Briarlake Elementary parent organizations hold town hall about teachers leaving the schoolDeKalb County School District Administration and Industrial Complex on Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse
By Sara Amis, contributor
Editor’s note: This reporting first appeared in The District, an exclusive publication for Decaturish.com subscribers providing a behind-the-scenes look at our reporting on DeKalb County Schools. To become a paying subscriber, visit supportmylocalnews.com
Greater Decatur, GA — The Briarlake Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, Principal Advisory Council, and Foundation held a town-hall-style meeting on June 9 to address concerns about teacher retention at Briarlake.
The meeting was attended by Briarlake Principal Jamela Lewis and Region 2 Superintendent Trenton Arnold.
Representatives from the parent organizations were also present: Eric Poole from the Briarlake Foundation, Eric Nathan from the PTA, and Noy Hawkins from the PAC. The panelists drew on questions that were submitted by parents before the meeting.
While the DeKalb County School District as a whole is having trouble filling teacher positions, and there is a national shortage of teachers, some teachers and parents have attributed an unusually high turnover rate at Briarlake to Lewis, and accuse her of creating a toxic environment for teachers and staff.
Briarlake Foundation president Tonja Holder said that the groups agreed to hold the meeting after a petition started circulating that called for Lewis to be reassigned.
“We wanted to offer an open forum for honest conversations and to have Principal Lewis’ direct supervisor there to hear the concerns firsthand,” said Holder.
At the meeting, Arnold began by speaking about teachers leaving the profession nationally amid a wider societal shift dubbed “the great resignation.” Arnold said that Briarlake was “not an outlier” and that Briarlake’s turnover rate of “about” 15% was in line with other schools in the district.
Hawkins, a PAC member, pointed out that a school with a high socioeconomic status student body like Briarlake would normally have a turnover rate closer to 7% or 8%. Arnold said he didn’t believe that the difference was significant.
Later in the meeting, Lewis stated that a total of 10 teachers had left at the end of the 2021-22 school year. There are 34 total teacher positions listed on the Briarlake Elementary website, meaning the turnover rate among teachers this year is 29%.
Both Arnold and Lewis did not directly answer questions about whether Lewis contributed to turnover rates at the school.
“There are a variety of reasons that teachers have shared with me that they have left or are leaving. Marriage, moving out of state, it’s a wide range,” Lewis said.
Hawkins asked whether the hiring freeze and reallocation of school budgets discussed at the Board of Education meeting on June 7 would affect the school’s ability to replace the teachers who were leaving, and how Lewis would address the possibility of larger classrooms and more stress on teachers.
Lewis said that the school may only be able to replace five of the 10 teachers she mentioned, and she was still working through that problem.
“I’m an advocate for the school, and I know that teachers need support,” said Lewis.
When asked about how she interacted with teachers, Lewis said that she did not have scheduled meetings but made herself available by walking around and speaking to teachers informally.
When asked directly about the petition calling for Lewis to be removed, Arnold said that the district relies on professional evaluations to make decisions about its staff. When asked what her evaluations were like, Arnold said that information is confidential.
More than one panelist stated that there was a widespread perception that complaints about Lewis were not investigated.
Arnold said that all complaints were heard and addressed according to district policy, but that personnel matters would generally be kept private.
“The expectations that I have for the leaders of Region 2 including Ms. Lewis are extremely high,” said Arnold.
Arnold said he has never declined to meet with anyone.
However, several teachers and parents have told Decaturish that they felt that complaints about Lewis fell on deaf ears.
Arnold was asked whether Lewis’ marriage to Oliver Lewis, who is Associate Superintendent of Accountability with DeKalb County Schools, shielded her from criticism.
Arnold said that he viewed Oliver Lewis as a coworker and had no personal relationship with him outside of work. He added that there were district policies against an employee being in a supervisory position over a family member. Oliver Lewis does not directly supervise his wife.
Arnold said that his decisions are not based on personal relationships and that he had no hesitation in communicating expectations to Principal Lewis when necessary.
“It’s about the business of educating children,” he said.
PTA president Diana Hardy said in closing that this would be only the first of a series of meetings about the school. To read our previous story about Briarlake Elementary, click here.
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