Former principal of Parks Middle: "Children were not cheated, even though cheating did take place."

The worst cheating in Atlanta Public Schools occurred at Parks Middle School, which was led by charismatic principal Christopher Waller. While Waller admitted to orchestrating cheating, he took a plea deal to avoid prison and is now a pastor at an Atlanta church.

He is also now an author, publishing his own account of the APS cheating scandals in "Cheating but Not Cheated."

The book depicts a more positive view of Parks and Waller's leadership. Waller maintains that while cheating occurred on tests, teachers and staff worked hard on behalf of the students in the school.

Waller took the stand at the recent APS trial. Here is a brief AJC account of his court appearance:

With a touch of nostalgia, if not irony, Waller took the stand wearing a black sweater vest with the Parks Middle School emblem over his heart that included the slogan "Eliminating The Achievement Gap."

Before a wrong-to-right erasure analysis flagged more classrooms at Parks for suspiciously high test scores than any other school in the state, Parks was celebrated by then-Superintendent Beverly Hall as a model for student achievement.

"It's no secret I was the poster child" for student achievement, Waller testified. "Dr. Hall promoted me, she lauded me. She held me up as a banner, a flag. ... Consequently, I also became the poster child for the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal."

Waller was among 35 defendants indicted in the test-cheating scandal, charged with racketeering and four other felonies. In February, he pleaded guilty to a single felony count --- false statements and writings. He was sentenced to five years on probation, ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service and required to pay $50,000 in court costs, fines and restitution. He also agreed to testify for the prosecution.

Here is an excerpt of Waller's book:

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

I want to clarify the difference between cheating and cheating children. One of the major media frenzies out of this scandal was that children were cheated. After working at the school for more than five years and seeing the means of the students and the families in the Parks Middle School community, I highly took offense to that, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on why I know children at Parks Middle School were not cheated. Cheating did take place at Parks Middle School, but our children were not cheated.

Students lived in a very rough community; they also had very low socioeconomic bases. Some of these students were growing up in a single-parent environment; others were living with grandparents; some were raising siblings. We tried to put things in place to make sure the kids came to school every single day and they recognized the school as a sanctuary. We did not use the ‘pull the cat out of the hat’ approach to academic learning. We taught standards. We taught to the tests. We tutored. We used differentiated instruction. We did all of the stuff that are best practices that needed to take place for instruction. I’m willing to bet that is what occurred at most, if not all, of the Atlanta Public Schools.

The initial onset of cheating was not to get kids to meet the standard. Cheating started because of the targets that had been handed down from APS administration. You were constantly in competition against yourself to meet the targets. Even though the kids who performed at one level moved on to another grade level; they set the standard for the grade level behind them. It became increasingly more difficult to meet that target of kids exceeding the standard from year to year. Once you get up beyond the 84th or 85th percentile in a Title I school, it’s more difficult to get to the 90th percentile or above.

Kids at my school were exposed to a lot of opportunities. Teachers provided both morning and afternoon tutorials. We started contracts with private companies to assist the teachers.  Educators would take kids out of class to hold additional tutorial groups during the day to catch students up, as well as Saturday tutorials. We held lock-ins at the school to prepare kids for the writing test. Several teachers stayed after work and were not paid extra to prepare. How many people would do that in their professions?

Our kids were sent to places that their peers in other schools never had a chance to go. We wanted the kids to realize that the world was much larger than the community in which they resided. Our kids had opportunities to go on trips to Canada, Washington, D.C., and the rain forests of Puerto Rico.  We found a way that no child was left out that deserved to go.

All of our children had opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities, whether they could afford it or not. If the parents could not pay for uniforms, supplies, camps, or other needs, we found a way to make it happen. We ensured every kid could be included. Any activity that was done at any other school in APS, the kids at Parks had, if not the same activity or better activity, they had a similar activity. They were never left behind.

Nobody wants to talk about the success of the students at Parks Middle School. We didn’t follow the kids to high school. ..Students increased their self-esteem; they started seeing things differently. They saw a way out. So one of the major things that I want to really make sure that we put on the record, and as a part of what we do and say, is that there was cheating, but the children at Parks Middle School were not cheated. I would argue that you would not get a child from Parks that would really tell you directly that they missed out on something academically or socially because of the erasures that took place at school.

There are many students from Parks who have finished high school, finished college, some in graduate school, law school or medical school. They’re making a difference in our local and global community. Children were not cheated, even though cheating did take place.