The decision-making process LaTasha Adams went through before deciding to enroll her 8-year-old daughter at Wadsworth Magnet School was intense.

The Decatur resident, who lives in the Columbia Woods neighborhood, had been home-schooling her daughter Zoey, but after taking a site tour of the magnet school in South DeKalb, and meeting the administrators, she was sold on Wadsworth’s ability to make her daughter feel welcome and whole in the transition. 

“I loved the principal, how welcoming they were, the classroom sizes,” Adams said. “I also loved how this school was right in my neighborhood, so I knew she would be in good hands.”

In recent weeks, the district has been criticized for the hiring process — or lack thereof — of its new superintendent. On April 19, DeKalb County’s Board of Education voted 6-1 in favor of hiring Devon Horton, the sole finalist, after conducting a nationwide search to fill the opening. Prior to the role, Horton had served as superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

Adams says she stands behind the educators who matter to students like her daughter the most. 

“I can tell these teachers and administrators just want the best for these children,” she said. “That won’t change just because they will have a new leader.”

DeKalb parents who spoke to Capital B Atlanta said that despite some of the deservedly bad press for the district in recent years, they’re willing to give that new leader a chance.

A revolving door

The skepticism around Horton’s hiring is more a result of challenges in the district and inconsistent leadership. The district has been marked by a revolving door of superintendents dating back to the exit of longtime leader Crawford Lewis, who sat in the seat from 2004 until being fired and indicted on corruption charges in 2010. Lewis died in January at 68.

Since Lewis’ departure, the county has seen seven superintendents — four full-time, three interim — come and go.

Horton is taking on the role from interim superintendent Vassane Tinsley, who transitioned into the seat shortly after the termination of previous superintendent, Cheryl Watson-Harris. 

Watson-Harris was abruptly removed following criticism over a viral video showcasing deteriorating conditions at Druid Hills High School in April 2022. In response, the district faced fierce criticism from state and local lawmakers, including a push from State Superintendent Richard Woods for the county to keep Tinsley and hold off on hiring Horton. 

The bad PR for DeKalb schools didn’t stop there.

The county Board of Education made several headlines following a controversy between one of its members, Joyce Morley, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about why she voted against Horton’s hiring. 

In the interview, Morley stated that Tinsley was ranked higher than Horton by the firm conducting the job search. She also claims Horton was not among the top five candidates prior to his announcement as the sole finalist. Now, Morley is accused of violating the district’s ethics policy of “maintaining the confidentiality of matters discussed during the executive session.” 

After the interview, the board declined to address whether they would be investigating Morley at an April 26 meeting. Morley joined the meeting virtually but had connection issues.

‘Clean up this mess’

Chelsea Hollis, a DeKalb County resident and parent, says she worries the legacy of the county’s school district is tainted beyond recognition. 

“I remember the days when they used to call DeKalb County ‘Premier DeKalb,’” she said. “Our schools were good, and our educators were competent all the way to the top. We need a leader who can come in and clean up this mess.”

With two children at Snapfinger Elementary School in Decatur, Hollis says that when she heard there was a town hall meeting at McNair Middle School introducing Horton to community stakeholders like herself, she had to attend. Hollis wanted to come and hear firsthand Horton’s plans to “right-size the ship” as he prepared to take on over 92,000 students at 138 schools, and 14,000 staff members — including 6,600 teachers. 

“You have to understand, as taxpayers, we have paid two superintendents at the same time for the last five or so years,” Hollis said, adding that she hopes resources between schools on the whiter, north side of the county and more predominantly Black areas on the south side are distributed equally. 

“We want to make sure this guy can take on a job this size and that he has our children’s best interests in mind and not just the ones on the north side,” she said.

Community education advocate and Decatur resident Joscelyn O’Neil hopes that Horton’s administration will encourage and foster building relationships between parents and educators, something that she says has taken the back seat since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“These parents need to get involved and get back into these schools,” said O’Neil, a retired DeKalb educator who worked on the county Board of Commissioners’ community council. “It’s like, once COVID happened, teachers aren’t talking to parents anymore and parents aren’t helping teachers anymore. That’s where a lot of this frustration lies.”

For O’Neil, that means Horton stepping in and creating initiatives that encourage and motivate those conversations in the days moving forward. 

“We can start with promoting the PTA [Parent Teacher Associations] at schools where there isn’t even an organized chapter,” O’Neil said. “Either way, I think a lot of his success is going to rely on bettering those relationships at the school level. When teachers and parents are in line, the school thrives.”

Horton is slated to begin on July 1. Anyone who didn’t have the chance to attend the town hall series can watch previous recordings of the April 12, 13, and 14 meetings here

As for Adams, she says, despite a new top leader, she is still excited for her daughter to experience DeKalb County Schools. 

“I know she will be fine,” Adams said. “We can’t count him out before we even let him in.”

Sydney Sims is the community engagement reporter for Capital B Atlanta. Twitter @bySydneySims