Candidates seeking to move Atlanta Public Schools past its recent history of scandal and controversy agree on one thing at least: the need to find an outstanding superintendent.
Five challengers are running in the wide-open race for District 9, which covers the entire city. The candidates in the Nov. 5 election are attorney Jason Esteves, retired teacher Lori James, businessman Sean Norman, substitute teacher Eddie Lee Brewster and businessman Ed Johnson.
The winner of the race will replace Emmett Johnson, who isn’t running again after serving on the board for 16 years.
Esteves, a former social studies teacher at a middle school in Houston, said the school board should pick a superintendent who will work to promote high-quality academic programs across the city — not just in pockets of excellence.
“The board and the superintendent should have a shared vision and be able to implement policies and programs that allow all of our kids, no matter where they live in the city, to have access to a great public school education that will prepare them for the future, whether it’s college-ready or career-ready,” Esteves said.
Esteves was a member of the Teach for America program, which recruits college graduates and professionals to teach in low-income communities. He said TFA gave him first-hand teaching experience, but he said he doesn’t support privatization of public education.
James, who coordinated Atlanta Public Schools’ student support teams before retiring, now works as the president of Focus on Education, a company that provides special education services and educator training.
She said the right superintendent would lead a resurgence in Atlanta Public Schools after years of leaving negative impressions on parents and the community.
“Atlanta used to be a place everybody wanted to come to. Now it’s not the same. Now people come to Atlanta because they can’t get an educational position somewhere else,” James said. “We have to ask the right questions of superintendent candidates: What do they know about child development, and do they have a vision?”
Norman is the president of WillAppoint, a smartphone app that schedules appointments for users with doctors, dentists or lawyers. He said his corporate experience gave him the knowledge to bring accountability to the school district.
Atlanta’s superintendent should emphasize restoring trust in the city’s schools, he said.
“I’d look for someone who’s been successful leading a complex organization, has excellent communication skills and a proven passion for public education, and also someone sensitive to urban school needs,” Norman said. “The only direction we can go from here is up. I can be part of the progressive change.”
Brewster, a former East Point councilman, said he’d work to “get it right” if elected because the nation is watching Atlanta as a result of its standardized test cheating scandal. He said the board should set the goals for Atlanta’s educational future instead of relying on a hero to take over as superintendent.
“We set ourselves up for failure when we put so much emphasis on this one person, the superintendent, and think he’s the savior for us. That’s setting ourselves up for disaster,” Brewster said. “We should hire someone to implement our vision. That should come from the board.”
Ed Johnson, president of a consulting company called Quality Information Solutions, said the next superintendent should lead one system of public schools and reduce divisions created by the advent of independently managed charter schools. A superintendent should emphasize cooperation and collaboration instead of competition and adversarialism, said Johnson, no relation to Emmett Johnson.
“Atlanta Public Schools operates too much like a business,” he said, “and by that I mean there is too much of the classrooms responding to demands from the administration when it ought to be the administration responding to demands from the classrooms.”
In your schools
Seven of nine seats are being contested in the Nov. 5 Atlanta school board election, and the stakes have never been higher. One of the first tasks of the new board will be to pick a new superintendent for the 50,000-student district still reeling from cheating revelations. In the coming weeks, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters will tell you more about the candidates for school board and the issues shaping the election.