps will you take to ensure that DeKalb County School System is in the news for the right reasons?
I always say that if you build it they will come. So, I think we have to build the kind of success that people want to read about and people want to write about. I believe that when we get the word out about what we’re doing that will be the case.