The DeKalb Difference Blog

Decide DeKalb President Dorian DeBarr Speaks with DeKalb County School District Superintendent Dr. Devon Horton about Workforce Development

Dorian DeBarr, President of Decide DeKalb Development Authority, recently interviewed Dr. Devon Q. Horton, Superintendent for the DeKalb County School District, at the DeKalb County Board of Education’s offices in Stone Mountain.  

Dr. Horton leads a school district that has more than 92,000 students, about 14,500 employees and a $2.6 billion budget, which is a crucial component to the economic development success of DeKalb County, Georgia. The following is a transcript of the conversation. The video can be viewed below:

Dorian DeBarr: We want to talk a lot about economic development. So, as I oftentimes say, economic development is a team sport. It takes a lot of different pillars, a lot of different leaders, a lot of different stakeholders. With you being the leader of the DeKalb County School District, one of the largest and most impressive school districts in the state of Georgia, I’m very, very excited to have you today to talk about what you all are doing and your leadership, what you all are doing to prepare the workforce for DeKalb County. 

It’s really, really important, when I do recruitment, a company’s CEO wants to make sure we have the proper workforce in place. If we don’t have the proper workforce in place, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. You all are doing that every single day, so I want to drill into that today. So, again, thank you for your time. 

The first question I want to ask you is: what, through your leadership, and what is DeKalb County School District doing to prepare the workforce, for the future and also just with our students each and every single day, any type of programs you want to talk about, anything of that nature? 

Dr. Devon Horton: I’ll start, and thank you for that question. I’m excited to be here to talk about such critical work. I’ll start with what’s happening currently. We have a plethora of CTAE [Career, Technical and Agricultural Education] programs across the county, ranging from auto mechanics to engineering. We have a high school that’s well known for mechanical and medicine [programs] at Arabia Mountain. 

Students are getting experience at a very early age. We have students who are able to leave some of their campuses and go get course experiences in the field in multiple lanes. Some lanes are where they’re going into the field, getting trained in industry certifications now, so when they graduate, they can go into the workforce. While others are actually going to get those similar certifications so they can carry it and move into their post-secondary opportunities for college and be a junior by the time they finish. It’s a lot of work happening with that. And what’s really great right now is that the partnerships are growing.  

We have a lot of business industry partners that are really trying to make different connections with us, with some being in the film industry. That’s a big deal here in the state of Georgia, and really in the country. With Georgia being the Los Angeles of the South, it’s really great to see that our students are having opportunities to be exposed to that industry on multiple levels, not just for being in front of the camera but setting up stages, creating scenes, the recording, the filming, the audio, the sound piece. We have students across the county that’s being exposed. 

For the future, we know that right now, from what has happened, some of the structures we’ve had, I wouldn’t call them antiquated, but efficient enough or sufficient enough for our students to get everything they need.  

So, we’re getting ready to launch a pretty aggressive student assignment planning program where we’re going to be look at the education structures to potentially build those large scale, in partnership with the many industry partners in our community to build CTAE facilities that will be large scale and will be able to compete with some of the best in the state of Georgia. There are some surrounding counties that really have done a great job of building those facilities, and they’re using them in different ways and [are] being really effective. So, once the student assignment plan is launched, it’s a 12- to 18-month process. We’ll be looking to come to our community with some plans to launch it, to launch those facilities on a larger scale. 

Dorian DeBarr: I like how you mentioned our industries you’re helping our future workforce with, and you talk about film and fields like that. Being that it’s been almost a year since you took that seat, and I would tell you from being in my position that you’ve been very strategic, very intentional about the work you’re doing, and you’ve just taken off and you’ve learned a lot. I think it’s appropriate to ask you this question now: What makes the DeKalb County student unique in a way that puts us at an advantage when you talk about not only the rest of the state but the country and the region? As a DeKalb County product myself, I can tell you a lot of things, but I want to hear you say it. 

Dr. Devon Horton: I’ll say this. What’s really unique about DeKalb County is an unbelievably rich but growing history. You look back to what existed 50, 60 years ago in DeKalb, it doesn’t look like what it does now. So, the community has been through a ton of transformation. From new cities being formed, some that’s maybe as young as five years old, to some of the more established communities. And then I think we have a growing immigrant population that has created some unique spaces and some unique opportunities for our students. Other counties may not have this exposure. So we talk about culture, diversity, opportunity. DeKalb has offered that in multiple levels, in ways that you can’t just through a physical building. It has to be the rich context of people, right? So we’ve been able to capitalize on that. We haven’t done the best job, but we are working pretty strategically and intentionally to uplift that. And as you just stated, this is one of the few places I’ve been where people grow up, they graduate from here and they’re a proud product of DeKalb. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that, we could probably build a whole new CTAE facility. Y’all are proud of your community and your schools, but people, they either go away and come back or they stay. They become a part of the new build of DeKalb County schools. I think there’s a huge opportunity and the potential is limitless here for greatness in areas that, as I spoke of in many industries, the film industry, architecture – the design of new facilities – agriculture. There’s a lot of opportunities. We have the Fernbank Museum of Science, an amazing piece I have never seen in any [school] district. Those are the things that when I say, ‘It’s unique,’ it’s unique.” 

Dorian DeBarr: Absolutely. And I’ll add a little bit to that. When we’re doing our job with respect to recruiting companies, we oftentimes talk to leadership, and again, the conversation always comes back to making sure we have the workforce in place and the widget makers that they need to make whatever widgets. As we’re having these conversations, they oftentimes ask us, ‘Give us a profile of what those folks look like.’ So, if you were to give me three terms to describe traits of the DeKalb County student or population, just give me three if you’ve got them. 

Dr. Devon Horton: You’re gonna find students who are resilient. There’s a ton of innovation. The students are innovative in their approach and willingness to not just accept the end or not having access. Then I would say they are passionate. Passionate, innovative and resilient. So I think that’s important. It’s funny you bring that up because in our design right now, we’re working on building the portrait of a graduate. And the portrait of a graduate is what characteristics or what type of skills are we looking for them to have beyond literacy and normalcy. So, as we tap into that world of workforce, we will make sure we’re embedding that into that design, so I’m glad you’re asking that question. 

Dorian DeBarr: I like a lot of what you’re [saying] since you’ve been here July 1, 2023. I like a lot of the things you’ve done so far, and I oftentimes tell people, when they come to me, when we might be having a conversation about DeKalb County, what makes DeKalb great. It oftentimes comes back to the school district. And they all say, ‘Dr. Horton, what do you think about Dr. Horton?’ The first way I lead is, ‘He is a connector and he collaborates.’ And he’s accessible, and it makes our job and it makes our county so much better. So with respect to accessibility and your ability to understand the importance of partnerships, I want to hear more about partnerships and why that’s important to you. 

Dr. Devon Horton: The school system is made up, we only exist because of individuals from the community: our parents, our community partners, our business partners. We have a responsibility as a school district to create a better DeKalb as we move forward, right? And we know we can’t create the better DeKalb without having those key stakeholders at the table.  

I believe, I’m not sure if you had the opportunity to attend, but we had a community partners’ meeting about two months ago, and we brought in all of our community partners from across the county. And it was amazing. It was the first time we had them together in the same space, and we shared our vision, our focus, and we were able to get in conversations with them about how they could get better aligned with where we’re headed. And they gave us feedback on things that we need. It was a great opportunity, and we’re looking forward to doing it again.  

That community piece, that stakeholder voice, it has to be centered. I’ll just give one quick example. We’re in the process, and this is a great time to mention it in this conversation with workforce, we’re in the process of doing our new strategic plan. This is the last year of the current plan. Just an example of how dynamic the energy is picking up around engaging with the district in a two-way communication platform is that when we did the strategic plan for the district five years ago, I wasn’t here, of course, but when they did the survey, 740 people responded. This is a district during that time with maybe 100,000 students. We just did the next survey with nearly 93,000 students, and we had 8,400 people respond. That’s saying that, to me, they are stakeholders in the community. There are parents. There are staff. They feel their voice has been heard, and I’m excited they feel they can respond in that way and know that we’re going to listen.  

So, that is why it’s really critical to have stakeholders at the table because we’re building it for them and not for me. I’ve just been here eight months, but I know this county has huge potential to do great things that our students deserve. The best shot, and the only way we can do that is really building them and positioning them for the jobs and the future of tomorrow. 

Dorian DeBarr: Dr. Horton, one of our key initiatives at Decide DeKalb is the MADE in DeKalb program. So, it is our attempt to really tie in economic development in what we do every day to what you all as a district do each and every day, to really just build upon and further grasp that partnership we have, so I want to just give you an opportunity to tell us a little more about Made in DeKalb. 

Dr. Devon Horton: MADE in DeKalb is a hallmark of our school district. It really gets our educators down in the forefront of what’s happening in the industry, so they can bring those things back to the classrooms, and to see if we’re on the right track with some of those programs we’re offering, and we can make adjustments to the things that we’re doing. So, Made in DeKalb is huge, and we’re excited to be a part of it. 

Dorian DeBarr: I love that. That is amazing. So, I appreciate your leadership. And in the time that you’ve been here, is there one story or one student that you want to share with us that where you might have known where they’ve come from, witnessed their growth and see what they’re doing now, post-graduation? 

Dr. Devon Horton: I haven’t been here long, but I can speak about a young man who’s a student at DeKalb School of the Arts. I visited the classrooms, and I was asking this question: “How many of you are playing sports?” This young man spoke out and said, ‘We do more than sports, Dr. Horton. We are artists. We’re on the pathway to engineering. We’re film producers.”  

And this young man, I just met him. He actually has his own film company, and he’s getting ready to produce his first film. He’s part of a film festival and getting a lot of support and a lot of attention. I know for a fact, yes, that young man can go to a two-year or four-year college. But I see a whole different journey for him, and it’s amazing that he’s put himself in a position, with the resources that we have with schools like the [DeKalb] School of the Arts, and there’s a workforce piece to that. And I’m excited about what’s going to happen with him.   

Dorian DeBarr: In closing, I wanted to give you an opportunity to add to this conversation. Again, I’m really thankful for your time. I’m thankful that you’re able to appreciate the influence you have with respect to our county. You know, we’re close to 800,000 residents in DeKalb. Your position and what you’re doing at the district is so important for the health of this county and the sustainability of this county. So, once again, thank you, but I want to give you an opportunity to add anything else you think will be relevant to the audience with respect to what you’re doing in workforce development. 

Dr. Devon Horton: I think there’s a lot of conversations that need to be had, continued, in many pockets of our community around opportunities for us to expand and get additional dollars to do some unique things in our communities, and know that it’s not just, know what a TAD [Tax Allocation District] is. I think there’s some education that we really need to lean into and getting our community to understand when that’s appropriate, right? And what it should be used for. Some of the other areas to really bring in funds and resources to uplift our communities.  

We have some communities that really could use a shot in the arm around economic development. But we have to be able to do it ourselves in some ways and not wait on this big industry to come in and think they’re going to save the communities. I’m not saying that anyone thinks that, but there’s parts of DeKalb County that we could really elevate and make it just as great. I think Stonecrest is such an amazing city, right? Just looking at the land, square miles, and then the people and the population. I think we can do some other things in other parts of the county to really expand and uplift and really develop those communities. I think that’s one. 

The other part is education planning. I can’t even count the number of individuals that have approached me, passionately approached me saying, “Hey, we need to do this educational program. We need to build this school. We need to consolidate this campus.” I would like for the community to get fully prepared and engaged in this journey we’re getting ready to go on with student assignment planning. It’s going to be historic in context. We will probably sound crazy. I actually had a young lady from a different county tell me that when you start doing redistricting and [changing] attendance boundaries, that you get fired in Georgia. Well, I’m not concerned about it. If it goes that way, we’ll have a better structure for our kids. So there will be some hard conversations, some difficult decisions. But this is my biggest message: it’s not going to be a Dr. Horton decision. These won’t be the board exclusively, this decision. It’s going to be this community making the decision. It will be a 56-member student assignment planning committee with eight individuals from each board region that will come together to build this plan. There will be a lot of education. We’ll be very public about it, transparent, and we’ll be making decisions so we can right-size fit our district and move this community forward at the rate that it needs to. 

For more about workforce development initiatives in DeKalb County, contact us at Decide DeKalb.