DCCS – DeKalb County Caste System (An Essay)

The newly renamed DeKalb County School District (DCSD) has been in the news a lot lately. Because its leaders apparently avoid talking to the media, the DCSD taps highly paid “communications consultants” to claim that “staff attrition” will correct DeKalb Schools’ dismal financial condition.

Meanwhile, the fifth week of instruction saw classes throughout DeKalb Schools overflowing with students tightly packed into classrooms and lacking permanent, certified teachers. Teachers systemwide got re-acquainted with the mantra about “doing more with less” while enduring mind-numbing, long-winded meetings supplemented by the onset of “research-based coaching cycles” that are supposed to teach teachers how to “engage” students.

DeKalb County Schools, a public service much more vital to the have-nots than to the haves is teetering, possibly collapsing, while a caste system is redefining the cleavages between the haves and have-nots in metro Atlanta. William B. Hartsfield’s city “too busy to hate” overcame the formal barriers of legal, race-based segregation only to witness now the entrenchment of a social order in which color, class, consanguinity and culture determine access to opportunity and the ability to take advantage of opportunity.

The crisis in DeKalb Schools mainly affects lower-income students of color who already confront varying degrees of informal exclusion from the mainstream culture. If they graduate, these students too often leave school as young adults who are unable to understand – not to mention function in – a society whose number of minorities continues, paradoxically, to climb steadily.

Relatively simple steps could be taken to ameliorate the plight of DeKalb’s schools. Unfortunately, fiats and policies tend to undermine the stated mission of DeKalb Schools. The Uniform Code of Military Justice used by another government bureaucracy would qualify such actions as illegal.

First, academically deficient students – who are usually the most disruptive – need to be identified and then given intensive remedial instruction in math and reading. Far too many DeKalb students are completely flummoxed when asked, “what is 25% of 60% divided by negative 3?” or, “what is the relationship between the proper noun ‘Hobbes’ and the [American] adjective ‘Hobbesian’?” It is not that they don’t know the answers, even though most don’t. It’s that they don’t comprehend why the questions are even being asked, let alone how they should go about attacking them.

Second, the school system must, once and for all, exit the make-believe world where the  “appearance of teaching” is valued more than the actual “content of teaching.” Lakeside, Dunwoody, Chamblee, and Druid Hills high schools are run somewhat differently, but other schools persist in deploying “instructional boards,” “word walls,” cookie-cutter “lesson plans,” “collaborative learning models” and the like to camouflage students’ fundamental shortcomings when it comes to very basic skills.

Third, competent leaders must be identified and promoted into decision-making positions. The most important leadership positions must be the ones in the school buildings – and they must be the highest paid administrators in DeKalb Schools.

Again, a useful model may be found in the military. Especially in combat units, commanders are people who can do – and have done – what they expect others to do. Principals and assistant principals must be drawn from the ranks of seasoned teachers. The central office administrators and the non-teaching bloat must be slashed, with more attention going to quality. We have observed administrators who regularly misuse the English language – spoken and written. One school we follow closely serves an overwhelmingly immigrant population, and the school lost teachers due to budget cuts. Yet it still boasts four administrators, none of whom can address – or even greet – the students’ parents in their native language(s).

The politically charged rise of “accountability” has led to an almost surreal obsession with “standards-based assessment” in the form of tests that, usually, are quite easy, especially when compared with similar tests in other countries. The three interconnected steps listed above would help birth an improved educational culture. This counterproductive obsession with the myth of accountability and assessment, would then wane and student performance would rise.

Condoleezza Rice, former U. S. secretary of state and a woman of color second in national prominence only to Michelle Obama, spoke at the recent Republican National Convention. Rice castigated the deteriorating public-education system as a threat to national security. She also identified access to good public education as the civil-rights issue in contemporary America.

Contrary to the goal of good public education, the federal and state governments over the last decade or more have made horrible education policy decisions resulting in the lowered performance of students today.  While education soars as the most reliable multi-billion dollar business opportunity it is, more money has been tossed to educrats than ever before in history, again, with no improvement in student achievement.

One thing is certain. An extremely heavy, life-determining price is being paid by the successive cohorts of DeKalb students who are ill-prepared to advance in an environment where formal discrimination has given way to the more subtle and therefore more intractable strictures of caste.

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31 Responses to DCCS – DeKalb County Caste System (An Essay)

  1. Mad Dad says:

    Great view of where we need to be, with one addition: disipline is key or the plan never gets off the ground.

  2. Mad Dad says:


  3. tracy white says:

    You math example is missing a term. You can’t divide 60% by -3. Just saying…

  4. Dedicated Dekalb Teacher says:

    I could not agree more. There is so much emphasis on following the mandated America’s Choice protocols, that do nothing to improve achievement. Creating my instructional boards to “prove” what kind of a teacher I am, is truly a waste of my time, along with making sure that my word wall is visible. We buy a program, so we HAVE to use it… even though it is garbage.

    Some of the most competent and effective principals are gone, due to the restructuring of the central office. I had the privilege of working under Steve Donahue for several years before he was promoted to county office. He was one of the most talented administrators that I have ever worked for, who was not only intelligent but compassionate. When they were reducing force at the top, they should have taken those that were truly effective principals, and put them back in charge of our schools. Mr. Donahue’s talent is being wasted, and it is beyond my imagination.

    Finally, to truly be able to work with the students that need remediation, we need to have general class sizes at 25 students or less. Trying to teach a class of struggling students with a class size of 35 is ineffective. There is not enough time to focus on the needs of the individual child, even when you have stellar classroom management (because these ARE the classes where you have the majority of behavior disruptions). Instead of spending RT3 money on sending 8 people to get their PhD’s, we should be focusing on certifying more staff to become reading and math specialists. Get these specialists in EVERY school to work with those that are academically deficient, and give them manageable class sizes. In order to do this, we HAVE to get the county finances in order, and the waste HAS to be cut.

    I am a product of Dekalb County Schools, and when I was growing up, it was a system that we could be proud of. We CAN be that way again, but we have to get out priorities straight.

  5. I’m not entirely onboard with the political slant of this post. Aside from that, I say, amen.

  6. @ Dedicated Dekalb Educator

    My understanding is that the same thing happened to Stacey Stepny who was principal at Dunwoody. Lewis forced her to leave Dunwoody and work at the county office. She was an exceptional young principal who with more experience could have become a great principal.

  7. Thanks! We will check with the writer of this essay (who must remain anonymous) and get back to you.

    UPDATE: We have not talked with the essay writer yet. However, we did Google that math problem and we see that it can be done and we got an answer.

  8. Reason the second is precisely why I left DeKalb schools for independent education. What a difference! These days, I teach rather than show evidence of my “teaching”.

    I don’t want to get crazy with correlation implying causation, but isn’t it interesting that the highest performing high schools in the district don’t use Instructional Boards, Word Walls, and Data Walls? (As a personal aside, can you believe I once got hollered at because the text on my data wall couldn’t be read from across the room?)

  9. Cedar says:

    Many teachers in DeKalb do not know how to answer those questions either. They went through the same decrepit school system in which they now teach.
    There is no discipline in the classroom, our culture is corrupt and students are taught to hate traditional Western culture. How then can you expect different results?

  10. Sad for Dekalb says:

    @ Cedar- I disagree with you. When I went through Dekalb in the 70’s and 80’s, it was one of the top school systems in GA. I teach in the same area where I went to school and my daughter attends my old high school. I received a great education from DeKalb and had some incredible teachers who were experts in their field and truly cared about their students and their school. When I started my teaching career in the late 80’s, Dekalb was still that way because we were supported by the Board and a Superintendent who made decisions based on what was best for students and teachers. I’m still hanging in there hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel. There are plenty of parents who want DCSD to succeed and will work long hours to do so.
    Until you’ve been there personally, don’t tell make blanket statements the system was decrepit. All things are possible if we have the right people in charge. My students deserve that and I’m not giving up!

  11. The past several years have created a system of “dog and pony show” where “visitors” from the district or state come to the the school and you better have your school looking like good teaching is going on because they won’t actually hang around long enough to actually see if it is happening. Since when does a folder standing upright on your desk with a 15-20 page lesson plan constitute quality teaching? Since when does teacher comments written on sticky notes and hung on the wall mean a class is learning? It certainly has become a ridiculous act and I am happy for those who are able to find teaching situations where instruction and support of the teachers is actually important, not how many $100grand-a-year people can come to a building for a peek and offer their “expert advice”. Only those who are slashing budgets would claim that class size does not matter and only the quality of the teacher will increase achievement. This is certainly skewed research. I know for a fact that my school made AYP consistently when our class sizes were 18-22 students per class (70%+ mind you). Now that we are 25-32 across grades K-5, the task of reaching these precious children is dang near impossible…and we have a fantastic group I’ve teachers!

  12. tracy white says:

    My Dad went to Druid Hills. I went through Lakeside & Briarcliff. My kids went to Redan, Browns Mill Magnet, Kittredge Magnet, Chamblee & Miller Grove MS magnets, and both chose to do HS at Lakeside.
    Wayne Chelf was sacrificed by Crawford Lewis.
    I spent my kids’ years in even the magnet programs correcting worksheets that were sent home with poor grammar. I had too many teachers who “aksed” questions. Sorry, but I called them out on it. If you can’t speak proper English you have no business in the school system. I also felt it necessary to supplement even the magnet program’s offerings. At least in that track, the parents are engaged. EVERY parent I met in the magnet programs was involved, not a helicopter parent, but an advocate. Race & religion didn’t matter, just that the kids be challenged and that they learned how to learn.
    School has been dumbed down. There are too many tests and not enough days of instruction. Class size is not so much the problem as the uneven grouping of student abilities. We used to have basic intermediate and advanced classes, all the way through. The Basic kids got extra help, and the advanced kids got extra challenges. It worked just fine. Someone somewhere decided that they should all wait for the basic kids – No Child Left Behind. Sorry, Charlie, but some kids need to be left behind. There is no reason to hold anyone back! If you can’t be a sprinter, take up marathon or find another sport.
    Everyone does NOT need to go to college. Everyone needs to learn some kind of skill. Auto mechanics, chef skills, secretarial, cosmetology, bookkeeping – you don’t need college to do these things! Plumbing, HVAC, Electrical, carpentry – the skills you cannot outsource! These skills do NOT require calculus! They need a Construction Math class. Teach them to use a framing square. Teach them to caculate a BTU load. They do NOT repeat NOT need the same math that an engineer needs! For that matter, an Art major and an English major do NOT need calculus!!! The people who decided that an extra year of math was needed are just CRAZY

  13. Correction: (70%+ ESOL mind you)……fantastic group of teachers!

  14. howdy1942 says:

    @sad for dekalb – I agree! Our daughters each attended Dekalb County Schools all 12 years. The Dekalb County Schools were excellent until around 1992. We almost took our second daughter out of the public school system that year because the culture was becoming more disruptive. We didn’t.

    Our current state of affairs didn’t just happen. Good things happen and bad things happen because of the leadership of the system. Leaders have a vision, are able to set goals, and then motivate others to achieve those goals. Leaders listen and communicate. Leaders expect results and expect performance. In the school system, they “drop by” and observe. They talk to teachers, principals, and students and address needs. Above all, leaders are men and women of integrity with a focus on the good and accomplishment of objectives.

    Look at what we have had and what we now have. It starts with the School Board. Just go to one of their meetings and listen to them – does that group really sound like then have even a clue as to what they are doing? Just go back to the most recent superintendents – Lewis, Tyson, and now Atkinson. Have they inspired, developed, set measurable goals, and moved the system toward excellence? What have we paid these people? Well over $200,000 per year and what have we received? The last two have spent most of their time responding to SACS inquiries. I looked at our response to our most recent inquiry response – bulky, disorganized, and simply a bunch of mumbo jumbo that seemed to be hastily put together by disconnected groups. I’m surprised that SACS even accepted it. That piece of work was supposed to be written by the leaders of our school system? Look no further to understand what is wrong.

  15. Terry says:

    THANK YOU!! Excellent blog. I often wonder why other county school systems are able to bid out projects (whether construction or within the classroom) and come up with well grounded companies to do the work and not go astronomical over-budget. I LOVE the idea of administrators being able to converse with parents in their own native language!!! Here in Atlanta, it’s a MUST! WE have to push. We have to push till it hurts them and HELPS our children. Other than going to the stupid bored (sic) meetings…. what can WE do? Put us on a track!
    As far as I am concerned, Condoleezza Rice is second to none. She is an elegant lady with brains that put even the smartest in DC to shame!!

  16. DCSSteacher75 says:

    In agreement with Dedicated Dekalb Teacher, it is also beyond my imagination of how they could have let Steve Donahue go and not at least put him back as a principal. I hope if he stayed in education he went to another county where he can get a cost of living raise before he retires.

  17. Cedar says:

    I hear what you are saying Sad for DeKalb. I want you to notice I said some teachers. Maybe they went to a different decrepit school system. I still contend that some teachers in DeKalb can not answer these basic questions, can not spell correctly, even English teachers. Oh it’s “Language Arts” now.. teaching English is so politically incorrect although having Che Guevara posters on your walls is OK.
    I am glad that you have hope. There are students in high school in DeKalb that don’t know a verb from a noun and think that Spain is south of the border.
    However, by no means am I laying all the blame on the teachers, as I stated earlier, without discipline in the classroom you have nothing. Many teachers are put through the ringer each and every day with horrendous student behavior that is treated as business as usual by the Administration as they turn and look the other way. There is more and more intervention from Big Government, more regulations, more red tape, more hoops to jump through, more mind numbing insanity and less trust of and autonomy for the individual. This creates a working environment that attracts corruption and many sub par employees that are willing to be government zombies. It is demoralizing to everyone. And yes, I have been there personally.

    This is not to say that there are not some great teachers in DeKalb. There are many students that get a good or great education in some classrooms and in some schools in spite of all this.
    This is all of course in my opinion.

    Condoleezza Rice is right.

  18. Bernard J. Myers says:

    While he is still in the county office, it was a tremendous loss to the school house to put Trent Arnold in the Palace. He is a fabulous Principal. We continue to put out money in the wrong places. Teachers and Principals should be the highest paid people in education.

    Has Steve Donahue left DeKalb?

  19. Babamay says:

    Why are they putting the good principals in the central office? They should stay in the schools, and they could be role models to the younger principals.

  20. LisaK says:

    Donahue is now a math teacher with the DeKalb Online Academy….

  21. Emily says:

    Sidebar Note: Has anyone read about DCSD using a grant to fund doctoral degrees for administrators?

  22. Bernard J. Myers says:

    Has anyone found the names of the staff to be sent to the Doctoral program? And how they were selected?

  23. Excellence is more than just a word says:

    Is anyone else as offended by 100 black Men’s “Parade of Excellence” as I am???? How is marching in a parade going to solve school problems in Atlanta???? Where was all this demand for “excellence” when riots were breaking out in schools, when money was being diverted to friends and family, and when parents refuse to take responsibility for their children? Or does that just not count as “excellence”? 100 Black Men are cheating thousands of black children! I am just sick.

  24. Bernard J. Myers says:

    @ “Excellence”…Could you imagine the public out cry if there were a “100 White Men Parade”? We are long past this type of organization. They support a reverse type of discrimination and racism in a time when we do not need divisiveness. We need to come together as a people, not divide.

  25. truthmissile says:

    Now THIS takes BALLS:

    DeKalb board gives short notice on vote for school officials’ raises
    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
    Four administrators in the DeKalb County school system will get a pay raise because of a vote Monday afternoon that occurred with just over four hours public notice.
    The money that flows to the central office is typically controversial in this cash-strapped school system, but in this case the critics were quiet, possibly because many didn’t know about the planned vote.


  26. momfromhe11 says:

    @truthmissile –
    Yes, it does. Dr. Atkinson is quoted at the end of the article (speaking through her “spokesman”, Jeff Dickerson) as saying the last-minute addition came more or less because she lost track of time:
    “The agenda published online Monday doesn’t say how much the administrators will be paid. Atkinson’s spokesman, Jeff Dickerson, said the board in July gave Atkinson through September to resolve the pay question. She realized ‘at the last minute’ that the month is almost over.
    “She wanted to comply with the board’s request,” Dickerson said.”

  27. momfromhe11 says:

    If this is the case, then I feel really uneasy about how Central Office is functioning….. “Oh, yeah, I forgot…”

  28. PublicSchoolDad says:

    @ Tracy White I think that you have stumbled upon the problem with the DCSS budget. Our highly paid administrators don’t think it is mathematically possible to reduce the central office budget by -20% incrementally over a period of 3 years (or -60% divided by 3). Just saying…

  29. waitaminit says:

    PSD–If they reduced the budget by (-20%), they would be doing what they’ve been doing all along–increasing the budget.

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