DeKalb superintendent focuses on students, mental health ahead of first day

With DeKalb County School District (DCSD) beginning its 2022-23 school year on Aug. 8, Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley said mental health and students’ well-being are at the forefront of the district’s concerns.

Tinsley said the theme of the school year is “keeping students first.” She added that new personnel—including new resource officers and more than 500 new staff members—will help district efforts, while new early learning classes, a new facility advisory board, and returning to a sense of “normalcy” will also aid the district.

“The things we’re doing in the school district will always be in support to our students, so that’s kind of what we’re using as our gauge when we made decisions. We’re placing heavy emphasis on mental health and making sure that we’re taking care of our students, our staff, and our families,” said Tinsley.

One of the changes Tinsley has seen since taking over as superintendent, following the departure of Cheryl Watson-Harris, was adding a facilities task force team with weekly meetings. The change comes after facility upgrades at Druid Hills High School sparked a discussion leading to the end of Watson-Harris’s DCSD tenure.

“I can tell you that we have been working tirelessly over the last few months to improve the condition of facilities across the district,” said Tinsley. “We hold a weekly facilities task force meeting where we look at the needs of the buildings across the district. That is something that was not in place prior to my arrival … and I think it has helped us move the needle with facilities across our district.”

Tinsley added that the district has added new early learning classes and that the science of reading is being taught and emphasized to teachers and staff in kindergarten through second grade.

According to Tinsley, the science of reading—or education language—is the focus of developing literacy in students.

“We’ll be adding some classes to serve 3-year-olds through the district,” said Tinsley. “Our curriculum instruction department has started training on the science of reading with our kindergarten through second-grade teachers and administrators. We think that’s really going to be a game changer. We’ll make sure then that our students between kindergarten and second grade have that foundation they need to be successful.”

An influx of new staff members will help with several of the district efforts and help keep students safe, according to Tinsley. Outside of the classroom, 22 resource officers and 30 campus supervisors were added to the district.

“The campus supervisor role is an important one because that’s the individual monitoring the exterior perimeter of the building and is often able to identify threats before they even reach our campus,” added Tinsley.

District officials said the new resource officers and supervisors will be the first regular police presence at DCSD elementary schools.

Tinsley said she couldn’t pinpoint the reason the district had so much staff turnover resulting in hiring 380 new educators. However, Tinsley said she believes the pandemic played a role by giving staff members time to reevaluate their work-life schedule and causing some staff members to move away from DeKalb to be closer to their families.

While the sense of security can help with mental health, Tinsley added that returning to a sense of “normalcy,” and training staff on how to identify mental health problems are how district officials plan to help with the mental health of students, staff, and families.

“I think one of the things we saw last year is that we need to make sure that staff members are aware of what to look for,” said Tinsley. “We just want to promote as much normalizing of the educational process as we can. We want the students in the buildings, we want them to have those relationships, and we want to be able to provide face-to-face support as much as we can.”

One of the factors still working against normalcy is COVID-19 and other health threats, which Tinsley said the district is monitoring.

“We’re [strongly encouraging] masks for adults in our buildings. Of course, from the legislative action, we cannot mandate that our students wear masks in the buildings, but we do strongly encourage it because we know that the CDC says that is one of the best mitigation strategies,” explained Tinsley.

Tinsley said district officials are also monitoring monkeypox and emphasizing sanitation and hygiene to its students.

 “We’re watching it because we want our students and staff to be safe. If there becomes a need for us to do something different, we’ll just pivot,” added Tinsley.

If necessary, Tinsley said the district can discuss a shift back to online learning and that DCSD still has an online learning platform available for high school students.

“We learned some lessons and we’re wanting to make sure that students know how to navigate the online platform. We’re starting out with our high school students. If we, and I hope we do not, have to go towards any type of more restrictive educational settings for our students … if there’s a shutdown or anything of that sort, we’ll come back to the table and determine what the online platform should look like for all of our students.”

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