On the morning of Sept.15, hours after taking one of the toughest jobs in America, Cheryl Atkinson began her tenure as DeKalb County’s new superintendent with a tour of local schools.
At Clifton Elementary, the teachers and staff buzzed around anxiously, awaiting her arrival. A gaggle of reporters waited for her. One of the school system employees positioned her in front of the cameras and microphones.
What are your priorities, they asked. What do you intend to accomplish?
Atkinson smiled and said, “It’s a new day in DeKalb.”
It’s a new day in Fulton County in Atlanta Public Schools, too. Robert Avossa began his tenure as Fulton County Schools new superintendent in June. He previously worked as chief strategy and accountability officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina.
Erroll Davis Jr. this summer took charge of an Atlanta public school system rocked by a test-cheating scandal. Davis’ background was primarily in business, having worked as Chairman of the Board of Alliant Energy Corporation, becoming the Chancellor of the University of Georgia in 2006. Unlike Avossa and Atkinson, Davis’ is an interim superintendent.
According to the American Association of School Administrators, the average tenure of superintendents in large inner-city school districts is 3 1/2 years. The brevity of their terms, the association says, harms school performance. Association Executive Director Dan Domenech called superintendents “better-paid migrant workers.”
“The politics and the demands of the job are such that it’s very difficult for someone to run a school system in this environment of declining finances and survive,” Domenech said.
Domenech said the data does not give the new metro Atlanta superintendents many reasons to be optimistic about holding their jobs for long tenures. “It’s a tough, tough job,” he said. “Something gets to these men and women sooner or later.”
A recent survey found 50 percent of the more than 13,000 superintendents nation-wide planned to retire within the next five years, Domenech said. Other studies show that schools with stable leadership perform better academically, he said.
Yet Davis said that having three new superintendents take office in the Atlanta region in one year shouldn’t be considered an extraordinary turn of events. “I would expect to see this kind of situation occur periodically,” Davis said. “It’s a tough job.”
Others who fill the job agree. “It’s a difficult job…,” Avossa said. “You serve a very broad range of constituents. Your customers are parents, community members, teachers. It’s a very complex organization.”
Atkinson, who was previously a candidate for the Atlanta job, came to DeKalb from Lorain City Schools in Ohio. She faces her own unique challenges. Former DeKalb Superintendent Crawford Lewis was indicted on racketeering charges related to school construction projects. Like Atlanta, DeKalb’s school system has faced the threat of losing accreditation.
The DeKalb County school board appointed her in August with a 6-3 vote, the “no” votes questioning her record in Lorain.
Standing in the sunshine at Clifton Elementary, Atkinson said she plans to stick around.
“The difficulties that superintendents face today are the same challenges we face in the communities,” she said.
Atkinson said she believes, “victory is in the classroom” and released her 90-day plan for her first few months on the job.
Avossa and Davis have their own goals in mind.
“What I hope to achieve in the time I’m here is certainly put out all the fires, identify the major issues, solve as many as I can and hand over a smoothly running operation to the next superintendent,” Davis said. “I’m hopeful I can get all that done.”
Avossa said he’s spending his first 90 days sprinting around the district, meeting with everyone. He said taking his first job as superintendent in Fulton County didn’t make him nervous.
“The interview process is extensive, so by the end of the interview process you begin to understand the complexities,” Avossa said. “I wasn’t negatively impacted by the tenure [of a superintendent]. We’ve had superintendents in large districts serve 10 and 12 years.”
Avossa said he wants to balance evaluating teachers and principals with helping them grow and excel.
“I try to approach this work by asking others, ‘Are the solutions what are best for kids? Is it fiscally sound? Is it research based?’”
Davis sees better days ahead for Atlanta Public Schools. “It’ll be a better place when I leave than when I got here,” he said.