Parents voiced frustration with school sizes and trailers on campuses while also praising the diversity and variety of school choices in DeKalb County at an Oct. 30 community meeting held at Dunwoody High School. The meeting is part of a process to create the 2019-2024 strategic plan for the DeKalb County School District.

Dozens of parents, students and community members gathered at DHS and broke out into smaller groups to discuss four topics: what are the strengths of DeKalb Schools, what areas does the district need to improve, what opportunities are there for the district and what threats face the school district in the future.

Joy Mordica of DeKalb Schools writes on a flip chart some of the strengths the school system has as voiced by parents participating in one of several small focus groups at Dunwoody High School on Oct. 30. (Dyana Bagby)

About 20 parents gathered in the DHS library and then broke out into three smaller groups. A facilitator recorded their ideas on a flip chart. Students, community members and school employees broke out into other small groups in separate classrooms.

Six parents representing Chamblee, Dunwoody and Lakeside high schools and DeKalb PATH Academy sat together at one table in the library. They described several DCSD strengths, including strong parental involvement; the district’s respect for diversity of students and teachers; the resources at Fernbank Science Center, a pre-K-12 school with a planetarium and observatory; the Career Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) programming; and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) schools.

Drawbacks and areas that need improvement overwhelmingly surrounded the district’s need to better plan for school expansions and how to deal with overcrowding.

“You can’t put trailers with brand new schools,” one parent said. “You need to adequately plan ahead.”

Overcrowding, new schools

Overcrowding at local schools remains a top issue for families, students and communities in Brookhaven and Dunwoody.

A new Cross Keys High School is slated to be constructed at the former Briarcliff High School site on North Druid Hills Road. The new 900-seat John Lewis Elementary School in Brookhaven and the new 900-seat Austin Elementary School in Dunwoody are under construction.

A $17.7 million expansion at DHS that includes a two-story, 29-classroom addition is expected to begin next year and be completed by 2022.

Bob Fiscella of Dunwoody attended the Oct. 30 community meeting and said in an interview that DHS is “way too overcrowded.”

He said DHS does not have the acreage it needs to grow. When DCSD adds the new classrooms it is not adding space for extracurricular activities, he said. DHS teams are now forced to practice on dirt fields at Brook Run Park and in local church gyms, he said.

Parents were given stickers to place next to the ideas and suggestions they most closely associated with. The ideas were gathered from parents in several small break-out groups. (Dyana Bagby)

DHS has a capacity for 1,503 students. Enrollment this year was about 1,982 and is expected to grow to 2,042 next year. By 2022, enrollment is expected to be 2,093 students.

Earlier this year, a “portable quad classroom building” made up of four trailers was placed at DHS to handle the school’s growing population. More trailers could be installed at the school in as few as two years. The addition of more trailers means the cutting down of more trees.

“We had this nice wooded campus, but now all the trees are being cut down,” Fiscella said.

“The county needs to figure out a way [to alleviate overcrowding] that is a lot better than just adding onto the school,” he said.

DCSD negotiated “land swaps” in 2016 with Dunwoody and Brookhaven to acquire property needed to build the two new elementary schools intended to alleviate overcrowding.

In Brookhaven, the district purchased more than 10 acres of the city’s Skyland Park for $4.7 million to build the $22 million, 900-seat Lewis Elementary School. The new school is expected to open next year. The city used that money and spent slightly more than $3 million to build a new, smaller Skyland Park.

In Dunwoody, DeKalb Schools purchased about 10 acres of Dunwoody Park, where the Dunwoody Senior Baseball fields were located, for $3.6 million. A new $18.4 million, 900-seat Austin Elementary is under construction at the site and is slated to open in early 2020.

Dunwoody used the $3.6 million toward building two new baseball fields adjacent to Brook Run Park. DCSD will transfer ownership of the old Austin Elementary School site and building to the city once staff and students are relocated to the new school.

Many stickers were put next to complaints about overcrowding at schools and DeKalb Schools’ lack of adequate planning for future growth. (Dyana Bagby)

Finding nuance in district plans

Other comments from parents in the library included fear of federal funding cuts negatively affecting funding at the local level; DeKalb School losing students and teachers to private schools; and a desire for more corporate sponsors at local schools, including the idea of creating curriculum tied to local businesses, such as film classes at Third Rail Studios in Doraville.

Renovating older schools to make them safer; adding more school counselors; offering a better variety of menus for school meals; doing away with restrictions that prohibit school booster clubs from raising money for facilities improvements; and finding more ways for the school district to work with DeKalb city governments were other ideas.

Some parents said there was too much fear from other parents who worry their property values will drop if they are redistricted out of an area with a good school.

“They fight over the value of their home and not for what is best for students,” a parent said.

The DHS meeting was in District 1, represented by Board of Education member Stan Jester of Dunwoody. Six other community engagement sessions were held in the other districts of the six members of the DeKalb school board.

District 1 includes Dunwoody and Chamblee schools, Cary Reynolds Elementary and Sequoyah Middle schools in Doraville, and DeKalb PATH Academy in Brookhaven.

Jester explained at the start of the community meeting that the five-year strategic plan is a state requirement. Strategic plans can seem generic, he said, with many of the same issues such covered in various districts. But “the devil is in the details” in finding nuances to create strategic plans that suit the needs for each district, he added.

“Here, we are heavy in equity and access … we provide a lot of wraparound services,” Jester said. Wraparound services can include health care and social services for students as a way to encourage academic success. Jester has criticized wraparound services on his blog.

The strategic plan process

DeKalb Schools hired the Georgia School Boards Association as its consultant on the strategic planning process. A community meeting with DeKalb business leaders is set for next week.

Compiling information from the community sessions could finish in December. The next phase of the strategic planning process includes the formation of a planning team to be made up of as many as 40 to 100 people, explained Stan DeJarnett of Georgia School Boards Association.

Many parents used their sticker to praise the diversity of DeKalb Schools. (Dyana Bagby)

DeKalb Schools staff will comprise 50 percent of the planning team and 50 percent will be made up of community members. The planning team has not yet been assembled. DeKalb Schools officials have final say on who serves on the planning team, DeJarnett said.

Planning team members will look at determining big goals and performance objectives, such as determining what metrics to use to measure success in the schools, DeJarnett explained.

Metrics can include lowering dropout rates and increased teacher retention. Metrics also includes expecting certain goals to be met within a certain time period to ensure accountability, he said.

Following the planning team’s process, an action team is expected to convene in February. This team will be made up of only DCSD staff and administrators.

The action team is tasked with determining what paths and initiatives to take to meet the goals being set, DeJarnett said.

Current DeKalb Schools initiatives include the 2016 “Building S.P.A.C.E.S.” initiative to determine how to fund building and infrastructure improvements; and the new Early Learning Initiative providing free schooling to 3-year-old students.

Tentative plans are to have a final report ready to be presented to the Board of Education in April for approval, DeJarnett said, and ready to implement for the 2019 school year.

DeKalb Schools last five-year strategic plan was in 2014, the year after Gov. Nathan Deal suspended six of nine school board members after an investigation revealed school board financial mismanagement, nepotism and interference in day-to-day operations.

The Georgia School Boards Association consulted on the 2014-2019 strategic plan that can be found by clicking here.

People can provide input for the 2019-2024 strategic plan by taking an online survey that will be available until 11:45 p.m. on Nov. 6.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.