APS hopes for fresh start but doubts linger

Atlanta parent Shawnna Hayes-Tavare wondered why her bright daughter struggled academically when she entered sixth grade, and why her son, who is deaf, dropped about 50 points on state exams when transferred to a new school.

This summer, she got a possible answer.

Hayes-Tavare’s children attended two of the schools named in a state investigation into test cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. Now, with the school year beginning for most on Monday, she must again turn her children over to the district that violated her trust.

“If I wasn’t the parent from hell before, I will be the parent from hell,” she said. “I was already questioning things, but I wasn’t questioning hard enough. I wasn’t following my gut because I trusted. Now I am going to follow my intuition and question everything.”

In the wake of the test-cheating scandal described as possibly the largest in U.S. history, parents, educators and staff are looking to the new school year as a fresh start. But there are still lingering questions about how the episode will shape the district in the months ahead. There are questions, too, about how schools should address the issue among teachers, parents and students.

A state investigation named about 180 educators, including 38 principals, as participants in cheating, including erasing and correcting mistakes on students’ answer sheets. More than 80 APS employees confessed. The investigators said they uncovered evidence of cheating in 44 of 56 schools they examined. Educators named in the investigation face termination and the loss of their teaching certificates. Criminal prosecutions could follow. The district has appointed 21 interim principals and is in the process of hiring almost 100 new teachers in the coming weeks. Some classes at the high school level may be temporarily filled with substitutes, but other grades should be staffed with permanent teachers, Superintendent Erroll Davis said.

The district also is in the process of figuring out a plan to address students who are struggling academically, and Davis said he would like to see all students reassessed so the district can get an accurate measure of each student’s ability. He’s also working on changing the culture of the district, to make parents and teachers feel as if they have more ways to.

This episode presents a learning lesson for the classroom, he said.

“There are teachable opportunities here, for teachers and students to understand when adults have cheated, the implications of that,” Davis said. “And I would encourage teachers to have those conversations.”

Robert Simmermon, a Buckhead psychologist and former college professor, said the scandal presents a good opportunity for educators to hold age-appropriate talks with students about making decisions while working to meet goals. Schools also should lead forums with staff in order to acknowledge what has happened and help the school community move forward, he said.

Investigators concluded the widespread cheating they uncovered was influenced by fear and anxiety. Teachers and principals feared for their jobs if they didn’t meet testing goals, and there was anxiety over how to do it.

“It doesn’t need to be beaten to death, but I do think there needs to be some acknowledgment for faculty staff and students,” he said. “There needs to be some sense of unity going forward. They need to be reassured about the fidelity of the system and that this is a system that for the most part works very well.”

Toomer Elementary principal Nicole Jones said the educators she’s talked to were nervous about how the fallout from the report would affect them. Jones, who took over in 2009, said a teacher at the school who was named in the cheating scandal was placed on administrative leave and is awaiting a hearing. Other teachers, she said, were wondering would they be moved to a different grade level? A different school?

Now that the school year is getting under way, teachers are relieved to be back in an environment they know, doing a job they enjoy, she said.

“It’s like a comfort zone. We’re back in our familiar environment, doing what we always do,” Jones said. “I think it was harder being away than it is now.”

East Atlanta’s Burgess-Peterson Elementary School wasn’t implicated in the cheating investigation, but principal Robin Robbins said she was concerned about how the negative attention would affect the school’s image.

East Atlanta is a revitalizing area and parents of some young children will be choosing between private and public school. But so far, the school’s prekindergarten still has a waiting list — a good sign parents still want in.

“We are Atlanta Public Schools, and something happened at 30,000 feet that is affecting us here in the trenches. But we have to regain trust in our community,” she said. “This school can be a positive light on the district.”

Robbins said she doesn’t plan to address the investigation with students as a whole but will talk to individuals as questions or conversation about cheating arise. The school also is planning to hold meetings every Monday morning to celebrate the accomplishments of students, in an attempt to help them feel good about the school and their achievements in light of the scandal.

Ramon Reeves, president of the Atlanta Association of Educators and a working teacher, said the start of this year doesn’t feel different from others. After of long summer of scrutiny, teachers are ready to get back to work and embark on a new school year.

But Reeves said it is too soon to tell if the climate of Atlanta Public Schools will improve under the new leadership.

“We’re waiting to see what will be put into place,” he said. “And we will hold the superintendent accountable for making sure the climate does change.”