The Clayton County School Board didn’t go far in finding a new district superintendent, and upset some by settling for the longtime educator who’s held the interim job for nearly two years.
Luvenia W. Jackson has an extensive track record in Clayton schools: 33 years in public education, nearly all of it in the district. Supporters say that is a plus. To her critics, it’s precisely the reason she’s the wrong woman for the job.
The board’s 5-4 vote Monday to remove Jackson’s interim tag reflects some of the division in a community whose district has seen some highs and many lows. Jackson’s hiring will become official on July 1. She is the fourth superintendent since the district lost accreditation in 2008.
Board members had moved to give Jackson the permanent job during a work session in February, but some Clayton residents objected and the decision was postponed.
Critics say the district needed a national search for a change agent to improve dismal graduation rates and low SAT scores. Supporters counter that Jackson has been a steadying hand and has gradually diagnosed problems and implemented improvements, such as a career-oriented curriculum and morale-boosting pay raises.
“What more can you ask for?” said Alieka Anderson, a school board member who voted to appoint Jackson. “Why go look somewhere else? Why spend that money?”
After all, Anderson said, the district did a national search for the last superintendent, Edmond Heatley. And he left in September 2012 after a tumultuous three years in the job, prompting the hiring of Jackson the next month.
She has managed Clayton’s accreditation, ensuring it didn’t slip back into crisis mode. In 2008, Clayton became the first district in 40 years to lose accreditation. The district got it back in 2011, but remains on the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ “advisement” list, meaning it’s an accreditation with a caveat.
Some in the community wanted more than what they described as a status quo manager.
“I think that Mrs. Luvenia Jackson is a wonderful individual, but at this day and this point in time, we need a new vision and somebody who is able to move us forward,” said C. Synamon Baldwin, president of the Clayton branch of the NAACP.
Baldwin said the district’s graduation rate — 55.8 percent last year and 53.6 the year before — is unacceptable and a new “culture” is needed.
Jackson is the wrong person for the job “because she’s part of the culture,” Baldwin said.
The Clayton County Council of PTAs was also unhappy, according to its Facebook page. Some of those who posted comments said board members ignored the community’s wishes.
That discord will make the tough task of turning around the district that much tougher.
With nearly 52,000 students, Clayton is one of the largest districts in the state. Among districts in metro Atlanta, it’s also the poorest.
Eighty-seven percent of Clayton students qualify for federal meal assistance because of low family income. That’s far higher than the 60 percent of students statewide.
From nutrition concerns to limited parental involvement, education officials frequently note the added challenges poverty brings to a classroom.
In many areas, Clayton students have performed poorly in comparison to those in other districts and across the state. The average SAT score was 1271 of 2400 possible last year — 181 points lower than the state average of 1452. Its graduation rate is almost 14 percentage points below the state average, which itself is among the lowest in the nation.
Jackson said she is not bothered by the split vote to hire her nor by the criticism that she is an insider. That, and the fact that she taught special education in elementary school classrooms for over a decade, is actually a strength, she said.
“I have gained trust through consistency and transparency,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That will help stimulate the behavior we want from employees.”
Jackson earns $195,000 under her current contract, which expires in December. She and the school board are still negotiating pay and other details in the three-year contract to be voted on June 23.
Jackson retired from Clayton in 2010 after rising through the ranks over three decades to become an assistant superintendent. Her experience gives her insights into teachers’ needs, she said. They need help with discipline and good training, she said, and she has taken steps to provide both.
Last year, under her leadership, the district created its own police force after the sheriff’s department withdrew deputies from the school resource officers program. When the state changed to the Common Core curriculum, she redid the training program to bring teachers on board. She is also studying the way the district hires teachers.
Sid Chapman, the outgoing president of the Clayton County Education Association, said Jackson “understands the district and understands the complexities,” unlike some of her predecessors. He did not blame her for the lackluster academic performance under her watch, saying that as interim superintendent she was unable to hire her own management team.
Chapman, the incoming president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said Jackson will have many challenges now that the interim title has been removed. She must fill about 700 employee vacancies, increase graduation rates, hire more security officers, properly train administrators on the new teacher evaluation process and be more supportive of teachers when they make disciplinary decisions.
“She has a tall order, so we’ll have to see how it goes,” he said.
R.T. Richardson, a parent in Clayton, was both disappointed and hopeful.
“I, like other people, did hope for a big name with a reputation for turning around troubled school districts,” said Richardson, whose daughter is in high school. “But I think there is some value in having someone who’s vested in the community and is invested in seeing the school district improve, and I am hopeful we’ll see that under her tenure.”
By Ty Tagami and Wayne Washington
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.
Clayton Schools and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: A Timeline
November 2007: Several members of the Clayton County school board file complaints with SACS citing what they consider unethical behavior by fellow board members.
August 2008: SACS revokes accreditation for the Clayton County School District. It is the first school system in 40 years to lose its accreditation. The loss is not due to academics but to a dysfunctional school board, ethics complaints and violations of the state’s open meeting law. Gov. Sonny Perdue removes four school board members, saying they violated their duties.
May 2009: Accreditation is restored on a probationary basis.
August 2011: The Clayton school system celebrates accreditation being fully restored.
January 2012: Reports say board members have been preoccupied with personality clashes, sanctions against fellow board members and other drama.
September 2012: Clayton school Superintendent Ed Heatley receives a “letter of concern” from SACS. The letter questions whether the school board is having issues similar to those that caused the system to lose accreditation in 2008.
April 2013: A review team of 12 evaluators visit Clayton schools as part of a regular five-year accreditation review; the district retains its accreditation.
About the new Superintendent
Name: Luvenia W. Jackson
Job: Superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools
Experience: 33 years in public education, including stints as a special education teacher, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Association of Educators, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent for student services, chief of student services for policy and legislation, chief communications and information officer and special assistant to the superintendent.
Education: bachelor of science, elementary special education and early childhood elementary education, Georgia State University; master of education, administration and supervision, Georgia State University; master of education in interrelated special education, Georgia State University; education specialist, education leadership administration and supervision, West Georgia College.