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DeKalb Superintendent announces ‘Student Assignment Department,’ rezoning in the works

DeKalb County

DeKalb Superintendent announces ‘Student Assignment Department,’ rezoning in the works

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Dr. Devon Horton delivers his first State of the District address at the Courtyard by Marriott Conference Center in downtown Decatur on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

DeKalb County, GA — On March 14, DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Devon Horton gave his state of the district address and signaled a rezoning process is in the works.

Horton announced some new programs, including the Student Assignment Department and Elementary School Athletics, as well as key metrics that the district is using to self-evaluate. He also emphasized community engagement and the district’s larger role as an organization. 

The Student Assignment Department was the most substantive announcement during Horton’s speech. The district’s goal would be to recruit members to a student assignment committee by the end of the school year. The committee would meet for about 18 months before issuing recommendations. Redistricting would be expected in the 2026-2027 school year. 

Horton previously spoke about the need to rework student assignments, meaning where students attend school, in a town hall in October 2023 at Cross Keys Middle.

Responding to a parent question about the “Segregation line” running across Buford Highway at the town hall, Horton talked about the complexity of the issue, the need to bring the different facets of student assignment under one roof on the district side, and the need for stakeholder input that would inform the district’s approach. 

In that town hall, he closed his comments by saying, “There is not a single person in this room that is responsible for the districts as they are, but we’re now responsible for them, and we have to take accountability.”

Last week in the State of the District address, Horton formally announced the beginning of the process, specifically teasing a new department, suggesting the kind of function it will serve. 

“The Student Assignment Department will take the lead in reviewing the boundaries and developing a new assignment plan,” Horton said.

He continued discussing how the district planned to “thoroughly examine specialty schools, focusing on choices that ensure equity and efficient use of existing and new learning opportunities.”

Horton introduced this item as a “Coming to you soon” announcement and stressed the difficulty of the path ahead. 

He asked attendees if they knew when DeKalb last did a comprehensive review of student assignments, which received murmurs. One person yelled, “Never!” to which Horton replied, “The reason why ‘Never’ is because it’s hard, it’s challenging, but we have to break through that to build a better DeKalb.” 

Here are other highlights from Horton’s speech:

— One of the other new programs announced was Elementary School Athletics. Next year, Elementary schools will be able to start Track, Dance, Basketball, and Flag Football teams “with the district paying the bill.” 

— Horton said that during his tenure, the district has seen improved performance in the Reading and Mathematics Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing. For the next round of testing coming in May, the district expects to have 30% proficiency in Math and Reading. Horton described these projections as a “fact-finding moment” 

“This is not where we want to be, but want to be transparent,” Horton said. 

— Horton said the district was 98% fully staffed and responded to the 700 teacher vacancies at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year by hiring 1,000 new teachers. 

Horton also stressed that the district’s approach to beefing up staff was “going beyond just addressing vacancies” and focused on supporting existing staff and offering incentives to help retain qualified people. The district reorganization that had occurred under Dr. Horton had partially focused on bringing in this support staff for administrators and aiding in curriculum instruction. 

The district’s Human Resources department is also undergoing a full review. Horton said, “It’s not that they did something wrong, but this process will provide a necessary look under the hood.” 

— DeKalb County schools also had a 75% reduction in weapons-related incidents from last year to this year, with handgun incidents going from 23 down to 2. Horton attributed this to the success of the district’s attempts to address student safety.

— Horton also said the district was financially stable and had a solid savings account. Horton said the district was “not withholding spending just for the sake of having a higher saving balance, but this doesn’t mean we can spend recklessly.” Horton says the district is prepared for ESSER funds going away in Spring 2025 and was focusing on allocating dollars with a purpose. 

— Horton also emphasized the district’s role “as more than strictly educators,” noting that the operations department will construct 67 projects over the next three years. He also highlighted the district’s trucking and distribution arm, saying district drivers collectively travel “More than three and half times around the world, daily,” while also mentioning the district’s role as a food service provider. Horton thanked the people working to do this work that underpins the educational side. 

— The last two themes of the address were “wrap-around services” and community engagement.

Wrap-around services mentioned varied; notable ones listed were after-school programs and attendance specialists. In this same vein, he talked about continuing the district’s Pre-Kindergarten education and highlighted the district’s success in implementing 13 academic skill centers, which provide 30 minutes of tutoring during the school day for free. 

Horton said the district’s responsibility should be “birth to 12th grade.” Horton quoted another district staff member as saying the goal was for students to walk across the stage “double-fisted” with a diploma and a plan for what they were doing next.

— For community engagement, he highlighted programs like FAMbassadors, and others targeted at improving language access. He talked about the importance of the H-Pride school visits, highlighting that he had visited 90 schools and that these visits were crucial for informing the board about the work he and the board engaged in. He shared that stakeholder contribution to the strategic plan had increased from 740 the previous year to 8,500 this time around.

Dr. Horton called on the audience to get out of the grandstand of life and engage, announcing the district’s new motto for next year: “New Levels, New Heights.” 

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