April 2012: Principal at center of APS cheating investigation quits

April 2012: Principal at center of APS cheating investigation quits

Christopher Waller, a middle school principal accused of coordinating mass test cheating, resigned Tuesday after Atlanta Public Schools issued plans to fire him.

Waller emerged as one of the key figures in a 400-plus page state investigative report into test cheating, an example, investigators noted, of the toxic culture they said existed in APS. Waller, according to the investigation, bullied Parks Middle School teachers into copying exams and erasing wrong answers on state achievement tests. All the while, he garnered praise from top officials and reaped financial rewards for turning around one of APS' most academically challenged schools.

Teachers complained to the district about Waller's behavior in 2005 and 2006, accusing him of academic fraud and sexual harassment. But the district did not discipline him. Instead, former superintendent Beverly Hall held him up as a model principal, an example of reform-minded leadership that got results by pushing educators to unlock the potential of underachieving poor students.

Waller denied cheating during interviews with investigators, saying he wouldn't compromise his $100,000 principal's salary and pointing out that he was a minister above such deception. Attempts Wednesday to reach Waller at his home and at Butler Street CME, where he is listed as its senior pastor, were unsuccessful.

In his resignation letter, Waller didn't mention the state investigation. He said he was leaving for personal reasons.

"I've enjoyed being a principal in Atlanta Public Schools, working with students, parents, my fellow teachers and administrators," Waller wrote. "I appreciate the guidance and kindness offered [to] me during my time with the system."

Waller joined APS in 2005 as principal of Parks Middle. He served in that role until August 2010 when Hall reassigned Waller and 11 other principals while the state conducted a review of cheating allegations. But at one time, Hall was one of Waller's biggest supporters.

In describing Waller's success, Hall told an education newsletter: "You have to find someone who is able to go in and, while not being a dictator, get people's attention and articulate a vision and mission in a way that people want to be on board with it."

In July 2011, Hall's replacement, Superintendent Erroll Davis, placed approximately 180 educators named in the investigation on paid leave while the district built cases to terminate them. The report found cheating at 44 schools, and Parks was considered one of the worst cases.

Investigators said cheating occurred at Parks from 2006 to 2010, and allegedly began under Waller's leadership. According to investigators, teachers felt they had no option but to do as Waller directed.

The cheating quickly got results. In 2006, Waller's first year at Parks, the percentage of eighth-graders who passed the math section of the CRCT rose from 24 percent to 86 percent. By 2007, Parks was meeting 100 percent of its goals set by the district.

When Parks became Atlanta's only middle school to meet all its academic targets, including test scores, in 2008, Hall told the Board of Education that Waller deserved "the highest honors." The same year, Waller was one of the district's winners of the $7,500 Atlanta Family Award, honored for Parks' consistently increasing test scores.

Despite the accolades, Waller -- who had been an assistant principal in Newton County before coming to Parks -- threatened to leave, the investigators' report said. So the Atlanta office of the Annie E. Casey Foundation interceded, with Hall's blessing. The organization gave Waller $10,000, and he remained at Parks.

Last week, APS issued Waller an intent to fire letter laying out the district's charges against him.

It said Waller ordered a teacher to steal testing materials prior to giving 2009 state exams, pressured teachers to engage in test cheating and warned teachers not to answer investigators' questions when the state probe into test cheating was launched.

In addition to numerous testing improprieties, district officials also accuse him of sexually harassing a female employee in late 2010 or early 2011.

According to the district, in March 2011, Waller put his hand on the woman's thigh and told her, "You are real quiet and keep to yourself ... so I know you won't say anything about this."

Waller then allegedly tried to grope the woman and pull her pants down as she tried to leave his office. He then, according to APS, followed her out of the office to her car, telling her, "You must not know who I am. I get what I want."

Ernie Suggs, Alan Judd and Ty Tagami contributed to this story.

Unmatched coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's investigative reporters broke the story about cheating in Atlanta Public Schools in 2008, and we've continued digging ever since. Our commitment to bringing you complete coverage continues with today's report.

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