By Curt Yeomans
Thousands of Clayton County teachers arrived at the county's Performing Arts Center on Friday to hear district officials proclaim the dawn of a new day for the embattled school system.
Much of the 2007-08 school year was spent with the cloud of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' threat to revoke the district's accreditation, if nine mandates for improvement are not met by Sept. 1.
The school system turned in a 2,300-page response to SACS officials on July 31. The agency will visit the district on Aug. 14, and 15, and a decision about the future of Clayton County schools. School officials have repeatedly proclaimed their confidence that the accreditation will be retained.
On Friday, much of the talk was about the future of Clayton's schools. "SACS has put a dark cloud over this county ... Now it's time to clean that up, work hard and push on toward the future," said Corrective Superintendent John Thompson. "We're a family. We're going to make this school system into something you can be proud of."
The annual event was designed to boost teacher morale. Friday was the first day of work for teachers. The educators got more than was expected. Thompson, wearing a white suit, danced and led more than 100 teachers in a rousing rendition of the 1980's hit song "We Are the World."
Many of the teachers sang backup, but several more performed in an orchestra. A group of children was brought out near the end of the song and gathered around the superintendent.
The speakers linked their comments to the theme, "There's no stopping us now!" -- which will be the system's slogan for the new school year.
"This is the best county in the metropolitan area, by far," proclaimed Michele Strong, chairperson of the Clayton County Board of Education. "Get ready, because this is going to be the best year ever."
Local officials, including state Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) and Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, expressed their belief that school system officials have learned from the SACS experience, and the district will be better as a result. Glanton echoed the declaration Friday of a "new day" for the school system.
"In many positive respects, we are a much different, and more efficient system than we were almost five months ago when the now infamous SACS report was delivered," said Glanton. "I believe when one is looking for an example of how to successfully overcome tremendous odds and challenges ... If he or she were to open up the dictionary of success stories, they will find a picture of Clayton County Public Schools."
Overall, teachers said they were entertained, but felt more assured about the district's future as a result of Thompson's presentation.
"I think we all need to have a positive attitude right now," said Becky Hawking, a special education nurse for the school system. "I think having a positive attitude is going to be key ... We have a lot of wonderful things in this school system."