Guest Column
Khaatim Sherrer El, Chair
Atlanta Board of Education

The following e-mail was recently sent to Buckhead residents from the new chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education.

Our community has been deeply shaken by events in Atlanta’s public school system. News accounts proliferate about recent cheating allegations, state and federal investigations and – in one of the very subplots in which I felt compelled to play a defining role – the replacement of the leadership on the Board of Education.

In all the news articles and broadcasts, I am left distressed at what the community must perceive, because two very basic and important items are missing or vastly understated: What about the children, and what about the notion that to have real public education reform, there must be public ownership?

As the new chairman of the board of education, I will steer the board’s direction to address those concerns: Our children will be paramount; and to best serve their interests, we must restore public confidence in the school system within all corners of the community.

I don’t intend in this statement to dwell on the past, except to make two observations. First, if any – any – of the suspicions and allegations, which have now risen to the level of a possible federal probe, are found to be true, what will sadly be clear is that the interests of our children were placed second to those of unscrupulous adults. That is unacceptable.

Second, what is also abundantly clear is that citizens of Atlanta were not asked to be full partners in education reform and in making our schools the very best. Rather, the public, and its duly elected Board of Education, was treated as an entity that needed to be “managed” instead of fully engaged.

It is only in that context of “managing” the public and maintaining the status quo that some Board of Education members – a minority that failed to effectively guide the school system through its current grave crisis – can claim it should govern against the will of the majority.

That too is unacceptable.

What is acceptable is the mission of the new board leadership and all the board members who will join us in creating an effective and transparent governing body for the Atlanta Public Schools. There will be only one measure for success: how well we focus our efforts on the education and development of the children we serve.

We are the governing body of the school system and must ensure there are checks and balances that safeguard the public’s trust so that the allegations of late never again come to question the integrity of our reform efforts.

We will foster open dialogue, and we will invite and respect all responsible points of view. We will work tirelessly to build consensus in the community and rally all Atlanta citizens to support its public schools.

There are five urgent priorities for the Board’s new leadership. In light of recent events, we will:

  1. Establish a policy agenda to ensure all children are on a path to “read to learn” by the third grade. We need this early warning sign of knowing whether or not a child is ready for success because he or she is “reading to learn,” instead of still “learning to read” by third grade. The drop in CRCT scores from 2009 to 2010 illustrates this need and will require new partnerships to ensure our children are coming to school with the tools to compete in a 21st-century knowledge economy.
  2. Build more meaningful partnerships with parents, the business and philanthropic communities, after-school providers and social service organizations to insulate the education pipeline so that on the back end we don’t lose our students and they can achieve on-time high school graduation with college and workforce readiness.
  3. Call for an independent assessment of the school system and use its findings as a baseline to begin planning the next stage of development for Atlanta’s education reform agenda.
  4. Work with the administration to develop a proactive plan in response to the CRCT and other investigations to ensure integrity in all aspects of the school system, identifying and removing all individuals, policies and practices that have led to the current crisis.
  5. Adopt a leadership succession plan that includes an aggressive public engagement campaign to generate support for our current successes and give Atlanta’s next superintendent the mandate needed to continue transforming the school system into one of the best in the nation.

In the last decade, Atlanta’s schools have scored many remarkable achievements. But recent events have uncovered the ineptitude that a passive approach to board governance yields when called to respond to mounting and obvious problems. When needed most, accountability and transparency were absent. That will change under my leadership of the board.

My colleagues and I will work hard to regain your trust and lead us into a new day and a new relationship where Atlanta citizens are left proud of the results that their public schools achieve daily for our children.