By Alton Hornsby
Less than two years ago the Atlanta Public School System and its Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall gained national recognition for improvements, including test scores, in the mostly Black schools of the city. Then came allegations and investigations of widespread cheating on the Criterion Referenced Competency (CRCT) Tests (for grades 1-8) over the past year. Teachers and paraprofessionals were accused of erasing answers and giving answers to students. Principals were said to have condoned the cheating. Investigations at the state and national level continue and criminal charges are possible. On top of this, the majority Black school board began squabbling over its leadership and policies, with peace being restored only under pressure of a local judge. Then late last month the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the regional accrediting agency, placed the Atlanta School System on nine months probation because of the dysfunctional board leadership. And just last week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lambasted the board, chiding it “to get its act together.” The Atlanta school mess, as some called it, was reported in several national media and reflected badly on the city’s image as a “Black mecca.”
Prior to these latest difficulties, the Atlanta Public Schools served students from mostly disadvantaged neighborhoods. These students consistently scored poorly on national and state standardized tests and were often at or near the bottom in statewide and national rankings. The best schools were in mostly White areas of north Atlanta. There were also a few good ones in southwest Atlanta, in affluent Black neighborhoods, and a few scattered in other parts of Black Atlanta.
Historically, the education of Black children has been a very important priority of Black Atlantans. Following the Civil War, Blacks were given rudimentary education by the federal government. At the same time, with the emergence of Black colleges in the city, some of the more affluent Blacks were educated in academies provided by the colleges. With the coming of publicly supported schools, state law demanded that separate schools be provided for Blacks and Whites. As a result of the U. S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v Ferguson, 1896, the court sanctioned separate schools but required that they be made equal. In actuality the schools were separate but far from equal. Black schools received less financial support, were physically inferior to White ones, had inferior books and other resources, and their teachers were paid less. Black schools were overcrowded and often on double shifts, and education ceased at the elementary level. Through a shrewd use of their votes in special elections, Blacks secured a major victory with the construction of the Booker T. Washington High School in 1923. Washington High was not only an educational institution, but a community center as well. Its first principal, Professor C. L. Harper, became a major civic and civil rights leader. During the era when the schools were segregated, some of the most prominent personalities in the nation attended Washington High, including Martin Luther King Jr, Lena Horne, and Louis Wade Sullivan. The leadership and alumni of other Black schools, including David T. Howard, Benjamin E. Mays,