Fresh on the job of reforming Atlanta’s education system, the city’s newly elected school board on Monday picked a 28-year-old former social studies teacher, Courtney English, as its leader.
English, who graduated from Atlanta Public Schools 10 years ago, became chairman of the board after voters replaced six of its nine members following years of controversy surrounding the nation’s largest cheating scandal.
After being sworn into office, incoming board members unanimously handed leadership to English, who despite his youth is already one of the board’s two longest-serving members since being elected four years ago. The board selected its other veteran, real estate agent Nancy Meister, to become vice chairwoman.
The school board, responsible for setting policy and crafting budgets, takes office at a crucial time, English said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Representatives plan to hire a superintendent in the next few months while working to improve academic results, raise graduation rates and ensure tax money for education reaches students.
“There’s an overwhelming desire for change, an overwhelming desire to get this right,” English said. “People are going to be holding us accountable.”
English, who grew up in the West End and became a teacher through the Teach for America program, sees a need for Atlanta to focus more of its resources on reaching children outside of the classroom — through early childhood education, after-school lessons, and career and college preparedness programs.
He said he realized as a seventh-grade teacher at B.E.S.T. Academy that Atlanta’s school system should do more to reach children who have a hard time learning in class because of problems at home.
“We were doing a whole lot to keep up with test scores, but not a lot to educate the child holistically. We were doing a lot to teach kids what to think, but not much to teach them how to think. It opened my eyes to the belief that change is necessary,” said English, who does consulting work for nonprofit organizations working in education.
A crowd of more than 200 parents, community leaders and family members gave a standing ovation as the school board was sworn into office.
The board includes four former teachers, three graduates of Atlanta Public Schools, nonprofit organizers, attorneys and leaders of parent groups. Board members are paid a $14,894 salary, with the chairman making $16,286 and the vice chairwoman making $15,590.
“We have an opportunity to turn the system around,” said David Payne, president of Southwest and Northwest Atlanta Parents and Partners for Schools. “I hope they’ll listen and at least hear our views.”
After a state investigation in 2011 found evidence of cheating on standardized tests by 185 Atlanta educators, board members said they want to do business in an ethical and transparent way. They also plan to work together in an effort to avoid the board infighting that drew scrutiny from the system’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
“It’s a new board and a new day. We may not always agree, but we’ll always be respectful,” said attorney Cynthia Briscoe Brown, who unseated the board’s previous chairman, Reuben McDaniel, in last month’s runoff election. “It feels like the whole community is pulling for us.”