After a chaotic summer of budget woes over teacher cuts and furloughs, increased class size, and transportation of magnet and choice students, many parents don’t know if school buses will pick up their children on Monday or whether their kids will have teachers in all of their classrooms.
Parents and teachers say they can’t remember a more uncertain and stressful start to the school year.
DeKalb School Board Chairman Eugene Walker said he understands the concerns because of the challenges that the district has had. He said parents should be assured that their children will be well-received on Monday.
“They will be treated well and we will have teachers and staff in place to help them have the best school year,” he said.
District 5 School board member Jay Cunningham said he visited all his high schools and middle schools on Wednesday and Thursday and found an air of excitement from teachers, parents and kids.
He said he wanted parents and the community to be involved in their schools.
“With all the drama we have been having with finances, it’s going to take all of us working together,” he said.
Walker echoed the sentiment and said he is inviting parents to come to school Monday with their kids and to stay involved all year.
At their Aug. 8 open house, Arabia Mountain High School parents learned that their children will have no transportation from Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain to the environmental, energy and engineering magnet school in Lithonia.
Wanda Snipes, a parent at the school, said that more than 400 students depend on the bus to pick them up and to return them to Stephenson High School daily.
“This was a poor time to receive the information four days before school starts,” she said.
“This late decision has placed parents in a stressful position wondering how their child would get to school.”
School district transportation manager Tony Blackmon did not respond to questions about transportation on Thursday, but both Walker and Cunningham said there had been no change to transportation for Arabia Mountain students.
“It’s not true,” Walker said. “The rumor is not true. The superintendent has assured me and all board members that there have been no changes to transportation at Arabia Mountain High School.”
Cunningham said buses will be picking up students at all four shuttle stops, including Stephenson High.
Many vacancies still exist
The school district said Monday that it is expecting at least 96,432 students on Monday, but that only 82 of its 127 schools and centers were fully staffed.
Kendra March, the district’s deputy superintendent of school leadership and operational support, told School Board members at their Aug. 6 monthly work session that there were still 68 vacancies, excluding the state-funded pre-k program.
She said that she and Dr. Tekshia Ward-Smith, the district’s chief human resources officer, would stay on top of the vacancies.
“We will also assign substitutes that would be needed to start the school year,” she said.
Walker said the district has the teachers but that some of them did not have certifications for the areas they want to move them to.
He said that if all the slots weren’t filled on Monday, they would be within two weeks.
The uncertainties come in the wake of the $760 million general operating budget approved by the School Board in June. It included more than $77 million in cuts that resulted in increased class sizes; more furlough days; and the loss of teaching positions, media specialists and counselors.
At Southwest DeKalb High, parents heard for the first time that their children could be in classes with as many as 37 students and that there will only be three counselors to manage the school’s more than 1,000 students.
The uncertainties also touched the teaching ranks. Lisa Morgan, the Organization of DeKalb Educators’ second vice president, told School Board members on Monday that the summer has been filled with worry and stress for teachers, many of whom weren’t sure they had jobs to go back to.
For those who knew the job was there, Morgan said, some don’t know where they would be.
“‘I have been told to go one place in an e-mail and I have been called by the principal to another school. I don’t know what to do,’” she quoted one teacher as saying.
For the teachers who were settled, this week was one of preparation for their students.
At Chapel Hill Elementary on Wednesday, teachers were decorating their classrooms, pinning up posters, and arranging books.
Ana Alcala, a language arts teacher, said she is excited about teaching the district’s new curriculum.
“I’m looking forward to the fresh start and getting our kids to excel and using the Common Core standards,” she said.
The new curriculum aligns with the state’s adoption of Common Core standards as outlined in the “Race to the Top” grant. The $400 million grant was awarded to the state in April 2010.
DeKalb is one of 26 Georgia school districts to share in the grant from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Kindergarten teacher Beverly Rohan said she was looking forward to seeing the new faces.
“I love teaching kindergarten because they don’t know anything when they come in,” she said.
“I love to see the growth of the students at the end of the year.”
Despite all the uncertainties, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson told residents at Commissioner Stan Watson’s Aug. 4 Community Cabinet Meeting that the district will be ready on Monday.
“We want everything to shout, ‘Welcome back, we love you,’” she said.
“Lifting the lives of 98,000 students is a big job and we have qualified and committed staff serving our wonderfully diverse population of students.”
But first, the students have to make it to school.