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By John Schaffner

The Atlanta Public Schools system has been placed on probation by the Southern of Colleges and Schools, one of the nation’s top accrediting agencies, and has until Sept. 30 to address several reform recommendations or possibly lose its accreditation.
The announcement was made Jan. 18 by Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, who said the school board will have until Sept. 30 to make progress on a series of recommendations from the agency designed to improve leadership issues among members, according to a statement from AdvancED.
AdvanceED provides accreditation to APS under the seal of SACS and conducted a special review in early December of the Atlanta system, which has seen its reputation tarnished by a cheating scandal and public feud between two factions of board members.
The probation affects only the system’s high schools, which are accredited by SACS. In Buckhead, that only involves North Atlanta High School.
School Board Chairman Khaatim Sherrer El said board members would “pull out all the stops” to address all the accrediting agency’s concerns. Members met in a special session Jan. 18 to preliminarily review the report. They will meet again at a regular meeting Jan. 24 to formally vote on whether to accept it. Elgart will also attend that meeting to answer board members’ questions.
“Retention of the district’s accreditation is crucial,” El said.
The six specific recommendations the agency told the board to meet by Sept. 30, El said, were all “fixable.”
SACS’ listed six areas that must be addressed to avoid losing accreditation.
* Develop and implement a long-term plan to communicate with and engage stakeholders in the work of the district and to regain the trust of parents and students.
* Secure and actively use the services of a trained, impartial mediator who will work with board members to resolve communication, operational and personal issues that are impeding the effectiveness of the governing body.
* Ensure that the actions and behavior of all board members are aligned with board policies, especially those related to ethics and chain of command.
* Review and refine policies to achieve the mission to educate students.
* Develop and implement a process for selecting a new superintendent that is transparent and engages public participation. The final choice of superintendent should be determined by more than a simple majority of the board.
* Work with the state of Georgia to address inconsistencies between the state charter for the school board and system policies.
“Leadership is critical in the success of any school system, and what we’re trying to do in regards to leadership matters is to prevent them from negatively impacting what happens in the classroom,” Elgart said.
The report from the special review team for AdvanceED states in the introduction: “The Board of Education for APS, which was recognized with the National School Board Association’s Urban School Board of Excellence Award as one of the best school boards in the nation last year (2009), is now experiencing difficulty in governing effectively.”
Elgart explained that conflicts between Atlanta school board members have gone beyond normal squabbles between elected officials.
Meanwhile, in a strongly worded statement Jan. 18, Gov. Nathan Deal said he will “make every effort to ensure that Atlanta’s children are not harmed by the adults who have failed them. … We must do everything possible to stop an embarrassing situation from snowballing into a destructive situation.”
Mayor Kasim Reed and many APS parents called for the board to step up.
School board members greeted the criticism soberly.
Nancy Meister, who represents Buckhead on the school board, said “Today, AdvanceED/SACS released the findings from the special review team and placed the district on academic probation”. SACS only accredits our high schools, she said.
“This status allows AdvanceED to fully assist the district in addressing the work needed to reach the operational status on the unresolved issues and insure that it authentically commits to a well defined strategy of continuous school improvement.” Meister explained. “I want to be perfectly clear that the district’s high schools are currently accredited. Students can apply to colleges and universities of their choice and for the HOPE and other scholarships”.
Meister said, “The AdvancED/SACS report focuses on ABE governance issues and is not in any way associated with the strength or quality of the instructional programs and curriculum in APS.” She said he Board of Education “takes its governance role very seriously. We are carefully reviewing the report and I can assure you that nothing will stand in the way of us successfully addressing each and every one of the issues, identified in the SACS report, with immediate and long-term corrective actions and solutions”.
The first-term board member added, “I personally spoke with my colleagues today, and I can assure you that we all are committed to showing substantial progress toward meeting the six ‘Required Actions’ outlined in the report by September 30.”
“We’ve been given an opportunity to meet the demands and recommendations of this review and prove the board can work together to get it done,” said Vice Chairwoman Cecily Harsch-Kinnane.
Probation for Atlanta means the system keeps its accreditation but has been put on notice. The board has until Sept. 30 to make progress on the six “required actions” to improve its leadership and performance. It must also submit two progress reports to SACS, the first by May 1 and the second two weeks prior its review by Sept. 30.
State School Superintendent John Barge said he believed Atlanta will “come out of this process much stronger and better prepared to educate their students for the future.”
“I want to reassure parents that this action will not impact HOPE eligibility or entrance into college,” Barge said. “The action by SACS today is an example of the process working and we’re fully prepared to help APS with the recommendations. This probationary period will spell out for APS and their board what is best for their students and the steps necessary for them to quickly emerge from the probationary status.”
Discord among the board’s nine members became public during the summer and had been building for months. Some members blamed poor communication — among board members and with the public — about a test-cheating investigation involving 58 city schools. A breakaway group of five members voted to change the board’s rules so it could unseat the chairwoman and vice chairwoman and elect its preferred leaders, a move that the state attorney general suggested violated the board’s governing charter. The board’s deposed leaders filed suit in late October to reverse course. Elgart, after warning the board in October, formally notified the system Nov. 1 that the board’s capacity to govern was “in serious jeopardy.”
Board members settled the suit Nov. 23, agreeing to work with an outside expert in governance.
The probation announcement was another body blow to the district, which is in the midst of a criminal investigation into test cheating and which is also seeking a replacement for Superintendent Beverly Hall.
Hall announced in November that she will step down in June. She and four board members attended a private meeting with Elgart to receive the report early Tuesday before it was made public. She said afterward that while the sanction was a “genuine threat” to the system, “I am confident the board takes it very seriously. I will do anything I can to ensure our accreditation will stand.”
Accreditation can affect a student’s eligibility for scholarship money, including Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, federal funding and college acceptance. Atlanta’s high schools are accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which reports to AdvancED.
ocAPS placed on accreditation probation

-John Schaffner

John Schaffner

John Schaffner was founding editor of Reporter Newspapers.