DECATUR—President Barack Obama’s Valentine’s Day visit to Georgia gave DeKalb County the lift it needed, shining the spotlight on teachers and beaming preschoolers who warmly welcomed him to the city of Decatur.
The President’s visit came as Michael Thurmond started his first week on the job as interim superintendent for the troubled DeKalb County School District, which is fighting to get off probation and address critical deficiencies cited by its accrediting agency.
President Obama was in town to tout his plans to expand high quality pre-kindergarten programs to children across America. He praised College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur as a shining example of what is working in America. He visited some of the school’s classrooms, stopping to play educational games with 4-and 5-year-olds, and even giving his famous fist bump to one little boy. The City Schools of Decatur district also was acknowledged by the President.
“As I said on Tuesday night, that education has to start at the earliest possible age. And that’s what you have realized here in Decatur,” President Obama said, referring to remarks he had made during his Feb. 12 State of the Union Address.
Mary McMahon, a teacher at College Heights, introduced President Obama before he spoke at the recreation center.
“I hope he had as much fun as we did, because we had a blast today,” she said as fellow educators cheered her on.
Congressman Hank Johnson, who represents Georgia’s 4th District, said he was pleased to hear President Obama mention Georgia as being ahead of the curve in early childhood education during his address to the nation. Johnson said, however, that Georgia must work harder.
“I applaud Gov. Deal for his focus on early childhood education, but we must do more to ensure that every child has the opportunity for a good education,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his wife, Attorney Mereda Davis Johnson, met with the President before he delivered his speech to the crowd at the newly-remodeled Decatur Recreation Center, where several elected officials were in attendance including former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett, State Sen. Ronald Ramsey, State Rep. Rahn Mayo, DeKalb Commissioners Kathie Gannon and Lee May, who is presiding officer of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners.
Mayo, who represents district 84 and Decatur, said President Obama inspired him to work harder on early childhood education issues.
“The stats are there. When pre-K education is not offered to children, often times, an educational gap begins that just grows wider and wider as the child grows up,” said Mayo, who had the opportunity to shake hands with the President.
May, who had a front row seat at the event, said the President’s speech underscored that students’ education must remain the top priority—despite the school district’s problems.
“In the midst of all that is going on with our school system, his visit for me highlighted the fact that we have to be proactively engaged with our school system,” May said.
May said he applauds the DeKalb superintendent’s efforts to reach out to the community as he strategizes on putting the district on track.
“I think he has the capacity to begin to lead the school system. It’s going to take some work, but I believe that he can do it,” May said.
Thurmond plans to make a presentation before the DeKalb Board of Commissioners on Feb. 19, 10:30 a.m., at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur.
“He’s coming to make his presentation and let us know what he plans to do about putting the district on track,” May said. “He’s getting out there and holding dialogue with stakeholders in the community.”
Thurmond is expected to go before the State Board of Education on Feb. 21, when the nine-member school board returns to tell the board the progress it has made in addressing several issues cited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Joshua Smith contributed to this report.