DeKalb has waited long enough

Atticus LeBlanc is a community leader and activist. He ran for the DeKalb County Board of Education District 3 seat last year, which represents Avondale Estates. He lost to the incumbent, Dr. Michael Erwin, but the following excerpts are from a piece he wrote at the time on DeKalb charter schools.
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Atticus LeBlanc

Subject: DeKalb has waited long enough
By: Atticus LeBlanc
I think parents have been waiting far too long for DeKalb’s elected leaders and school administrators to demonstrate their commitment to actually improving student outcomes. With all due respect to my opponent, it doesn’t matter how you measure DeKalb’s performance. . . it’s terrible. (See our latest grades and scores from the state here) The challenges facing our school system may indeed be great, and we cannot expect drastically different outcomes overnight, but how can we expect to actually improve those outcomes if we aren’t changing the way we are operating our schools?
Since the new board was appointed [in March of 2013], there hasn’t been a single policy change affecting the management structure of our schools. We still have high level administrators at the top delegating down to the local schools. We still have just as many amazing parents that are being ignored. We are still losing great teachers at alarming rates.
With the notable exception of Tapestry Charter School (which focuses on autistic students, and whose debate at BOE was still unnecessarily contentious), our board has still not given our children any additional opportunities to improve their education. While KIPP, Drew Charter, and The Museum School continue to outperform the vast majority of schools in the state and serve as models of student achievement, our Board has done nothing to either bring more of these types of schools to DeKalb, or to even attempt to model the best practices from these or other successful schools in our own public education system.
When McNair High School has a 44% graduation rate compared to 93% for KIPP, and the demographic and socioeconomic breakdown of the student body is virtually identical, shouldn’t we as stakeholders expect our Board of Education to at least start to make fundamental policy changes to address these disparities? Or should we continue to “be patient” while more students fall through the cracks?
I simply don’t understand how [Dr. Erwin] can justify sending their own child to a charter school because of the excellent education it provides, while at the same time denying the same opportunities to thousands of other kids in the District he serves. I also fail to understand how, when wait lists for charter school enrollment in DeKalb exceed the actual enrollment of those schools, our Board and administration cannot see we have pent-up demand for more of these schools.
While I’m intrigued by the superintendent’s announcement that DeKalb will pursue status as a “Charter System” as one of the three options that must be selected by Districts before the summer of 2015, please forgive my cynicism for suggesting that a “Charter System” under the current administration will look a lot like the broken system we already have. (Coincidentally, a Charter System under the state’s definition also provides the most funding, with the fewest regulations.)
We have not seen any indication from [the administration] that they have any desire to empower local parents, principals, or teachers, and I don’t know why we should expect that to change. The DHCC petition represents a great litmus test for their attitudes regarding local control, and they both fought to deny the petition in November, and continue to stifle or ignore dialogue regarding how to work together toward a mutually agreeable solution. Although the DHCC leaders met with staff on multiple occasions after the vote, and re-submitted the petition in time for the May BOE meeting, the resubmittal was excluded from the agenda on both the May and June meetings.
So while Mr. Erwin continues to ask for our patience, I am asking: “What is stopping us from pursuing fundamental change to our school system now?” Unfortunately for all of us, we can’t afford to wait any longer.

6 responses to “DeKalb has waited long enough

  1. Great guest post with lots of great points. We cannot be patient when it comes to our children. They will continue to grow and learn (or not learn) while we wait and wait and wait for change.

  2. I had the pleasure of meeting you and listening to your thoughts. If only you had won, things would be going differently. It makes me so mad to see that Erwin has special privileges for his own children. Is anyone surprised?
    People who live in DeKalb just won’t demand change, some from ignorance and some from the perks of F& Fers.
    Please carry on with your good work, Aticus. Thank you.

  3. I would really like to see charter clusters in DeKalb. This would provide the best local control of our schools. I am very concerned that DeKalb will gain charter status and then use the flexibility/waivers to maintain the status quo.
    I do have a question that probably can’t be addressed. We have lots of data that says charter schools are doing a better job than our regular schools. However, we know that the students who attend them are self selected. They choose to attend. They come from motivated families and that doesn’t change even when looking at various demographic groups. Is it possible that motivation is the reason for the differences in student achievement.

  4. Stan Jester

    There are potentially two powerful mechanisms in charters:
    1) Local Control / Autonomy
    2) Choices
    The Druid Hills Charter Cluster excelled in local control. Like most (if not all) conversions charters, however, it didn’t provide choices. The DHCC petition did say students could go to any elementary school, but then qualified that with “space permitting”.
    I’m not concerned whether or not charter schools are doing a better job than traditional schools generally speaking. The important question is, “Are they doing better than the traditional school down the street?” Take the East Atlanta Charter School ( petition. It’s located in South DeKalb among the 27 failing schools (according to opportunity school district standards). The important question is, “Will this charter school give these families a better choice than the traditional school they are stuck at now?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then we have at least marginally increased the education for a group of students.
    If the answer is ‘no’ then nobody goes to the charter school and it’s shut down.

  5. Stan, I attended one of the meetings held last fall where Trenton Arnold spoke about the Dekalb Charter proposal. As I heard the proposal, there would be local school councils, but they would be on the very short end of the stick when it came to hiring, budget, and operational decisions. One attendee asked the question, “how is this different from what we have now?”. There was a long period of silence. Stan, there were a lot of questions and very few answers. There was a lot of push-back. My comment after the meeting to my school board member (Jim McMahan) was that this school system continues to be one “of the administration, for the administration, and by the administration”. There is a big, big disconnect between this administration and the community. There is a total lack of trust. The Chairman of the Dekalb County School Board is, himself, a career administrator of the DCSS and his bias is very obvious. I find it very difficult to understand why this school board cannot be more forceful in cleaning up the administration. Why does the Board allow the administration the choice of not following the clear mandate of the Legislature and that of the State Department of Education (which is given that authority by the Legislature) regarding charter schools? I know that SACS doesn’t want the school board to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the school system, but following the laws of this State and the procedures put in place by its authorized agencies of this State seems to me to be an entirely different matter – this is not routine day-to-day administration. The school board needs to give some very clear guidance to the new Superintendent while also giving him your very clear expectations. The “dance” by the administration has gone on long enough and, for the sake of our classrooms, needs to stop and soon.

  6. Stan Jester

    Hello Howdy.
    School councils would turn into “Local School Governance Team” and given the roles and responsibilities delineated in this Local School Governance Team Decision-Making Matrix. (This is also, by the way, the same roles and responsibilities the administration is telling conversion charters they can have.)
    School Councils Vs. Local School Governance Team (LSGT)
    What will be the difference between existing school councils and the LSGTs we would have with a charter system?
    1. Hiring Principals – Currently school councils tell the regional superintendent what kind of principal they would like to have. A few months later the administration shows up with their new principal. LSGTs would go back to the way they did it back in 2009.
    2. LSGTs would take control of the principal’s discretionary budget.
    3. Otherwise, not much else. It’s a lot of “Provide input” and “evaluate” this and that.
    Cleaning Up – I would like to point out we have a new superintendent and the chief legal officer found a new job.
    Why does DCSD make these decisions – The superintendent is re-evaluating those decisions. Various board members will be attending various meetings to provide input. I’ll have more clarity by the end of the week.
    Following The Law – Why doesn’t DCSD follow the law and SBOE Rule … good question. That question is at the top of my list.