DeKalb County School District superintendent finalist Cheryl Watson-Harris needs to learn more about the district, but aims to improve equity, she said in a June 11 virtual town hall.

She said she prides herself on being dubbed an “equity warrior” by former coworkers and hopes to build on existing resources to better serve the district’s diverse group of students and families.

Cheryl Watson-Harris. (Special)

Watson-Harris said the current protests against racism and police brutality can open up a deeper community conversation and also has a place in the classroom.

“It’s an opportunity for us to engage our students to help them develop the right language to talk about racism, to talk about how they’re feeling about the current events, and to give them the tools to — not only to talk about them — but to develop the skills and opportunity to lead in a new way,” Watson-Harris said.

Watson-Harris is currently second in command at the New York City Department of Education. She was named the sole finalist last week after the DeKalb Board of Education rejected its first pick for the job.

Now, Watson-Harris is completing her two-week public input period required by Georgia law before the board officially hires her. If all goes as planned, she should start July 1, replacing Superintendent Ramona Tyson, who is retiring.

Residents submitted questions to the virtual town hall via phone and email, and the questions were posed to Watson-Harris by a moderator.

The questions concerned such district issues as equity and diversity. Many were met with tentative answers, with Watson-Harris saying she doesn’t know the infrastructure, leadership team or current policies and data in the district yet.

On addressing issues of equity, Watson-Harris said, she first needs to get data on the health and success rates of each school to see what needs to change. She said school districts and teachers have to address the basic needs of children, such as social and emotional health and safety, before they can succeed academically.

DCSD’s diversity is one of the reasons Watson-Harris said she wanted to take the superintendent position. She said she hopes to foster the different cultural identities of students and their families through teaching diversity in the classrooms and also providing multi-language resources.

If chosen as superintendent, Watson-Harris said, her first challenge would be striking a balance between learning the community and creating a swift plan to reopen the schools after the COVID-19 closures.

“I’ll be spending those first 100 days listening and learning and getting to know all of the stakeholders, while also moving with a sense of urgency to address the school reopening questions, as well as some of the other challenges,” Watson-Harris said.

DeKalb County School District released a framework for its reopening strategy for the 2020-2021 school year, but Tyson said the district wanted to leave the details to the incoming superintendent.

Watson-Harris said she’ll draw on her experience in New York City schools as well as community input to create a plan that keeps everyone as safe as possible.

Watson-Harris had a similar answer for a question about school overcrowding. She said she wants to do an analysis of the problem and get the input of community members in the affected areas before she makes any decisions about plans or redistricting.

Additionally, Watson-Harris wants to fill some key vacancies in the district leadership to “get the house in order,” as one of her first moves in the position.

She said she plans to talk with current leadership about the roles and see who is interested in each position to build her team. If there are gaps in the crew, she said she can use her national network to try and fill any roles, but first wants to start locally.