Interim DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond has been keeping a frantic schedule since taking the job in February.
Thurmond has attended meeting after meeting with community groups to talk to parents, city councils, teachers and others to reassure them that he and the new school board will restore full accreditation for the school system.
“It’s important to any leader to first listen to the ideas, concerns, hopes, dreams and criticisms of those he wishes to serve. I think this is especially important as it relates to serving as superintendent of the DeKalb school district,” Thurmond said. “They have an overwhelming feeling that they have not been heard or listened to.”
On his way through north DeKalb, Thurmond spoke to the Dunwoody Homeowners Association and the newly-formed Dunwoody Parents Concerned about Quality Education. He also attended a recent meeting in Tucker hosted by DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer.
And on March 26, Thurmond spoke to the Brookhaven City Council. Also invited to the education-focused meeting were DeKalb Board of Education representative Marshall Orson, charter school advocate Dan Weber, Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, and former DeKalb school board member Nancy Jester.
Mayor J. Max Davis said he organized the Brookhaven meeting to let parents ask questions and talk about public education, including efforts to create charter school systems and independent school districts. “We’re not endorsing any plan or option. We’re just discussing plans and options,” Davis said.
Thurmond took questions from parents and talked about some of the unique challenges the school system faces.
“This county is one of the most diverse counties in not only Georgia but in the whole country,” Thurmond said. “Nearly 20 percent of students enrolled in our schools are English learners.
“The old concepts of north/south, black folks/white folks is obsolete,” Thurmond said.
He said the system needs to be decentralized to become more flexible to the diverse needs of students in different schools.
The crowd was shocked when Thurmond said that 71 percent of students in DeKalb County qualify for free and reduced lunch.
He pointed out that it is not necessarily a problem, but something that needs to be taken into account. “I qualified for free and reduced lunch from first through 12th grade. I’m a free-and-reduced lunch kid,” Thurmond said.
He said going forward, the community and the school board need to think in terms of what’s best for the entire county.
“In order for us to really become a high-quality system, we have to move away from ‘my district’ and ‘my school,’” Thurmond said. “We’re going to have to become interested in the education of other people’s children who don’t live in ‘my neighborhood’ and ‘my district.’
After Thurmond spoke, Jacobs discussed a proposed legislative effort to allow cities formed after 2005 to form independent school districts. Weber spoke to parents about the benefits of creating “charter clusters” that would give parents and teachers more flexibility in education.
Thurmond said he’s not bothered by these discussions about separating schools from the DeKalb County system.
“Each parent has to do what they think is in the best interest of their child,” Thurmond said. “While these decisions are being made, their children are still enrolled in the DeKalb County School District. It’s my responsibility and the responsibility of the district to provide them with best education possible. To me, they’re separate issues.”
Thurmond said that as he’s made his way around DeKalb, some common themes have emerged from his discussions. Almost everyone is concerned about the dysfunction of the school board, with improving academic performance, and with increasing salaries to keep the best teachers in the school system, he said.
There’s a lot of anger and frustration, too. But overall, Thurmond said people have been hopeful and supportive of the direction he’s taking.
With no background in education, Thurmond was a non-traditional choice for interim superintendent. But he said as a former state legislator, state labor commissioner, and head of the state Division of Family and Children’s Services, he has experience leading large public institutions through times of crisis.
“As a Georgian and resident of DeKalb County, I did not feel like I could allow the system to fail,” Thurmond said. “I felt like I had something to offer and could be a benefit to the system at this critical moment.”
He realizes that few envy his position. But Thurmond said the experience has been “exhilarating.”
“Years ago, I dedicated my life to public service. This is why you go into public service,” Thurmond said. “At a time of great need, to be able to go in and provide help. I’m just honored that the people of DeKalb County gave me this opportunity. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and it’s also the challenge of a lifetime.”