In watching interviews with Michael Thurmond and reading the transcripts, we find that he has five key talking points he covers at every event. He covered these at the “Eggs & Issues” with Leadership DeKalb on March 27. The ELPC meeting this past Wednesday was no different.
Assets – In any crisis situation the first priority is not so much to focus so much on the crisis and the deficit, but to focus on the assets.
You’ve been in meetings in your community, in your church, at your business, in your neighborhood, where you spent minutes if not hours discussing all the things that are wrong. That is a deficit driven strategy. I suggest that what I have adopted are asset driven strategies. I look first at assets in a situation. And for all of my friends that come up and offer me my condolences because I’ve taken this position, I look at ’em and wonder. I really don’t understand what you’re talking about. Because there are challenges and there are problems, but the assets and the opportunities outweigh the challenges. And one gentlemen asked, what asset do you have in DeKalb right now? And I said, Look. First thing is we have 98,000 assets and those are our beautiful, bright and intelligent students. And once you recognize that, the other problems pale in comparison to the opportunities that we have.
Central Office is only 6% of Employees – 6% of the total number of employees actually work in the central office. I was shocked. I didn’t believe it.
One of the things we presented last night to the board, just as a resident of DeKalb, long before I was called to this particular position. Based on the narrative, Number 1, DeKalb has a bloated central office … right … you heard it. Over the past two weeks when we presented it at the board, we looked at all the 14,000 plus employees we have in the district … right. I wanted to know what percentage of those employees, state funded, general fund funded actually work in the central office. What was presented last night, based on the research, is that 6% of the total number of employee actually work in the central office. I was shocked. I didn’t believe it. I said you go back and check it again. I don’t believe the number is just 6%. I invite you all to come to the public hearing that the gentlemen referenced. It maybe should be 3%. It might should be 4%. But it’s not 20%. It’s 6% as presently constituted.*
Parental Engagement – Student achievement is correlated to parental involvement. We’re gonna have a much more aggressive investment strategy and focus on getting parents involved.
[S]tudy after study, go on the internet when you get home and look up parental involvement and academic achievement. Study, study, study show that the individual who has the greatest impact a child’s academic achievement is not the Superintendent, not the school board member, not the principal, not the teacher. The individual that has the greatest impact on the success of a child’s career are who? Parents. Parents. Fuss all you want about school board members. But the individual that has the greatest impact are parents. We have some strong PTAs and parent councils in the district. But in some schools they are very weak or nonexistent. Look at the schools where you have the highest achievement. One of the things that almost always exist is a strong PTA. Look at the schools that are more challenged and you find that the PTA and the parental involvement is weak. Under Title I there is money that can be used to support improving and strengthening parental involvement. I was disappointed in the plan or lack of plan that we had that focuses on or encourages parental involvement particularly in the high poverty schools. That is going to change.
North/South DeKalb Divide – It exists. One side isn’t favored by the administration over another. Often, the ‘extras’ are actually bought and paid for by PTAs.
You can find so many opportunities for common ground. But yet, if I travel from my house there in Stone Mountain, as I did one Sunday afternoon up to Dunwoody. It was just a 15 minute drive. But sometimes, politically, it felt like two thousand miles. What we have to recognize is that some of the dysfunction that we face at the school board is really dysfunction in the county. . . .
We look at Dunwoody and we might criticize them, but if you really think about it. Majority to minority, is a system to move what exceptional bright kids from a large population of kids that may not be as equally as bright to a more segregated location. Right? That’s what that is. If you really look at it.
Enlightened Self Interest – Be self-interested in your own child. Become enlightened when you become interested in other people’s children.
Theme schools as well as charter schools as well as private schools and all of those are ways in which we are trying to deal with a problem. What I’m saying, what we have to do know is, of course, continue to support our gifted kids. But, at some point, we got to deal with the problem of people, young people, students, who come from high poverty background. Right? Who may not live in our neighborhood, who may not attend my school, or may not even live inside my district and recognize what we have … and it’s OK to be self interested. This is what I say to parents a lot on that issue. You must be self interested about your children. You don’t have to apologize because you’re self interested in ensuring your child gets a good education. Should you … no. Not to me, not anyone. But leaders, this is what we talk about in Leadership DeKalb. You must develop what I call enlightened self. Because enlightened self interest will help you understand why it’s important for you to be involved in helping other people’s children get a quality education. Let me tell you why, and I love to do this. How many of you all were born, raised and graduated from a high school in DeKalb county? Raise your hand. Always less than 5%. That meant that the rest of us were educated somewhere else, right? And it was paid for by taxes from other people. You can’t raise my daughter and your daughter and your children in an enclosed, insulated bubble. I want my daughter to come of age in a world where there are opportunities, not just for her, but also for her friends and colleagues. Don’t you? The challenge in DeKalb, and we can do this, all we got to do. Let me tell you what we need to do to ensure that, not only do we respond to SACS, but that we create an elite school system. All we have to do is develop the talent to understand the power of enlightened self-interest. Be self-interested about your child. But then, and particularly as leaders develop the ability to be legitimately concerned about the education of other people’s children. Let me tell you why. God forbid I get sick today and have to spend the night at DeKalb Regional or any hospital. But if I do, I want my nurse who comes around to know how to read and write who be scribblin’ the medicine. Right? That’s why it’s important. If you’re a business owner, we got business people here. Think about your work force. You want to be profitable 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now. Your future work force is sitting in a classroom somewhere in DeKalb county. You want to sell your widgets and your products and you need people who have the resources and can purchase them. Your future consumers are sitting in a classroom somewhere in DeKalb county right now.
Most Unpopular Guy In DeKalb – You not going to be totally happy and no one else. But the tough decisions will have to be made.
One of the most surprising things about, what I’ve learned about DeKalb, nearly 20% of our student population are either English learning or their parents speak English only as a second language if they speak English at all. We’ve not engaged or understood the great opportunities that presents. Now one of the mistakes that we did make was that we fired all the interpreters. OK … right? We did it. Now that’s a mistake that I will acknowledge. When 20% of your population, and I don’t know why I’m surprised, because when I was practicing law [at a former law firm], our office was over on the Buford Highway. I used to ride up and down Buford Highway to go to lunch and I would see Vietnamese, Hispanic and the different signage and various businesses from all over the world. I love to go to the supermarket over there in Clarkston. I see foods and exotic vegetables and fruits and desserts from all over the world. And I used to wonder who’s buying this? I have no idea, it was just amazing to me. And then there’s the Farmer’s Market on Buford Hwy is even more exotic. That is because there is a socio-economic demographic transformation taking place. Our school district is still operating in the 20th century mode. We have not made the transformation which we will have to make, which we are making, which we will make because that is the future. Children 18 and under represent 20% of the population. They represent 100% of our future. All children. And all children with the right support and right resources can learn and can be successful.
In addition, Michael Thurmond talks about the race issue often, and quite openly. Race is a thread he often weaves into every topic of disussion. He always states that his background is as the son/grandson/great-grandson of sharecroppers and that his father was illiterate yet he always helped Michael with his homework. He also comes from a place in Georgia where he attended segregated high schools which have continued to host segregated class reunions. His personal experience informs us much about his perspective and interpretations of the problems in DeKalb.
What we have to understand, and it’s interesting, and I hear it a lot when people say, Well you know twenty years ago, thirty years ago, we had a great school system in DeKalb. How many times have you heard that? And there’s no question that we did. That does not prevent us from having a great school system now. But what we have to recognize is that the school system that existed in DeKalb 30 years ago, that population, is not necessarily the population we are trying to educate today. That population did not have 71% of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Just didn’t. Not that children who qualify for free and reduced lunch can’t learn and can’t be successful. And I know for a fact that they can, because I qualified for free and reduced lunch. I am a living, breathing example of the power of public education. Right? The son, grandson, and great grandson of 3 generations of Georgia share croppers that could not read or write. Right? And so for people that doubt or don’t believe that public education can be successful and is being successful every day, look at me. . . .
That’s the question that often times and not just in DeKalb, but throughout America. Public education is a euphemism for race and class. We understand that. We studied the history of public education, particularly in the South, and it’s always been racially charged. From its inception, post Civil War, Georgia, all the way up today. Often times the steps are ordered and you don’t really know how or why. Forty two years ago I graduated from Clark Central high school. It’s interesting. In the fall of 1970, those of you from Georgia, something historic from the South in Georgia. That was the year we consolidated all black school districts which were then with predominantly white school districts. We were the first consolidated class of Clark Central high school. I was 18 years old and that was the first time in my life I had a conversation with a white person my age. And that was the South. For eleven years I went to all segregated schools and the only people I interacted with were other African Americans. During the 42 years hence, the classmates I didn’t get a chance to meet or desired not to meet when I was in high school, I’ve had a chance to get to know them over the years. It’s been interesting. My most famous class mate who I wanted to meet and stay in touch with was Kim Bassinger. For some reason she does not return my calls. But we’ve changed. We like to think that 40 years, and that’s 4 decades, but look folks. For nearly 400 years you had 250 years where African Americans were denied any access to education. Right? Then you had another 150 years where we were separate but equal. And in 40 years, look at how much progress has been made. You cannot undo and change three to four hundred years of history in 40 years. But we have to recognize and celebrate where we are, but keep in perspective where we need to go. That’s why it doesn’t bother me when I meet people who may have not evolved on the race issue. Or may have subtle or unrecognized issues. This nation addressing the vestiges of a history that luckily we put behind ourselves. I don’t damn anyone for it. I would challenge you to reach out and help people to understand. You have to go to the various communities. You have to open yourself up. That’s what I’ve tried to do over these 40 years and we’ve made progress now. What’s interesting is during those 40 years we had class reunions, but we still had 2 class reunions. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. … We might wish for the good ol’ days when it was just black folk and white folk at each other’s throats. It was simple then wasn’t it? But, it’s not that simple anymore. I think this presents us with a great opportunity to change the conversation, to be more inclusive, to open up our own minds and attitudes, and recognize that if you’re going to have a successful business, if you’re going to be a successful leader, if you’re going to be a successful anything in the 21st century, you must have skills sets that will allow you to engage and work with and understand people of different races, cultures, creed and ethnical intentions. You just have to.
Interim DeKalb County schools superintendent Michael Thurmond is scheduled to speak to parents in Tucker on April 23 (tomorrow).
Thurmond will meet with the Tucker Parent Council at Brockett Elementary School, 1855 Brockett Rd., Tucker. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.
The public can ask spontaneous questions or e-mail them in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org
Download the transcripts we have accumulated so far on our Meeting Notes page found under the DCSS Files tab at the top of the blog’s homepage. Please send any videos, notes or transcripts you may wish to add to the collection. Our email address is email@example.com
*We didn’t believe the 6% figure either. Read our post on what fun HR had with the numbers:
Oh the budget, budget, budget