APS expects accreditation decision soon

Atlanta Public Schools expects to learn soon whether its high schools will regain full accreditation, a decision that could have far-reaching effects on the district's livelihood.

In January, one of the nation's top accrediting agencies placed the district on probation because of infighting among board members. The past 10 months have been a lesson in diplomacy for the board, which picked new leadership, dealt with an embarrassing cheating scandal and revised a critical policy involving the selection of the board chair.

"We’ve worked extremely hard," board chairwoman Brenda Muhammad said. "We've reset ourselves structurally so we won’t run into the same problems again. We can make sure we’re doing the work we need to hold the administration accountable."

At stake is the accreditation of the district's high schools: Without it, graduates could be deemed ineligible for scholarships, families could flee the district and the downgrade could hurt the city's efforts to attract new businesses.

Elsewhere in metro Atlanta, Cherokee, Cobb and DeKalb school districts also are preparing for upcoming accreditation reviews.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools handed down six mandates for APS improvement in governance and leadership -- notably policy-making, consensus-building and communication. The board hired a new superintendent in Erroll Davis, elected new leadership, revised a key policy that ignited friction between members and overhauled an ethics panel designed to police the board's behavior.

SACS could revoke the district's accreditation, downgrade the district from probation to "warning" or "advisement" status, or remove all sanctions and place it in good standing. SACS reviews district accreditation every five years, but can take action anytime during the cycle.

Muhammad said she was not sure which action SACS will take, but said the agency might decide to monitor to ensure the board's work is sustainable. Throughout this process, she said the board has gained a clearer vision about its purpose: There will be no more micromanaging or meddling, but expect to see board members hold the superintendent accountable.

"There is only one person we hold accountable and that is the superintendent; not vice-versa," she said. "I don’t know if we did as much of that in the past."

Outside groups have noted board improvement. In July, state school board members voted to let APS board members stay in office, despite a state law that allowed them to be removed. Parents and students have been encouraged by the board's progress.

"From seeing how much effort is being put forth to make things right, I think it will have a positive outcome," said Michele du Cille, parent of a North Atlanta High student.

SACS will visit Cherokee County Schools next week to review operations as part of the five-year cycle. Cobb County Schools is on "advisement" following a 2009 review, and spokesman Jay Dillon said the district has addressed all issues raised by SACS and plans to submit a progress report in December. Dillon said he is confident the sanction will be removed.

DeKalb County Schools was placed on "advisement" in March and ordered to make eight improvements involving planning and leadership before Oct. 31. The agency visited DeKalb over two days last week and will decide its accreditation status in 30 days.

Some lawmakers and local leaders have criticized SACS' increased presence in recent years and said the agency oversteps its boundaries. DeKalb board chairman Tom Bowen said the district has been working with SACS over the past several months to improve operations, and said the experience has helped the district function better.

"Clearly, we're a lot better off than we were last year as result of the changes made," he said. "I think districts that struggle are the ones who don’t take advantage of [SACS] resources, or ones that view them as punitive."