Voters in two of nine Clarke County Board of Education districts will select new representatives on May 22, at a time when newly hired Superintendent Demond Means is making a few waves by making his mark on the school district. The races pit a University of Georgia lecturer and mom against an undergraduate student in District 5 and a two-term board member against a former CCSD counselor in District 7.
District 7 board member Carol Williams, a Realtor, put three now-grown children through CCSD schools and has served on the board since 2011. Prior to that, she was on the state school board, which she says gave her a broad perspective on education. It’s a thankless job, she says, but an important one. “If you were here for recognition, you’d better go somewhere else, because this is laser-focused on students and teachers and achievement in the school district,” she says.
The board’s role—often misunderstood—is limited: hire a superintendent, approve policies and budgets, and stay out of day-to-day management. One thing Williams is proud of is working with former superintendent Philip Lanoue and other board members to put the district on sound financial footing. “We had not had clean audits for a long time,” she says.
Her opponent, LaKeisha Gantt, worked in about half of CCSD’s 21 schools as a behavioral specialist until 2015. (She is now a counselor for UGA, a lecturer at Clayton State University and has a private practice.) She also has four children ranging from 5–15 in Clarke County public schools. “My kids are all in school now, and I want to do this [run for office] at a time when I’m naturally connected to schools,” she says.
As a behavioral specialist, part of Gantt’s job was coordinating among parents, teachers and administrators—but that communication was sometimes lacking, she says, and the job became harder and harder because of a lack of clinical supervision and work-life balance. “At the time, I felt the district had plateaued in terms of how it was addressing issues of climate and culture,” she says.
A year later, an alleged sexual assault at Cedar Shoals High School led to a flood of complaints about lack of communication, discipline and other problems within the district, and eventually the departure of Lanoue, the National Superintendent of the Year. “When Cedar happened and sort of the curtain was pulled back, we realized there was a lot to be done,” Williams says.
The school board ordered a rewrite of the student code of conduct after teachers and parents said it didn’t lay out clear consequences for students who broke rules. However, Gantt says the district still has work to do “figuring out ways to shift how discipline is done.” Students should face intervention to correct the root cause of behavior rather than punishment, she says, and more conversations about issues like weapons, drugs and bullying are still needed.
Kara Dyckman, running in District 5, has a number of similarities to Gantt, both professionally and personally: She has a psychology background and two children at Chase Street Elementary, and serves on the Local School Governance Team, a newly formed body that sets some policies for Chase and advises the principal and BOE on others.
Dyckman attended UGA, left for a post-doctoral fellowship, then came back and has been a lecturer in cognitive psychology since 2010. She settled in Oconee County but moved to Athens after realizing she wanted to send her children to CCSD, “mostly for the diversity in the schools.”
While diversity is also important to the other District 5 candidate, Imani Scott-Blackwell, she comes at it from a very different angle. Her brother has served time in prison, and she was expelled from high school in Gwinnett County after, she says, another student falsely accused her of selling drugs. Before that, she says she was “always very engaged in education and loved school.” She was running for class president and dreamed of attending Harvard.
After her expulsion, Scott-Blackwell says she spent her senior year being home-schooled and fell into a depression that only lifted when she found out she had been accepted into UGA. A while back, she stumbled upon an Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement workshop on the “school-to-prison pipeline” for African Americans, especially boys. “That’s when I realized, ‘Gosh, this is how it happens,’” she says.
Scott-Blackwell is now 22 and on pace to graduate with a degree in philosophy in December. Her age became an issue when she challenged Dyckman to a one-on-one debate. Dyckman declined because the two had already participated in several forums, and she didn’t feel comfortable with the power dynamics of a teacher debating a student, rather than answering questions posed by a moderator.
Photo Credit: Jessica Silverman
Although most students move away after graduation, “I’m going to be in Athens for a long time” working to solve the community’s poverty crisis, Scott-Blackwell promises. Her youth could even be considered an advantage, as she’d be the only school board member who was educated in the post-No Child Left Behind world of overtesting, where students are reduced to a “walking GPA.”
Means has expressed concerns about equity and social justice—"This is my niche,” Scott-Blackwell says. “This is what I need to be focused on”—but she questions’ Means priorities and reliance on data. “Human beings are not data points or statistics,” she says. Instead of test scores, she would look at factors like parental involvement, attendance and classroom participation to measure progress.
Gantt shares some of Scott-Blackwell’s suspicions about data. “I think there was a focus on numbers” under Lanoue, Gantt says. “I’m not saying numbers don’t mean anything, but they can’t be the tail that wags the dog.”
She is not sold on Means, but likes what she’s heard so far. “I’m still learning about Dr. Means,” she says. “I think he has highlighted one of our issues, which is disparity.” Addressing that issue “has to be done carefully and intentionally,” she says, “with the understanding that it’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to be uncomfortable.”
Means has put an emphasis on academic rigor, Scott-Blackwell says, while she would focus on the highest-need students who struggle in unique ways; for example, by feeding students dinner in addition to breakfast and lunch. An emphasis on helping low-income black and brown students would help higher-achieving white and higher-income students as well, she says, by reducing discipline problems and making classrooms easier to manage.
Dyckman, meanwhile, says she appreciates Means’ focus on literacy, math and especially social and emotional development. “Everybody is coming in with vastly different home environments and things that they’re experiencing,” she says. “Social environment, past experience, expectations all affect the way we behave.”
But she questions the AVID program, a teaching method Means is implementing this fall that aims to improve student achievement—especially for those who fall in between gifted and special-needs—but which many teachers are skeptical of. It takes a hard look to get past AVID’s PR, but most studies show it’s had no effect or a detrimental effect on student achievement, she says. (Scott-Blackwell says she shares Dyckman’s views on AVID.) And although Dyckman believes every student who wants to go to college should be able to, she wonders if the district is pushing too many students toward college.
Gantt says she’s still evaluating AVID, while Williams says she supports it—for now. (Means briefed the board on the program, but it didn’t require a vote.) “Any interjections of something causes questions and all of that, but [Means] is confident it will make a difference,” Williams says. “At this point, the board stands behind the decision, and it will be evaluated like everything else.”
Some parents have been critical of Means lately regarding AVID and popular Chase principal Adam Kurtz’s departure. But Dyckman doesn’t blame Means for Kurtz leaving. “I really liked working with him, and I know the teachers love him,” she says. “At the same time, he’s been here a long time [14 years], so it makes sense that it’s time to move on.”
Williams was partly responsible for hiring Means, and she’s confident he’s the person for the job. “He’s non-stop, putting in a lot of hours,” she says. “He never stops thinking about how things could be better.”
If re-elected, Williams says she’s looking forward to continuing the board’s work on its internal policies as it seeks to become more effective. CCSD is now a charter system, with a contract that suspends state requirements in exchange for meeting certain benchmarks, and Williams says she’s looking forward to discussions on implementing the charter system. She’s also eager to re-examine the career academy and consider offering summer classes for students who need to catch up or want to get ahead.
The oddly shaped BOE District 5—where Sarah Ellis is stepping down—includes Boulevard, Cobbham, Normaltown and Homewood Hills, as well as neighborhoods along Mitchell Bridge Road. District 7 includes Five Points west of Lumpkin Street, Beechwood and Timothy Road.
Two incumbents—Greg Davis in District 1 and Linda Davis in District 3—did not draw challengers. In District 9, Tawana Mattox is running unopposed to replace Ovita Thornton, who is seeking a commission seat.
This article has been updated to correct information about Dyckman's background and Gantt's job title.