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Lorain superintendent worries some in new district


Two of the nine school board members in the DeKalb County Schools in Georgia have expressed concerns about the selection of Lorain Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson to lead their 100,000-student district.

In open letters to the community published on the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Get Schooled blog, Don McChesney and Nancy Jester said they were concerned about whether Atkinson’s record shows she can improve the poorly performing DeKalb district, which is near Atlanta.

McChesney called Atkinson “a fine person and delightful to converse with” but complained that the most current data available in Ohio show only 1 of 24 academic indicators are being met in Lorain.

“Let me remind you that there were candidates not chosen that bested this record,” McChesney wrote. “Some showed a substantially better record.”

McChesney noted that Lorain Schools are on the “Academic Watch” — which is step 4 out of 5 on the state’s sanctions scale.

While Atkinson has said publicly in recent weeks that the district will move up to “Continuous Improvement” on the scale, those state rankings will not be formally announced until Aug. 24.

Patrick Gallaway, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said some districts have jumped the gun by analyzing their own data and looking at the latest results posted on the department’s website from the Ohio Graduation Tests administered in March 2011 to 10th-graders and the Ohio Achievement Tests administered in May 2011 to younger students.

Galloway declined to say whether the Lorain Schools will move up in the standings, saying the information to make that determination has not been released as public record.

Besides moving up to continuous improvement, Atkinson has said she expects the Lorain Schools to meet or exceed standards in four of 24 categories on the state report card this year.

McChesney urged community members in DeKalb County to do their own research, writing, “You will be led to the same set of facts as me. The only difference will be the spin folks attempt to apply to these facts. Also check the contract. See if you see any danger points there.”

In an email Monday, McChesney declined to comment further or to elaborate on whether he was referring to a contract in Lorain or in DeKalb County.

DeKalb Schools spokesman Rodney Jenkins said the district is looking at awarding a three-year contract with a starting salary of about $275,000. Atkinson is making about $230,000 as superintendent of the Lorain Schools.

Under Georgia law, the DeKalb County school board cannot take the actual vote on hiring Atkinson until Aug. 27, which is a Saturday, and Jenkins said he did not expect the vote before Aug. 29, a Monday.

The second DeKalb County school board member expressing concern over Atkinson’s performance in Lorain was Jester, who called Atkinson “very professional and charming.”

Jester wrote that she was especially concerned that the African-American population in Lorain did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress for either reading or math.

“This was also the case for students with limited English proficiency (LEP) and students with disabilities (SWD),” Jester wrote. “The largest demographic for our district is African-American so this record, in a small district, concerns me.”

Jenkins, the DeKalb spokesman, said about 70 percent of the students in the district are African-American and the remainder is about evenly split between Caucasian and Hispanic students.

Like McChesney, Jester also closely examined test scores, noting that over the last three years in Lorain there have been increases in 9 out of 24 state academic indicators ranging from a high of 9.1 percent to 0.8 percent.

The remaining 15 indicators in Lorain, she wrote, have losses that range from minus 2.9 percent to minus 16.3 percent.

“All of the academic indicators for the high school grades showed a decrease in scores over the last three years,” Jester wrote. “For the most recent report card available, Dr. Atkinson’s district met only one state academic measurement. Additionally, when compared to other similar districts in Ohio (based on demographic, socioeconomic and geographic factors), they score below the average for similar districts in all categories except one.”

Jester included a link to the website for the Ohio Department of Education and urged people to do their own research.

Lorain school board member Jim Smith, who has been a frequent critic of Atkinson and a critic of her contracts, said that some academic benchmarks fell under Atkinson.

“When she arrived in 2007, we were making six of the 24 academic benchmarks, and last year we only made one of the 24,” Smith said.

“If we are rated at continuous improvement we will be at the same rating as when she got here,” he said. “The fact is that nine of our schools are considered failing and students attending those schools can ask for vouchers.”

Atkinson did not return several phone calls on Monday.

She was among three finalists for the top post in Atlanta Schools in June, but she withdrew her name from contention last month amid news that Atlanta school officials were reportedly involved in a large-scale scandal affecting falsifying of student test scores.

Atkinson was among three finalists for the slot of CEO of Cleveland Schools, all of whom were passed over when the district opted to promote an official from within in June.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.

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