The Atlanta Public School System just finished the most tumultuous week in probably its most dramatic year since the days segregation ended.
Last week's release of the report on the CRCT cheating scandal was even more devastating than the day in January when the APS was placed on accreditation probation. On a trip to Southern Louisiana last week, I was surprised at being asked repeatedly about the cheating scandal. No one ever questioned me about accreditation probation, but the cheating scandal received such a high level of national attention that the entire country wondered what was going on in Atlanta.
The Atlanta School Board ended the week with a welcome effort toward stability by appointing interim Superintendent Erroll Davis for a year. Davis, a Buckhead resident, offered a strong and reassuring plan to root out the appalling bureaucratic culture that led to the cheating scandal under former Superintendent Beverly Hall. Here's a link to details of Davis' program.
While praising Davis' appointment, AdvancED CEO Mark Elgart in an interview with WABE's Dennis O'Hayer expressed shock at the extent of the APS cheating scandal and concern about whether the school board can make enough significant changes to maintain accreditation. He said that now AdvancED will consider how the Atlanta school board responds to the cheating scandal in determining whether accreditation is maintained. AdvancED is the parent organization of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, whose investigation led to accreditation probation.
AdvancED's sudden direct interest in the cheating scandal this late in the accreditation process is disturbing. In its accreditation probation findings, AdvancED did not directly address the cheating scandal. AdvancED said at the time that it didn't comment upon the cheating scandal because violations occurred in elementary and middle schools, and AdvancED only accredits the city's high schools. What caused the accreditation probation was board acrimony in responding to the cheating reports.
If the cheating scandal was outside of AdvancED's purview before, how can the organization now say that the board's handling of it will be part of the accreditation review, coming in September? This is giving the board an additional burden only two months away from the accreditation probation's resolution.
Since the cheating scandal is now drawing AdvancED's attention, the organization should issue further guidance about how the school board can address the cheating issue. Is Davis' plan sufficient? Should more extensive action be taken? Without more direction, the school board will be left guessing what it should do to address the cheating scandal and maintain accreditation, further jeopardizing students' future.
Whatever occurs, Buckhead parents and students, whose schools largely were unaffected by the cheating scandal, must suffer the consequences. In general, Buckhead's elementary, middle school and high school students perform at a much higher level than those on the Southside. In the poorer schools in less economically advantaged neighborhoods, the pressure was immense to improve test score performance, leading to administrators changing answers to falsely improve scores, as the state report found. Such manipulations largely were not found in Buckhead.
Buckhead parents have shown strong commitment to the public schools, with the overcrowding of leading to the need to contruct a new . The choosing of a site for the new Buckhead school was another major school board action this year.
With the cheating scandal largely taking place outside of Buckhead, residents here will be punished unfairly if the cheating scandal now brings long-term loss of accreditation. AdvancEd owes it to these parents to make an effort to inform the school board about how it can best respond to the cheating scandal and continue accreditation.
After the appointment of Davis and accepting a plan in response to the cheating scandal report, the Atlanta School Board appears at a transitional place where it can make significant changes to the system and meet the conditions to retain accreditation. It is vital that accreditation be maintained for Atlanta to keep its historically favorable national reputation. With the cheating scandal receiving negative press across the country and even drawing barbs of comedians like Jay Leno, the loss of accreditation would further harm the Atlanta schools and the city's standing.
Under legislation passed by the General Assembly, Gov. Nathan Deal can suspend school board members. After a recent school board leadership change, and the appointment of Davis, the school board appears to have embarked upon a steady course. Deal has said that he will make any changes reluctantly. Unless any further revelations are made, the governor would be wise to allow the present board, which has made significant accreditation progress, to continue in office. Changing the board now would be another major shock, perhaps throwing the entire accreditation process off track.
The school board in appointing Davis for a year suspended its search for a permanent superintendent to replace Hall, who left last month. Davis won't stay on permanently, and the board still must make the decision to choose a long-term replacement for Hall. Before appointing Davis, the board came up with two superintendent finalists, who seemed fine, but still deeply enmeshed in the urban public school culture of which Hall was once an admired example.
After such a dismal report on the dangers of the entrenched public school bureaucracy, the school board should show bolder thinking in the search for a permanent superintendent. Why not go beyond school system bureaucrats and find someone, like Davis for example, with a strong corporate background? Or someone with experience running a significant arts organization or a major nonprofit? A person from outside the rigid school structures could blaze a new era of innovation and achievement. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's appointment of Peter Aman as the city's chief operating officer has shown the benefits of a strong leader with private, corporate experience who thinks differently from the bureaucratic mindset. A strong, visionary leader from outside the public school culture could bring exciting, visionary change to a public school system in desperate need of bold thinking.
The cheating scandal, new leadership, a new Buckhead high school, accreditation; that's not all on the APS slate. The school system also plans to ask the city voters in November to continue the 1-cent special option sales tax for school projects. After the cheating scandal and accreditation probation, that is quite an audacious request. The school board would be prudent to delay the request to extend the SPLOST.
Along with Buckhead parents and students in APS, I look forward to the day when the school system is no longer making distressing headlines, just functioning quietly and efficiently in educating children.