From the archives: Hall's tenure: Praise, scandal

As schools chief departs, a cheating probe may erupt into prosecutions

This story first appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 26, 2011.

 The first time she met with Atlanta Public Schools principals, Beverly Hall wasted no time on pleasantries.

"Look around you, " the new superintendent told the principals in 1999, according to two people who attended the meeting. "Ninety percent of you will not be here when I leave."

To emphasize her resolve, Hall added, "I know how to swim with the sharks."

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In that moment, Hall demonstrated the hard edge she would bring to a school district known for weak academics and chaotic management. Now, though, as she heads into retirement Thursday amid a massive cheating scandal, her comments also illuminate the origins of the by-whatever-means-necessary drive for results that Hall imposed on the district's educators.

In between, that approach earned Hall wide acclaim, including one of her profession's top awards: National Superintendent of the Year. And, a review of Hall's tenure shows, it created the atmosphere that fomented the cheating scandal.

A convergence of events this week brings fresh perspective to Hall's performance over 12 often-tumultuous years.

On the day Hall retires, a team of special investigators is expected to give Gov. Nathan Deal a report on their criminal inquiry into the cheating scandal, beginning a process that could lead to prosecutions of district employees. The next day, a new state law takes effect that gives the governor authority to remove members of the Atlanta Board of Education, whose internecine struggles --- stemming from the cheating scandal and how the superintendent handled it --- have threatened accreditation of some of the district's schools.

At the center of these events is Hall, the Jamaica-born, New York-trained career educator once viewed as the savior of Atlanta's long-troubled schools.

Hall's culpability in the scandal still is not known. But a former high-ranking official alleges Hall ordered the destruction of documents that may have contained evidence of systemic problems with cheating. Hall has engaged a criminal defense attorney to guide her through the state investigation.

Hall declined a request for an interview.

In recent months, newly public documents have shown an unflattering side of Hall. Her own emails depict her as image-obsessed and detached from the district's day-to-day workings. In another document, a top aide purportedly described Hall as "overly sensitive to the scrutiny and criticism" of her administration.

Few, if any, of Hall's longtime allies have renounced their backing. Their enthusiasm, however, seems to have waned.

"I don't regret supporting the superintendent or the school system, " Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and one of Hall's most enthusiastic boosters, said in a recent interview.

But he added: "We know a lot more today than we knew a month ago or a year ago."

As Hall, 64, prepares to leave, her legacy is open to debate. Is she a martyr, as she has hinted and her supporters have asserted? Or was the success she proclaimed with such frequency and such brashness mostly hype?

In the official version of her story, Hall was the bold reformer fending off petty attacks by naysayers and educational inferiors. The unappreciated visionary. The victim of her own success.

In alternate accounts, her time in Atlanta becomes considerably more complicated.

She formed close connections with national education leaders, but kept her distance from her own faculty and staff.

She talked tough about accountability, but appeared blind to financial and academic corruption in her ranks.

She touted the sophisticated tracking of student performance, but failed to acknowledge that some of her academic programs didn't produce the results she had promised.

The years clearly took a toll. At times, she has seemed almost despondent.

In January 2009, Hall had just returned from winter break when she learned the district faced media queries about a string of terrible financial audits. The timing couldn't have been worse: She was about to leave town for the final step in the selection process for the Superintendent of the Year award. The audacity of the questions exasperated her.

"Sometimes I really have to wonder about this work, " she wrote in an e-mail to a friend. "Someone is always trying to do something underhanded."

Corporate approach

When Hall arrived in Atlanta, few could have predicted she would become one of the longest-serving --- or most celebrated --- superintendents of an urban school system in the nation's recent history.

She came fresh off a withering 3 1/2 years as the appointed superintendent in Newark, N.J., where the state had seized the crisis-ridden schools. New Jersey hired her from New York City, where she had been a deputy chancellor of the nation's largest school system.

In Newark, Hall confronted hostile civic leaders and stagnant test scores. Bitterness over the takeover never dissipated, especially as serious problems continued under Hall. As she departed, Newark's mayor groused, "That lady is getting out of here before you realize she hasn't done anything."

Hall shrugged off the criticism and moved on to Atlanta.

She came to a district with a reputation for poor-performing students, uninspired teachers and feuding, meddling school board members. She also found a frustrated business community eager for change and willing to help create it.

Within a few years, the chamber of commerce --- with the help of legislators including then-Sen. Kasim Reed, now the mayor --- had helped adopt a new operating charter that concentrated power in the superintendent's office. The chamber also founded a political action committee, Edu-PAC, which cultivated and promoted school board candidates who were sympathetic to the business community's desire for stability and visible progress.

In Hall, the chamber discovered a willing partner.

She was among a new breed of superintendents who turned increasingly to the corporate world not only for financial support, but also for management advice. She formed close relationships with executives such as John Rice, the Atlanta-based vice chairman of the General Electric Co.

"Beverly has all the qualities you find in world-class CEOs, " Rice said of Hall at one point.

In decidedly CEO-like fashion, Hall asked to tie part of her pay to the district's meeting targets related to test scores and other academic measures. She has received roughly $580,000 in bonuses since 1999.

Like a CEO, Hall also picked up perks: a driver, annuities worth tens of thousands of dollars and a salary that neared the top among Georgia superintendents, even though the district ranked no higher than fifth in enrollment.

And like a corporate leader tracking sales figures, Hall incessantly monitored numerical measurements of student performance. Such data, Hall said, would drive all decisions from the classroom to the superintendent's office. "War rooms, " where test-score charts covered "data walls, " cropped up throughout the district.

Hall's businesslike approach and charisma also helped attract millions of dollars in corporate grants. Major companies gave additional money to a nonprofit organization supporting the district, the Atlanta Education Fund, and assigned executives to serve on its board.

When the cheating scandal erupted, many of Hall's friends in business, as well as her colleagues and admirers across the nation, rushed to her defense. Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan continued to praise Hall after the allegations surfaced.

In Atlanta, some administrators and teachers remained fiercely loyal to Hall, true believers in her quest for higher academic achievement.

Among many district employees, however, Hall's reputation grew less positive.

As she had promised in 1999, Hall replaced nearly 90 percent of the principals within 10 years. Her relationships with teachers and lower-level staff, not to mention the media, often were strained.

Hall did not have an open-door policy. At the Center for Learning and Leadership, as she christened the district's downtown headquarters, access to the eighth floor, where her office is located, was tightly controlled. Without specially programmed security badges or an escort, visitors --- and employees --- could not even stop the elevator on Hall's floor.

Amanda Reddick, a former human resources employee for the district, said Hall's aides stressed the chain of command. With that came deference to superiors.

"We couldn't talk to her, " Reddick said of Hall. "The most you could say was, 'Hello.'" No one told her outright not to approach Hall, she said, but "you just knew not to. It was just the culture."

An entourage --- her driver, who acted as bodyguard, and various assistants --- surrounded Hall virtually all the time. When a reporter approached Hall after a speech in 2009 to ask about cheating allegations, a district official interceded and quickly ended the conversation. Then, in apparent retaliation, the official canceled the same reporter's scheduled interview with the deputy superintendent later that day.

A failure to contain controversy and scandal followed Hall through her tenure.

In 2004, for example, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation revealed abuses in the district's handling of federal E-rate grants for school technology. Two district employees and a vendor were convicted of bribery. Hall responded that she had inherited a flawed program and blamed departed employees. Only years later did she acknowledge she had neglected the program to focus on classroom instruction. She called the debacle her "greatest disappointment."

"I made the assumption that the program was being run in the right way, only to find out that wasn't true, " Hall said in 2008. "The lesson I learned from that painful experience is that I can't take anything for granted. Every piece of the Atlanta Public Schools requires careful scrutiny."

Empty transformation?

If Hall's CEO-like behavior at times distanced her from her staff, it also generated excitement about the long-suffering Atlanta school system.

The district was drawing attention at national conferences and receiving praise from high-profile educators. Hall repeated a simple but emphatic assertion that all children, no matter how disadvantaged, could and did learn in her schools. Atlanta paid teachers well and spent far more per pupil than other districts on administration.

Students had clean, modern schools, along with better technology in classrooms. Taxpayer advocates bemoaned the cost. But with test scores rising, the public did not protest.

Pressure for results quickly mounted, though. The businesses supporting Hall cared about data, too, and wanted something to show for their investments. They wanted success, and they wanted it publicly trumpeted.

In 2005, several business and civic groups hired a consultant to study whether the district was progressing fast enough. The consultant's report highlighted the positives --- more kids were passing the state curriculum tests and graduating from high school --- but also noted glaring weaknesses, especially in students' scores on national tests.

The implication was clear: Atlanta, after six years of Beverly Hall's leadership, still had a ways to go.

Around that time, though, the tone of Hall's comments about student achievement changed.

Instead of talking about incremental progress and the long road of reform, Hall began repeating terms such as "transformation" and "remarkable turnaround" to describe her schools. Data that contradicted such assertions received little mention.

Hall and her top aides gave much fanfare to a systemwide program called Atlanta 2007. The goal: Have each school meet at least 70 percent of its annual targets --- including test scores --- by that year.

The district didn't come close.

Hall continued to tout the system's resurrection. In 2008, she gently scolded unidentified critics who were not giving her credit where due.

"We are in the midst of a turnaround movement that is gaining momentum, " she wrote in the system's annual report. "And as with any turnaround story, sometimes those closest to you, such as family and friends, don't always notice the transformation."

The transformation, though, was beginning to look empty.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that bills itself as "the nation's report card, " Atlanta continued to trail most other urban districts and failed to significantly reduce the achievement gap between black and white students.

The system's massive effort to break big high schools into smaller ones also was producing mixed results. The schools' scores on end-of-course tests, normally a reliable measure, fluctuated wildly. At Carver High's technology school, for example, 91 percent of algebra students passed the test in 2007 --- but just 23 percent in 2010. At Therrell High's health and science school, 19 percent passed the geometry test in 2008; in 2010, the pass rate barely registered at all --- it was 4 percent.

And on the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, scores soared during Hall's first 10 years, but by 2009 --- the year she won the Superintendent of the Year award --- doubts arose. The AJC reported on statistically improbable gains and drops in scores from year to year at some schools, and former and current teachers said colleagues may have cheated to satisfy the intense pressure to boost scores. They hadn't spoken out sooner, they said, because district officials had a reputation for retaliating against anyone who questioned them or the schools' progress.

Hall brushed aside the allegations, saying cheating could not have been widespread or sustained enough to account for the district's progress. "Could you cheat in all these schools?" she said in 2009. "You would have to spend your whole life cheating."

As her retirement and the conclusion of the state investigation neared, however, Hall's defiance diminished. In a farewell video for district employees, she acknowledged for the first time that substantial cheating had occurred. The investigation's results, she said, would be "alarming."

And early one morning in mid-May, Hall appeared for questioning by the state investigators. As she waited for her lawyer in the lobby of the investigators' downtown offices, television news cameras showed up, recording her fruitless efforts to duck behind pillars to stay out of sight.

She may have been still swimming, but the sharks were circling.

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