DeKalb Schools leaders reinforced the district’s rallying cry Friday — during a convocation that had faced stinging opposition from teachers on social media before it took place — that the emotional connection to work being done in-house was paying off.
A big part of the event for the district’s 12,000 employees, held at Gwinnett County’s Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, was the “I Love DeKalb” marketing campaign.
“We are climbing and we will continue to climb, because we’re doing the right things,” Superintendent Steve Green told the packed arena, to applause.
Under his leadership, Green said the district is outpacing the state on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, the state’s report card on progress, as well as its increasing graduation rate. The district recently received a five-year renewal of its accreditation, re-established in 2016 after a probational status. Videos shown throughout the event featured students talking about their love for the district, and what they achieved because of guidance from its staff.
“We’re going to tell our own story,” Green said. “We know who we are, and we know who we aren’t. And that gives us clarity of purpose.”
The event had drawn fire weeks before it began, as educators protested on social media the fact that DeKalb leaders were spending at least $50,000 on a pep rally of sorts that would take them out of the classroom for half a day on the last day of planning before school begins — and more than a half-hour away to neighboring Gwinnett County.
While touting progress made in the last few years, Green said the event grew out of discussions with school board members and was necessary to bring his district together.
Some teachers were hesitant to talk on the record Friday, citing fears of retaliation by the administration, but still felt the money and time would have been better spent elsewhere.
Reygan Reed said he was skeptical when it was announced, but changed his tune by the event’s end.
“There’s more of a buy-in” to what’s happening across the district, said Reed, an English teacher from Henderson Middle School. “It’s difficult to be able to socialize with other people from different parts of the district and see the respective greatness that is going on.
“This will make you fall in love with the district all over again.”
Kathy Thomas, a second-grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School, said it was great to run into former colleagues who’ve moved on to other schools in the district.
“Overall, it was really nice, and it was fun to see everybody and have a good time before we get serious,” said Thomas, who has been at Hawthorne since 1999.
The staffers were greeted by a DJ playing R&B and rap hits as they made their way inside, many wearing shirts representing their respective schools.
When Green was introduced by the DJ, Fernbank student Gavin Brown hit the stage instead. In a parody of a school chief’s agenda, he made calls for pizza and burgers for lunch every day, then said everyone would receive laptops.
Green later joined him on stage, soon dancing along to Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.”
“Just like the song says, every little step counts,” Green said. “Sometimes, you make baby steps. Sometimes, you make giant leaps.”
Speakers provided words of inspiration ahead of the school year, and thanked the teachers for handling the district’s most important mission. DeKalb County Board of Education member Vickie Turner turned the stage into a pulpit, preaching on the importance of educators and sharing stories from her own childhood, which shaped her career.
“A few are called,” she said. “Because this is a calling. And I thank you for saying yes.”
Board Chairman Melvin Johnson and member Marshall Orson talked about the significance of the large gathering. Though social media allows people to feel connected, it can’t match the feeling of literally being together, they said. Johnson likened the district to a car with various systems, with all the systems needed to get that vehicle moving.
“Where would we be if part of that system dysfunctioned? We would not be able to function,” Johnson said. “This district is really moving forward, but we have a ways to go.”
The event was not without its drama.
Many boarded school buses just after 7 a.m. for the event. At least one bus experienced mechanical trouble on the way. Teachers said online that one bus only held two teachers, with many choosing to drive instead.
One teacher said Friday morning that a last-minute departure time change meant some missed their bus and were forced to drive.
Because of traffic, some didn’t arrive back at their school until after 1 p.m. Teachers were scheduled to end the day at 3 p.m.