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Veteran educator will head state office to help struggling schools

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, seen

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, seen in a file photo, is now assistant commissioner in the State Education Department's newly created Office of Innovation and School Reform. Credit: DeKalb County Schools

A 33-year education professional with experience as a superintendent and principal will take over a new state office focused on improving academic performance in struggling schools, officials announced Wednesday.

Cheryl Atkinson, who now is serving at the state's request as a troubleshooter in the Syracuse school district, is scheduled to start next month as an assistant commissioner in the state Education Department's newly created Office of Innovation and School Reform.

Development of the office -- a move first reported by Newsday two weeks ago -- is an initiative of Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who took over the department July 1. The idea is to provide a streamlined unit that can help local school managers cut through red tape in turning around troubled schools.

Elia Wednesday also announced the appointment of four other top administrators: Jhone Ebert, senior deputy commissioner; Angelica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner; Charles Szuberla, associate commissioner; and Lissette Colon-Collins, assistant commissioner.

The job of Atkinson and her staff will be to deal with 144 schools across the state, including five on Long Island, that have been identified as "persistently struggling" or "struggling" academically. Such schools face the risk of being placed under the control of semi-independent managers, known as receivers, unless they improve student test scores and, in some cases, graduation rates as well.

"I'm excited," Atkinson said in an interview yesterday afternoon. "It's been my life's passion to work toward high-quality education for all children."

Atkinson, 56, who began her career as an elementary school teacher, has served a combined six years as superintendent of schools in Lorain, Ohio, and DeKalb County, Georgia. The latter is a large system outside Atlanta. Her annual salary in the assistant commissioner's post will be $151,000, the Education Department said.

Atkinson described with pride how the Lorain system, with a 98 percent poverty rate among students, had raised its academic status during her tenure there.

As a former local school administrator, Atkinson said, she sympathizes with officials in impoverished districts that may feel they're being singled out for state sanctions, even though many of the circumstances facing their students are largely beyond educators' control.

"I understand the challenges and what's needed to operate," she said. "The challenges are great, but improvement is necessary and very rewarding."

Experts on improvement of failing schools often note that on-the-ground administrative experience in local school systems is essential for state officials charged with such responsibilities. The reason, these experts say, is that many state-level officials are unfamiliar with the practical and political problems involved in running local schools.

A new state receivership law, pushed through in April by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, provides local superintendents with special powers to reassign staffs of struggling schools. Those that do not improve within a specified time face the prospect of being run by outside managers approved by school boards.

Schools the state has designated as "persistently struggling" have one year to show improvement, while those classified as "struggling" have two years.Schools on Long Island that will deal with Atkinson's office are Hempstead High School and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in the Hempstead district; Ralph G. Reed School in Central Islip; Roosevelt Middle School in Roosevelt; and Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch. Hempstead High School is designated as "persistently struggling" and the others as "struggling."

Deborah Wortham, the Roosevelt school superintendent, said the state's latest moves could be a "great initiative" as long as Atkinson's new office combines with an existing education department school-improvement unit that has helped her district in recent weeks.

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