By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County business leaders listened intently as Interim School Superintendent Valya Lee, and her staff, explained why they believe the 48,000-student school district will regain its accreditation soon.
Lee, who became the system's interim leader March 14, was the guest speaker at the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce's "Early Bird Breakfast" at Clayton State University Thursday. She gave a group of about 100 chamber members the same message she has shared with staffers and parents during the nearly two weeks she has been the leader of the school system: "We are going to have our accreditation back before the class of 2009 graduates in May."
In response to Lee's speech, several business and community members said they are cautiously optimistic the school system is on the verge of bouncing back from its recent troubles. "I feel very positive about our chances of regaining the accreditation, although I'm not sure what level of accreditation we'll get," said Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beauford. "We need to hear optimism, but we also need to see results."
The chamber has monitored the school system's handling of its accreditation crisis since February 2008, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools told the district it had six months to meet nine mandates for improvement, or face a loss of accreditation. A few weeks later, the chamber ran a full-page advertisement in the Clayton News Daily, calling for resignations from the entire school board. Some board members resigned within two months, while a few others waited a little bit longer to step down. Four others had to be removed from office that August by Gov. Sonny Perdue, on the recommendation of a state administrative judge.
Even so, Clayton County became the first U.S. school system in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation.
Beauford said the business community has an interest in the health of the school system, because it can attract businesses, employees and their families to the area, or scare them away.
As the school system prepares for an April 13-15 visit from a SACS review team to determine whether the district has made enough progress to regain its accreditation, school system leaders are looking forward to a long-term improvement in the school system. Lee has repeatedly said she expects to see Clayton County Public Schools become one of the state's top school systems.
She called on business leaders to support the district and the school board, which she said is fully functional, although it has some "spirited" members who "just keep life interesting."
She asked business leaders to serve as mentors in the schools. "With your support, we can do it," Lee said. "It is 'Mission Possible.'"
Beauford said she has begun attending school board meetings to see if the board functions as a team, and that the chamber wants to increase the number of Clayton students participating in its youth leadership program. There are 30 students in the current leadership class, she said, which is the highest enrollment ever. But chamber officials want to attract as many young people to the program as possible.
Beauford also said the chamber is in the process of tweaking its education committee to strengthen its work with the school system. "We are going to fine-tune that committee, so we can make sure we are working in the areas where the school system needs us," she said.
Ryan Vermeulen, a new member of the chamber, with three children, and another due in July, said he felt a sense of relief after hearing Lee's speech on the future of the school system. His family is planning to move from Lamar County to either Clayton, or one of its neighboring counties.
Vermeulen said the quality of schools will be a main factor in his family's decision, because his oldest child, Savannah, 4, will begin kindergarten in the fall. "I'm glad they've taken it as seriously as they have," he said.
After Lee finished her speech, Chamber boardmember Ron Shipman asked the interim superintendent to make sure the students in the county's schools are receiving a quality education, so they will be prepared when they enter the workforce.
Shipman said many of the issues Lee addressed, such as focusing on results and demanding accountability, are values that are important to the business community. "Dr. Lee, we get your product," Shipman said. "The interesting thing is you have 12 years to mold them. Do the best job you possibly can, because, at the end of the day, we get your product."
After the breakfast, Lee said the school system and the business community need to work together since they affect each other, and both serve important functions that affect the overall health of the county. "Just like we're the hub of education for the county, we have to have good businesses to deliver sound economic development," Lee said. "We also need them to employ our graduates."