By Greg Gelpi
A year ago, the Clayton County school system was well into a yearlong probation, nearing the end of a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and had poor test scores when Superintendent Barbara Pulliam took the helm.
Reflecting on the events of the past year, Pulliam cited many achievements, including moving off probation and passing a new SPLOST, but said that challenges persist and much work remains to be done.
"I am still glad that I came here," she said. "I am still glad and I am still proud to be the superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools."
Her top priority when accepting the position was addressing the concerns of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the school system's accrediting agency, which placed the system on probation.
Although that was accomplished, Pulliam said that she is most proud of being able to continue her tradition of visiting classrooms to get a feel of what is happening in schools.
"When I go into schools, they know who I am," she said.
The most difficult aspect of the past year has been the complexity of problems, Pulliam said.
"When I would identify a problem, the problem was never as simple as it appeared," Pulliam said. "The answer to a simple question was never simple."
With the hurdles of SACS and the SPLOST overcome, Pulliam is directing her attention to student achievement. Student achievement is always the "last piece of the puzzle," and results are never immediate, she said.
"I know I want people in the county and state to say what the heck happened in Clayton County," Pulliam said, but it will take time. "It's going to take time if change is going to happen. It takes three to five years for change."
The school system is moving toward a "data-driven" system, Pulliam said. The data is pointing to the need to address ninth grade students, which will ultimately boost test scores and high school graduation rates.
With the implementation of the ninth grade transition program, the school system is trying to increase the graduation rates, she said.
One program feeds another as students pass from one grade to another, Pulliam said. For instance, the school system is better preparing students as they enter ninth grade and the ninth grade transition program prepares students for their high school careers.
The Clayton County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had to "fight" in order to get the school board to conduct the national search which netted Pulliam, President Dexter Matthews said.
It's too soon to say how well Pulliam is performing as superintendent, Matthews said, but added that her recent decision to award "excessive" pay raises is his only concern.
"There are different things that this money could have been used for," he said. "It may not have been excessive where she came from, but it is here."
Matthews said he is "hopeful" that things will improve, but that the pay raises could drive teachers away.
"When I say it's only been a year, it's only been a year," Matthews said. "It's hard to change a 51,000-student system in one year. I think she is still in the process of implementing her plan, but we still are hopeful of getting our goal of a better education."
The pay raises were also the only concern for Mary Baker.
"Unless we get results for the children nothing really matters," said Baker, the president of the Clayton County Coalition for Quality Education, an organization that formed in the wake of the school board firing Superintendent Dan Colwell and the yearlong probation that followed.
Baker said that many in the community are "hesitant, but hopeful" about education in Clayton County.
"I think a lot of us are really waiting to see," she said. "We haven't had any test results. With everything, it takes time. She can't just wave a wand and get results."
Baker said she hopes that in the coming year attention can focus on student achievement and less on the problems of the past.