Marietta school board chair says district focusing on literacy following 'year of change'

Jan. 19—Kerry Minervini was once a PTA member looking to make a difference as the mom of two boys in Marietta City Schools.

Now, she has begun her second consecutive, year-long term as chair of the Marietta Board of Education, after an unanimous vote by the seven-member board to return her to the role.

In March, Minervini will mark six years as a board member. She recalls coming into the role thinking she knew what the board did, though she quickly realized she "had no clue."

"There's a really big learning curve," Minervini said. "Not only with a lot of policy and legislative things, but I think a lot of budgeting, a lot of federal laws that you have to become familiar with, and then just kind of learning how the district does things."

'The year of change'

With all that happened in 2022, from three new board members to shuffling through three different principals at Marietta High School, Minervini deemed it "the year of change."

Even with almost six years under her belt, then, 2022 was another learning curve for Minervini.

"I don't want to say there weren't accomplishments last year, but I think a lot of last year was just focusing on some of the change that we had to kind of deal with," she said.

Minervini said challenges the board had to address early in 2022 included an uptick in student discipline issues following the 2021 Christmas break, something she said was not helped by the social experiences kids lost to COVID. The fighting was an issue the board "tried to address quickly," she said.

She called the principal carousel at Marietta High "a bit stressful."

Another big change was the shift from BoardDocs, the district's previous school board management software, to Simbli, a management software developed by the Georgia School Boards Association.

Minervini's first term as chair also fell during a year when the board welcomed three new members: Jeff DeJarnett, A.B. Almy and Jaillene Hunter. It was a level of turnover Minervini did not recall in her previous years on the board.

The chairwoman praised the three new board members' involvement in their first year. She called Hunter's previous legislative experience as a staffer for former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle "huge," as it helped the board address changes to state law that affected the district.

She said Almy's prior teaching experience, as well as her statistical and analytical skills, were a big help in understanding district-wide test scores.

DeJarnett, meanwhile, who was unanimously selected as the board's vice chairman, is a "calm, level-headed" presence on the board and a great team player, Minervini said.

"It took a little while for us to all feel each other out and get to know one another, but I think we're actually in a really good place now," she said. "There was a lot of change last year, a lot of moving pieces to try and tackle."

She noted much of her job involves communicating with Superintendent Grant Rivera, saying she talks with him three to four times a day, on average.

Rivera told the MDJ he is "exceptionally grateful for Kerry Minervini's leadership.

"She brings both a community perspective as an elected official, but also a parent of two children in this district, and her vision and guidance, not just for me but for the entire board, has been invaluable," Rivera said.

Top priorities: literacy and leadership

Minervini is turning her sights toward the district's priorities for 2023 after a year that was defined by uncertainties.

She identified five areas that the board will focus on this year, starting with the top priority: improving district-wide literacy.

Minervini said third grade reading levels are significant indicators of a student's future success, and that "a really large portion" of Marietta third graders were below the reading level.

Rivera said 37.5% of the district's third graders scored below grade level on the English language arts portion of the Georgia Milestones End of Grade tests.

"It's a really big problem," Minervini said. "If you think about it, it somewhat makes sense because these kids are in third grade, which means their first and second grade years were ... virtual. It's really hard to learn how to read when you're trying to learn across a computer screen."

It's on the district, she said, to bring those reading levels up, which it will attempt to do through targeted tutoring programs this month for third graders at each of the district's elementary schools who need extra help.

Minervini said parents had to opt their children into the programs, which will be small-group tutoring sessions after school.

The program will run until the district's next round of MAP testing in April, she noted, at which time the board "is hoping to see some return on investment."

The district will also offer tutoring opportunities for fourth, fifth and sixth graders during the district's breaks throughout the spring semester.

The second priority for the district, Minervini said, will be finding a full-time principal at Marietta High School.

After principal Keith Ball was reassigned to a central office position in April 2022 — it was never disclosed exactly why the move was made, though there were complaints among parents about fights at the school and allegations that Ball was promoting a progressive agenda — the district hired Eric Holland to fill the role.

Minervini, along with board members Angela Orange and Irene Berens, had voted against reassigning Ball in a 4-3 decision, which she said was one of the board's few split votes in her time serving.

Holland lasted six weeks before leaving to become the superintendent of Rome City Schools.

Minervini praised the work of Eric Holland's replacement, Marco Holland (no relation), who was the district's HR director before being named interim principal of Marietta High.

She said he is doing a great job in the role and that him stepping up to the plate let the district conduct a more comprehensive search for the next principal. Minervini said the board will try to have a new hire by the summer.

"If we can fill it sooner rather than later, then we can have somebody come in there and piggyback and work with the current Dr. Holland who's in there," she said. "We're not gonna hire somebody if they're not the right candidate ... If it takes additional time to find the right person, then we need to find the right person."

Safety and support

Minervini said there will be renewed focus in 2023 on the high school's College and Career Academy, which opened during the pandemic. She noted that students should be ready to go straight into work if they are not planning on attending college, and that the trades offered through the academy reflect the local business community's demand for workers.

"There's going to be an in-depth analysis in terms of going back and looking at the career pathways that are offered through that facility, and seeing if they still meet the needs of our business and community partners," she said.

Other priorities include a continued focus on school safety, such as the addition of a mental wellness dog to the district, and the expansion of support for staff, such as incentives to live in Marietta and work for the school system.

"Teachers all across this country are leaving the profession left and right because they're not just being teachers anymore," Minervini said. "They're being psychologists and they're being disciplinarians and they're having to cover all of these different things that you don't go to school to be a teacher to have to deal with."

Minervini said the district is always working to make Marietta City Schools a desirable place to work. She pointed to professional development opportunities and the recent partnership between the district, the city of Marietta and Habitat for Humanity of NW Metro Atlanta to offer six affordable houses to employees of MCS or the city government.

"It doesn't get any better than that," said Minervini, who works with many teachers as a real estate agent and is disappointed when her clients cannot afford to live in the city where they work.

Rivera said Minervini's continued service as chair is an asset to him and the six school board members who serve alongside her.

"She has provided leadership as we've navigated some admittedly complex but also routine situations that impact schools each and every day," Rivera said. "She is recognized, she is respected and she is valued in our community, and the community seeing her as a leader yet again for our board I think gives a lot of people both hope and consistency."

Minervini is looking forward to the work the board will do in 2023. Despite her full-time real estate job, she said serving as chair is essentially another full-time gig, one she is proud to do.

"I love real estate, but this fills my cup and it just makes me happy when I see our kids succeeding," she said.