Pulliam looking forward to tasks ahead

By Greg Gelpi

In her first 90 days on the job, Clayton County's school superintendent has overcome hurdles, finds herself in mid-jump on others and eyes hurdles ahead.

Superintendent Barbara Pulliam was hired by the Clayton County Board of Education Feb. 9 after a national search through the Georgia School Boards Association. She immediately launched a 90-day plan for the troubled school system.

"I think we have many elements in place to move in the direction of student achievement," Pulliam said.

Before Pulliam took the job, the "cloud of probation" from the system's accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, hung over the county.

She also walked in on an impending deficit for fiscal year 2005 that threatened to reach as much as $25 million.

Budget issues caused her to "reprioritize" her 90-day plan. The school system had never experienced cuts as it did in March. Pulliam opened up the budgetary process to include school officials at all levels. The Clayton County Board of Education approved an option of the budget committee, which made cuts throughout and saved about $16 million.

For the first time, teacher contracts were held back and issued in phases, which caused a "panic of sorts," Pulliam said. The budget committee developed a sound plan for addressing state funding cuts, but it was necessary to convey that to the system so that it didn't "gag."

"Helping people to understand that would be the next challenge," Pulliam said. "I could feel the organization hit a bump."

In the wake of a Pointe South Middle School student, who had been bullied, stabbing another student with a pencil and a Lovejoy Middle School student bringing a steak knife to school, Pulliam said students must feel safe in schools.

In order to make students feel safe, school officials must listen to the students, she said.

When she became superintendent, Pulliam said she would "hit the ground listening" and listening to students is important in resolving problems.

"That really has been the best part of my day because I see those little faces," she said, adding that she went to Jonesboro High School Monday. "It was interesting to hear the questions they had to ask. The first thing we have to do is make sure the students have a voice. I think kids have a really good idea about things."

Listening to students is also important in dealing with school attendance, Pulliam said. Speaking with other staff members, she said she is working on a comprehensive school attendance policy.

"One of the things I wanted to do was to get to know the school programs and the community as quickly as possible," Pulliam said. "I'm still in the throes of doing that."

School attendance has become increasingly important since a school must test at least 95 percent of its students in each subgroup as one standard of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Pulliam said she also wants to develop a strategy for increasing the county's graduation rate.

Another concern is developing a uniform plan for school improvement, she said. Schools within the Clayton County school system have different plans.

Responding to a Jonesboro High student, she said not to worry because the school system would be "back on track soon."

Pulliam replaced interim Superintendent William Chavis. Chavis served as superintendent after the school board fired Superintendent Dan Colwell in January 2003, which sparked a year of controversy and a year-long probation.