By Jody Steinberg
For Cross Keys High School English teachers, used to scrounging for classroom resources, the sight of the book-filled table at the Library Coffee Company in Brookhaven was a bit of a shock. Barely two weeks earlier, they had provided a wish list and here they were – all 106 books on the list and then some, purchased by community members, many of them strangers – and donated for their classrooms.
Community activist Kim Gokce, president of the HillsDale Neighborhood Association, director of the Brookhaven Community Connection and founder of Community Radar news feed service, was behind the successful campaign. A Cross Keys neighbor and ardent supporter, Gokce is determined to turn the tide on one of DeKalb County’s most neglected schools, which he envisions becoming the heart and soul of a vibrant Brookhaven community.
“It’s so amazing to have the community wrap their arms around Cross Keys,” said CKHS Principal Dr. LaShawn McMillan.“ The support from the community has certainly increased.”
Administrators are trying to leverage the renewed community focus on the school to increase in parental involvement by providing food, more targeted communications, translators and activities for younger siblings, she added. Getting them involved is the first step, but the school still lacks the parental leadership and commitment of the local business community on which so many schools depend. Enter Kim Gokce.
“He’s Mr. Civic,” says his wife, Kristen, who says she is used to sharing her husband with the community. “He gets these brilliant ideas and he makes them happen.”
Cross Keys teachers face overwhelming odds in educating a student body so diverse: many students are English learners or speak it as a second or third language; parents work long hours and are unable to support their childrens’ education; and a shortage of resources at school and home make it difficult to provide the necessary learning materials.
That afternoon at the coffee shop, one thing was certain – they might have full plates, but the Cross Keys teachers love their school and are passionate about their students and the subjects they teach. As they rambled off book titles, teachers discussed lesson plans.
“I’m so excited about reading ‘The Federalist Papers” and Glenn’s Beck’s ‘Coomon Sense,’” said English and drama teacher Monique Whorton, whose Early American Literature class compares old and modern essays on government.
The book party boosted the renewed commitment that alumnus Aparna Bhattacharyya (’89) has been feeling for her alma mater lately – she recently organized a sentimental tour of the campus with fellow alumni before the renovation was set to begin. “A lot of us alumni are impressed with Kim’s involvement and it’s motivating us to get involved and see how we can help the school out,” she said.
Gokce’s HillsDale neighborhood was built about the same time Cross Keys opened in 1958, and alumni from every generation still live there. Many HillsDale residents contributed to the book drive, including an unemployed man who brought cash to his door to “buy books for the kids.”
“We want to make the next 50 years as bright as possible for the kids going through our local public school and this book drive is a great downpayment on that future,” Gokce said. “This isn’t the last drive we’ll have for Cross Keys.”