by Ethan Rotnem and Hope Williams
If the presence of five armed law enforcement officers was any indication, the state of Chamblee Charter High School is tense.
These officers were present on June 27, 2018, when Chamblee Charter High School principal Rebecca Braaten gave an address in conjunction with the county school district in the school’s auditorium. The meeting was held in response to the mass outpouring of protest that stemmed from the first year of Braaten’s tenure, and was seen by many in the audience as a time during which they could finally get their questions answered.
Parental anger originated in results of a survey of Chamblee teachers conducted in the Spring of 2018 that showed a high level of dissatisfaction with the current administration. In the survey, the results of which were made available by the school’s governing board, 60 percent of the 95 teachers that responded were “very unsatisfied” with “the quality and frequency of communication within the school.” Over half the respondents indicated they were not satisfied with the leadership of the school. Tellingly, many teachers also provided comments as to their personal interaction – or lack thereof – with the school’s administration.
In addition to the survey results, news of the reassignment of an experienced German teacher, Uwe Neuhaus, and a longtime assistant principal, Cindy Mosley, had been made public. Three of the school’s five counselors quit, and two other assistant principals found other administrative work outside the county.
Parents, students, alumni, and staff members filled the auditorium. The meeting began not with question and answer time, but with a 45-minute presentation by Braaten about the many achievements the students and teachers of Chamblee Charter High School had garnered in previous years.
“Tonight’s address will include a celebration of school accolades, a review of longitudinal data, to share the data behind some of the school decisions that will be made this next school year,” said Braaten, at the beginning of her address. “I will then take the time to reflect on the 17-18 school year, including what communication and collaboration activities have taken place over the summer. Following tonight’s presentation, I will give you the opportunity to respond to [ask] questions.”
Much of the academic and extracurricular data promulgated by Braaten were from times before her tenure as principal began. Chamblee alumni Hannah Robinson was skeptical of the data.
“I work in research. A big part of my job is data. I don’t present data that is not significant and I do not present data that I cannot find where it came from,” said Robinson. “So, I’m extremely suspicious about her data, because one, she had no sources for it that she told us about… and two, I need to know the source, I need to know how she analyzed it, how she determined its significance. If she can’t tell us any of that, all of her data … means nothing. It’s meaningless, and the basis she has for making the changes she’s attempting to make is nonexistent.”
The relatively calm nature of the audience quickly dissipated near the end of Braaten’s presentation. After a disgruntled parent began complaining about the length of the speech cutting into the question and answer session, the auditorium erupted into cheers of “Two-way dialogue!” Eventually, Braaten briefly resumed control of her audience and finished the presentation.
But the initial outburst was just the first of many during the meeting. One of the angriest protests on the part of the parents came at the beginning of the question and answer part of the meeting.
“Before we begin with the questions, quite a few of the questions address personnel matters, and as a reminder, we cannot publicly speak on personnel matters,” said Region 1 Superintendent Sherry Johnson. “So, we have pulled those questions.”
Johnson was indirectly referring to questions related to the reassignment of former CCHS German teacher Uwe Neuhaus, and the decision to skip those questions led to a chorus of boos filling the auditorium.
“If we have to close the meeting, we will,” said Johnson.
Braaten was soon asked about the ways in which she intends to improve teacher-administration communication, a subject considered by many to have been a misstep in the previous year.
“I’m going to have a combination of small-group and large-group [meetings], and some teachers in the building will tell you, my office door is always open, and any teacher at any time,” said Braaten, amid a chorus of boos. “Let me finish, let me finish!”
The wavering trust between Braaten and teachers was often a topic of interest during the meeting.
“Teachers do not need protection from me as long as they are doing their jobs,” said Braaten, to a mix of cheers and heckling.
DeKalb School Board District 1 Representative Stan Jester soon took the stage to field questions from the audience.
“I’m not here to defend Ms. Braaten. With that being said, the school district does feel that she is the best fit,” said Jester.
Chamblee Mayor Pro Tem and Governing Board member Darron Kusman then provided parents with pertinent information about school budget concerns.
“We’ve had two budgets presented to us, which have not been acceptable. They were not presented to us on time for a public hearing, although we advertised a public hearing,” said Kusman. “A lot of work was put into it [the second budget], however it was not advertised in time. We didn’t receive it until about 30 minutes before the meeting. That does come from the principal and the administration.”
The address came to a tense close after the indignant shout of an upset parent.
“Do you realize that every DeKalb County meeting from here on out is going to be exactly like this until you resolve the situation?” said the parent, whose comment sparked an eruption of chaotic cheers in the auditorium, causing the DeKalb County officials to end the meeting.
Afterwards, members of the Chamblee community continued to voice their concerns, some of who gathered outside the school to discuss actions they would take in the future to have their opinions heard.
“I have a rising ninth grader, and I will just say, she just got into the magnet program and we were very excited, and I am appalled and terrified to send her here now,” said one parent, who wished to remain anonymous. “I found that this meeting was a waste of time. I felt like the principal didn’t address the concerns while the crowd was not very friendly. I still think she [Braaten] could have done more to be accountable and actually take questions head on.”
The parent is worried from what she have seen thus far from Chamblee.
“I have no idea what she [my daughter] needs to do on day one. No communication. As a parent, I don’t know where she picks up her school schedule. When we came to register for her school classes, none of the magnet classes were even listed, which she [Braaten] admitted was a mistake,” the parent said.
Additionally, the parent is skeptical of the success of the so-called Freshman Academy, a program which effectively separates the freshmen class from students of all other grades, in an effort to ease the transition from middle school to high school.
“I don’t see that just a ninth grade academy would even solve all the issues and the concern coming from the staff,” they said.
Another parent, whose child attends Chamblee Middle School, is already looking ahead to the future.
“I am sad to say that I would have to consider private school or other options, because his education is too important. I do feel that it is not going to work with the current principal. She’s burned too many bridges and I feel like the heart of the school has been put on fire,” he said.
There are certain indicators of a school’s success, the parents said, and those indicators are telling them that something is wrong at CCHS.
“I know from my experience in other schools that the teachers are the heart of the school,” said the parent. “And to me, the fact that so many of the teachers are deeply unhappy, deeply concerns me.”