Over the past two years, Metropolitan Atlanta school systems have faced much scrutiny. Suspicions of manipulated students test scores, changes to attendance records and the mismanagement of county funds for personal usage have all been par for the course.
After the recent grand jury indictments of almost three dozen educators in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, all eyes are now on DeKalb County and a new alleged conspiracy involving charges of cheating and the changing of guard in leadership with a newly appointed school board.
Last Tuesday, three former DeKalb County educators were indicted on cheating charges in connection with the yearly Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), a set of tests administered throughout public schools in Georgia that examine first through eighth graders in reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.
The parties involved were former Cedar Grove Middle School principal Agnes Flanagan, former Rock Chapel Elementary School principal Angela Jennings, and former Stoneview Elementary school assistant principal Derek Wooten.
Flanagan allegedly altered test scores of students back in 2009. He’s also accused of attempting to bribe fellow faculty members to do the same. In 2010, Jennings allegedly changed the attendance records of particular poor-performing students to keep them from taking the tests. Wooten also stands accused of changed attendance reports in 2010 and 2011, but in an effort to reflect better performance amongst students.
Unlike their APS counterparts, the top brass at DeKalb County was able to expose the scandal before it blew up in everyone’s face.
District Attorney Robert James, who is prosecuting the case, has had little sympathy for the accused educators.
“This is about children. The reason we test is to make sure that these children are getting what they need,” said James. “When those test scores are manipulated, when attendance is manipulated and when we don’t know that, those children fall between the cracks.”
James says the case may even stretch beyond the original charges.
“I believe that what happened was perhaps more widespread than these indictments reflect.”
These allegations are not the only hurdles facing DeKalb County’s public school system. Last December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed the school district on accreditation probation.
After an October review, SACS discovered that the county was failing to handle budget issues pertaining to layoffs and furloughs and failed to prevent the dismantling of the Fernbank Science Center, a museum and woodland complex funded by the school district, in May of 2012.
“We want to see sustained progress,” SACS president Mark Elgart said during a press conference after the probation announcement. “There are no proper checks and balances to explain where the money went. If we’re going to change a school system, it needs to start with those that lead the school system.”
Financial mismanagement was the primary concern of the SACS. Over the course of three years, the board paid for the legal defense of former Superintendent Crawford Lewis, who was charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, which theft by a government employee and falsifying public documents.
Poor and ineffective governance of Georgia’s third largest school district would soon leave DeKalb County in shambles similar to Clayton County in 2008, when SACS stripped Clayton County its accreditation, forcing thousands of students to flee the system. In the ensuing aftermath, home values plummeted and the system lost millions of dollars in state and federal aid.
A battle between the school board and its members would soon hit its peak, leading to the loss of another superintendent, Cheryl Atkinson.
Atkinson, who had only served for a year and a half, resigned right before further turmoil ensued, leaving former State Commissioner of Labor Michael Thurmond to step up to superintendent duties and Gov. Nathan Deal to suspend six of nine board members.
Deal felt uneasy intervening in a predominately Democratic county, but took action because he foresaw Atlanta’s economic well-being suffering without the change.
Despite evident proof that leadership in DeKalb County was tainted, the DeKalb NAACP made their opposition known and notified its national office to file a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department over the Deal’s decision.
“This is about civil and human rights, the right to vote. Some folks can’t see it, but it is,” John Evans, the president of the NAACP DeKalb chapter said. “The people should be able to take them out when they want to take them out.”
Deal eventually appointed five Black and one White new board members, the same make-up of the previous six replaced. Deal looks to rebuild the district’s reputation and accreditation despite negative stigma in the media.
John W. Coleman, who is a strategic planning manager at Invesco and newly named DeKalb School board member, believes that his experience will be helpful in understanding all the parts necessary in moving the district in the right direction.
“DeKalb is a complex system with almost 100,000 students, their parents, and more than 14,000 faculty and staff,” the District 1 Representative said in an interview with the Dunwoody Crier. “It’s a daunting managerial issue to govern an organization this size. But, I’ve worked with diverse organizations, large and small.”
DeKalb County’s school system drama also raises questions in the debate of whether charter schools are more beneficial than public schools being that their curriculum is more watchfully carried out.
Charter schools are primary and secondary schools that receive public money and private donations to maintain foundation, but obtain less money than public schools due to flexibility of rules and regulations. Charter schools generally target particular results, set forth by each school’s grant received.
Drew Charter School became Atlanta’s first charter school in 2000. It has become one of Georgia’s top-ranked schools, serving children ages three to eighth grade and when East Lake Elementary closed, one of ten schools forced to shut its doors with the APS because of the cheating scandals, the school took in a number of East Lake’s displaced students.
“Being that I am a product of the public system, I feel that at this school in particular, the atmosphere is more nurturing and there is a lot more parent involvement, it’s almost as if they almost force the parents to be involved,” Ian Burt, a permanent substitute teacher at Drew Charter, said.
East Lake Elementary was one of the schools recently closed due to the area cheating scandals. The closure sent students to either neighboring Toomer Elementary or Drew Charter.
“A lot of kids that came from East Lake were at lower levels than the kids that had been going to Drew,” said Burt. “Lately we’ve had to deal with how to handle the mixing of the students and configure the balance of the teaching with all the new kids in attendance.”
Whether DeKalb County parents decide to lead their children down the charter school route to an education or decide to stick with the struggling public system, it seems irresponsibility in leadership of the past and present must be addressed before the focus is put on the future.
(Photo: DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis announcing changes for the county.)