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Decatur superintendent highlights first 90 days in office; finds interventions need attention

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Decatur superintendent highlights first 90 days in office; finds interventions need attention

Dr. Gyimah Whitaker speaks in the Elizabeth Wilson Student Support Center boardroom after being sworn in as the new superintendent of the City Schools of Decatur on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Decatur, GA — City Schools of Decatur Superintendent Dr. Whitaker gave an update on her first 90-days leading the school district during the school board’s regular meeting on Oct. 10.

She has been focusing on G.E.M – Gathering, Envisioning and Maximizing. Whitaker’s three-step entry plan includes gathering information, reviewing the findings to envision a plan forward, and maximizing the results.

“My core values as a leader center around equity, leadership, and engagement, and they have truly guided my career,” Whitaker said. “GEM is a moniker that aligns with my now well-known belief that the City Schools of Decatur is a gem, a rare and special find of excellence.”

The school board has heard various concerns from parents related to literacy, support for students, and the multi-tiered systems of support [MTSS]. During Whitaker’s gathering phase, the administration created an inventory of interventions and established a focus on the multi-tiered systems of support.

“To be honest, of all of the areas examined in the GEM plan, intervention is the area that needs the most attention,” she said. “We must implement a DIME model for MTSS.”

Whitaker defined DIME as a ways to design, implement, monitor, and evaluate the work CSD is doing.

The district must design an MTSS system that follows the guidance of the Georgia Department of Education, implement training for all staff, monitor the systems in the schools, and evaluate student outcomes, she said.

“Implementing interventions is not the sole responsibility of one person in our schools. It is a team effort where all staff who teach the student utilizes those evidence-based interventions aligned to the targeted skill that needs to be remediated,” Whitaker said.

CSD is looking to provide contracted tutoring services, specifically for Algebra I students. If students meet their outcome goals, then the full contract would be paid for the tutoring students. If they do not meet their outcome goals, the contract will be paid on a sliding scale.

The GEM plan also focused on instructional leadership when it comes to literacy.

“It involves staff revisiting schools as well as reviewing the alignment of curriculum, assessment, professional development, central office support, and all student literacy data,” Whitaker said.

CSD has reduced teacher training on the American Reading Company, provided professional development and focused phonics instruction.

“Over the past 90 days, we have also kindled relationships with science of reading experts, developed a process for establishing a literacy framework to be shared in December,” she said. “A review of the CSD Milestones data for [English language arts] reinforced what we knew about the achievement for most students, however after a comprehensive review, we found evidence of a significant gap in achievement of subgroups of students within the same cohorts.”

The school district has an opportunity to reframe the instructional infrastructure, she added.

“We need to use data to drive small group instruction, increase the use of evidence-based resources, including the alignment to the Georgia Standards of Excellence and the science of reading, and enhance coaching and professional development for literacy,” Whitaker said.

By looking at the achievement gaps, Whitaker and her team learned CSD has focused on the how – instruction and culturally pedagogy – but now the district must focus on the what, which is the content, and the Georgia Standards of Excellence.

“It is with that lens that we envision how we best establish the evidence-based interventions to maximize outcomes,” Whitaker said.

Each phase of the entry plan is designed to help refine future work around instructional leadership, organizational leadership, and communications.

Whitaker has been drawn to the district’s focus on its new strategic plan, titled All in Decatur. She added that the strategic plan has helped guide her in achieving the objectives for “maximizing student outcomes by establishing the conditions for an instructional leadership structure that ensures high literacy instruction, interventions and closing the achievement gap.”

Throughout her first 90 days, Whitaker has focused, as well, on building the capacity of the district’s leadership and developing greater trust with the district, school board, and the community through professionalized communications.

Phase 1 focused on gathering information, which included hosting listening sessions, stakeholder meetings, and conducting surveys.

“The many gems about CSD were highlighted during these sessions, as were the opportunities for growth,” Whitaker said. “In every quadrant of the district, there seemed to be a consensus on communication, salaries, compensation, equity, services for students with special needs, the grading structure, and the need for a safe and inclusive environment where every student can thrive.”

During phase two, she reviewed those findings in order to envision a path forward. Phase three focuses on maximizing results. She plans to continue using the GEM strategy to focus on outcomes for all students.

“First, we will create coherence instructionally. All students will receive high-quality instruction using the Georgia Standards of Excellence. Assessments will be evidence-based based and progress toward mastery of the standards will be monitored to accelerate success for all. Additionally, we will use coherence by creating a thorough line from our policies to our administrative regulations to our practices.

“Second, we will build capacity for our leaders, particularly in the areas of project and change management. These key business practices will demonstrate our commitment to transparency not only for student outcomes but also financially. Finally, there will be a clarion call for all. Our equity work today has focused on ensuring that students are safe and seen. Going forward, we will focus on student outcomes, putting the structures in place so that all students are successful,” Whitaker said.

School Board Member Hans Utz emphasized that interventions have been a key issue related to both equity and achievement gaps.

“I just want to highlight that because I think it is really important in terms of root cause. We’ve heard from lots of parents coming up here talking about literacy,” Utz said. “That look at the MTSS process and our ability to quickly and rapidly respond when a student is having trouble is foundational. I appreciate that being called out as something that we’re going to be focused on,:

Vice Chair Carmen Sulton added that she liked how the overall theme of the plan has been rooted in student outcomes.

“[Dr. Whitaker] started out by building your team and a team that’s focused on student outcomes, and then with organized and very specific goals that are rooted in how well kids are performing, so that we don’t get distracted [from] that. I think with that being your guide, I think that then we’ll start to see some results,” Sulton said

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