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The History of Education in DeKalb County is typical of the southern region of the United States. When the United States was established, the Constitution delegated authority to the states for providing education. Georgia's Constitution, adopted in 1777, provided that each county would set up its own education program with support from the state. That support was in the form of land grants for establishing academies in the counties and for the University of Georgia. DeKalb County was established in 1823, and in the first fifty years of the county's history, all schools were private, although they did receive some monies from the state. The first school was DeKalb Academy, established in 1825. In 1838, Stone Mountain Academy opened. A system of free public schools did not become a reality in Georgia until the late nineteenth century. Public education in DeKalb began after the Civil War, in 1873, when DeKalb citizens raised $4,200 to open public schools. No state provisions were made for public high schools until the constitutional amendment of 1910. There wasn't much demand for education in that agrarian society, but in 1945 the Georgia Constitution established the basis for free public schools as we know them today, with financing to be provided through taxation.
In 1946, more than 9,000 children were enrolled in DeKalb County Schools. In 1947, approximately 60% of the white students who entered first grade dropped out before graduation, and, even more horrifying, 93% of black students dropped out. Only 25% of those who graduated attended college and more than 84% of the young people would work in non-professional fields when they quit school.
DeKalb County Schools experienced explosive growth in the 1950's and 60's, with 13 new schools dedicated in 1955 and another 34 dedicated between 1956 and 1958. Such rapid growth meant intensive community support. Over the following years, DeKalb, under the leadership of Superintendent Jim Cherry, forged ahead in science education, special education, early childhood education and in education excellence, to become one of the country's premier school systems.
The decade of the sixties brought DeKalb a severe teacher shortage, mounting enrollments and increasing problems of desegregation. Teachers were angry about low salaries, and some people were angry at the social changes impelled by Brown v. Board of Education and the new civil rights laws, while others were angry that change was taking place too slowly. It was a time of great turmoil, one that would take many years to settle in DeKalb County.
In 1969 a lawsuit was brought against the DeKalb County School System charging that the school system had operated a dual school system since 1954. For the next 27 years, the DeKalb County School System was under the supervision of the federal courts. This court supervision was a major influence on the DeKalb School System and the way in which it operated.
At the time of the court case, the African-American population in DeKalb County was approximately 5% and there were very few Black schools. In 1969, those schools were closed and the African-American students were integrated into existing white schools.
DeKalb County was growing rapidly, and in particular, the African-American population was experiencing exponential growth. By the mid-1980's the county population was 65% African-American, and the school system struggled to keep the schools diverse. African-American families were moving into the south DeKalb area, and north DeKalb continued to attract white families. As a result of these housing patterns, the school system was becoming re-segregated.
In 1976, the Court directed the School System to form a Bi-racial committee as an advisory body to provide oversight in regard to what the school system was doing to integrate the schools. This committee remained in existence for 12 years, until 1988, when the judge said that it could be dismissed. The Board of Education was forced, by the existence of the Bi-racial committee, to scrutinize every decision they made very carefully. This committee most likely resulted in the DeKalb School System seeking and finding more innovative ways to bring students of different races together, and also to insure that schools and students were treated as equitably as possible.
In an effort to further integration, the court ordered DeKalb to start the Majority to Minority Program. Any student who was of the majority race in his or her home school could apply to go to another DeKalb school in which he/she would be the minority, in order to increase diversity. At the height of this program in the mid-1980's, approximately 4,500 of DeKalb's African-American students participated in the M to M program. The Majority to Minority program was positive for nearly all the DeKalb students whose lives were touched by it - the program certainly impacted the transferring students, but it also impacted the students in the receiving schools, which became much more diverse.
1989 was a watershed year for court orders. In a further effort to attract students of all races across housing lines, magnet programs were established at centrally located schools. The Magnet program was designed with a 50%-50% racial balance as a result of a 1989 court order. The court also ordered the school system to balance the ratio of faculty and staff at every school, center and facility to reflect the county population at the time, which was 65% black and 35% white. A lottery was held in the summer of 1989 to ensure that staff was properly balanced.
Also In 1989, the DeKalb Board of Education decided that the school system had done all it could do, in the face of rapidly changing demographics, to integrate the school system. The Board petitioned the Court to declare the school system unitary. The Circuit Court did so, but the Appellate court disagreed, stating that DeKalb had a long way to go to be unitary. The Appellate Court decision stated that DeKalb must be unitary in six areas (student assignment, faculty and staff placement, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities) at the same time and for at least two to three years. The Board of Education appealed this decision to the Supreme Court and in June of 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that the DeKalb School System was Unitary. This ended the 27 years of court supervision. Throughout this long period of time, the court repeatedly referred to DeKalb as an "innovative" school system. This experience encompassed the careers of many teachers and administrators in DeKalb County Schools. Some people worked their entire careers in education under federal court supervision. For students, numerous generations came through a school system which operated under the eye of the court. This experience made the DeKalb County School System more open to and sensitive to the needs of its clients, the parents and children of DeKalb County, Georgia.
Since 1996, Dr. Hallford has moved quickly to establish a more responsive school system administration and to provide far more choice for all parents and students. Six Theme elementary schools provide a more rigorous academic regimen and greater parent involvement; Montessori programs at three elementary schools provide another choice for parents. Two Charter Schools, with more on the horizon, offer independent public schools. Magnet programs at sixteen schools include the School of the Performing Arts, several magnets for high achievers, finance, computer and technology magnets, and more. Most of these magnet programs are well attended and continue to attract a broad range of students. The School System continually seeks to define the fairest and most equitable ways of selecting students for the most popular programs. In 1999, the Board of Education voted to remove the racial component from the Magnet program, because race-based programs were being attacked successfully in courts across the country. The Board voted to phase out the Majority to Minority program in 1999, citing the cost of transportation and noting particularly that the majority of African-American parents with children in DeKalb County Schools were asking that every neighborhood school be excellent. These parents did not want their children to spend hours every day riding buses, and they wanted quality education in their home schools.
Dr. James R. Hallford, DeKalb's superintendent, was closely involved with the case for many years. When the Court declared the System Unitary, Hallford said he was "gratified that the court recognized that a lengthy, sometimes painful, but truly necessary process has fulfilled its purpose."
During the early 80's enrollment dropped in DeKalb, and some neighborhood schools were adapted for use as administrative centers or specialized schools. School closings are among the most difficult decisions that a Board of Education has to make. A school, whether it is elementary, middle or high school, is at the heart of its community. Many people have close ties to a school and closing schools is probably more difficult emotionally than dealing with the problems of a burgeoning population and overcrowded schools. Large urban populations have to deal with this ebb and flow in the student population, and DeKalb's staff and Board did so in the most conservative way, selling as few properties as possible and adapting school buildings for re-use within the system.
In the early 1990's, student enrollment began to rise again, and continues to grow. Today, with new housing booming in the rural areas of south and east DeKalb, with houses going up on every vacant lot in established neighborhoods and new international families settling in central DeKalb, 2,000 additional children enter DeKalb County Schools every year. This trend is expected to continue, according to the Georgia State Department of Education, for at least the next five years.
Because of this growth, the DeKalb Board of Education called for a referendum on a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in March of 1997. This tax was a new option for Boards of Education in Georgia; for the first time the Board could call for a vote on a special purpose tax which would pay for the cost of building new schools and improving old schools. This vote was very important for the DeKalb Board of Education, and the tax passed resoundingly, with a three to one majority. The Sales Tax passage was a vote of confidence in the school system, and a vote for the future of the children of DeKalb. Nine schools had substantial additions built for a total of 164 classrooms, and two new schools, Narvie Harris Theme Elementary School and Cedar Grove Middle School, were completed during the first phase of construction. Three middle schools (Avondale Middle, Freedom Middle and Mary McLeod Bethune Middle) opened during the 2000-2001 school year, and two high schools and one middle school (Lithonia High School, M.L. King High School and Columbia Middle School) opened for the 2001-2002 school year. Wynbrooke Elementary School opened for the 2002-2003 school year.
In 2003, DeKalb citizens passed a second vote for another round of the special purpose penny sales tax. With the continued population growth, it seems likely that the need for more schools will continue. As a source of funding for new and/or improved schools, the 1% sales tax is far more efficient than a bond issue, which carries very high interest costs. In the 2003-2004 school year, Redan Middle School will open its doors and Lithonia Middle School will will move to the newly renovated Lithonia High School building.