Legislators show off Mt. Zion teacher to state

State legislators were reviewing proposed ethics legislation aimed at cleaning up a Clayton County Board of Education that was mired in in-fighting, in the midst of a county schools accreditation crisis, in 2008.

Georgia’s leaders had a front-row seat four years later, on Thursday, as a Clayton County teacher was recognized at the State Capitol, by local legislators, for receiving a national award for outstanding teaching. The two circumstances were polar opposites of each other, with the accreditation being a black eye for the county, and the national award marking a new high point.

Shekema Silveri, an English teacher at Mt. Zion High School, was feted at a celebration hosted by State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), for being named as Georgia’s only 2011 recipient of the prestigious Milken Educator of the Year Award.

School system officials, several Clayton County legislators, legislators from other counties, former high-ranking state officials, and members of Silveri’s family attended the event.

But, the significance of Silveri’s award, when compared to the county’s recent past, is not even first on the educator’s mind. She was thinking of her students, whom she cites as the reason why she is a national teacher of the year.

“I just think of what it [the award] can do for my students, because I think they do great work, and it’s so good to have that work recognized,” said Silveri, who has taught in Clayton schools for seven years. “You don’t win a teaching award without your students.”

The recognition of Silveri at the State Capitol is just one example of efforts by Clayton County’s Legislative Delegation to improve the county’s reputation in the eyes of their colleagues across the state. Delegation chairperson, Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), said, before this spring’s legislative session began, the delegation’s members wanted to promote more positive stories about the county, at the Capitol.

Plans are already under way to do more events and recognitions to raise Clayton County’s profile among state leaders. Seay said she is set to recognize Clayton County Fire Chief Jeff Hood, and members of the county fire department’s Firefighter Challenge team later this month, for winning a World Firefighter Challenge Championship.

Rep. Glenn Baker (D-Jonesboro) said the delegation is also working with the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce to stage a “Clayton County Day” event at the Capitol, in March, although an exact date has not yet been set. Baker said people like Silveri show the rest of the state that there are “extremely qualified” people working in Clayton County, and doing positive things for the community.

“I think it sends up a flare that says, ‘We have accomplished some things, and we do good things in Clayton County,’ ” he said. “Anything positive that comes out, we [the local legislators] want to recognize that because we know about it. We know these things are happening, but no one else does, and we should be out there singing our own praises.”

Seay, who was a Clayton County school board member in the 1990’s, called Silveri “one example of many great educators down here in Clayton County.” She said local legislators wanted to make sure “all of Georgia” knew that the Mt. Zion teacher was an educator in Clayton County schools, in spite of the school district’s sometimes bruised reputation across the state.

“We have a lot to toot our own horns about,” Seay said.

The paradox between the sometimes maligned reputation of Clayton County — and its schools in particular — and the national praise that Silveri has received, has not gone unnoticed by some observers outside the county. The celebration was sponsored by former State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, and the Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer, LLP law firm, for which Thurmond works.

Thurmond said he and a colleague at the law firm saw media reports about the award, and immediately saw the paradox between the school system’s not too distant troubles, and Silveri’s national recognition. He said that was a major factor in why the law firm wanted to sponsor the celebration.

“A school system that two, or three years ago lost its accreditation, can now boast of having, literally without argument, one of the best public school teachers in America, and that’s something that we should all celebrate,” Thurmond said. “This is a victory, not just for Clayton County, but for the state of Georgia.”