In 2008, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the first of what would be several stories highlighting suspect test scores in Atlanta Public Schools and other Georgia districts. In the years that followed, the newspaper continued to dig, and eventually special investigators appointed by the governor exposed widespread cheating in the 50,000-student APS district. The APS trial is the latest chapter in that coverage. It began on Aug. 11 with a jury-selection process that lasted for six grueling weeks. And on Sept. 29, opening arguments begin in a trial that could take several months.
Follow the trial with our up-to-the-minute reports each day from inside the courtroom at MyAJC.com or follow along on Twitter: @AJCcourts.
APS TRIAL: DAY 4
Former Atlanta math teacher Fabiola Aurelien buried her face in a tissue, hands shaking, as she recalled a former Parks Middle School student in her advanced algebra class who could barely add or even write. She said she emailed then-Parks Principal Christopher Waller: “You’re so lucky nobody cares to find out about what you’re doing to these kids.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“We don’t want to hear any more complaints about what’s going on here at Parks. I and Dr. Hall are 100 percent behind Waller.” — Stacey Johnson, former employee at Parks Middle School, recounting remarks by regional supervisor Michael Pitts. Pitts was complaining about anonymous letters alleging cheating by Parks principal Christopher Waller.
On Monday, prosecutors will call Reginald Dukes, who investigated complaints about cheating at Parks Middle School.
A former Atlanta Public Schools teacher on Thursday said the rampant cheating at her school denied students the help they needed, leading them to drop out and turn to gangs, prostitution and crime.
Called as a state’s witness in the APS test-cheating trial, Stacey Johnson detailed the pressure put on Parks Middle School teachers by their overbearing principal, the harassment put on her for not joining the principal’s “team” and the retaliation against her for reporting misconduct to administrators.
The real victims, she said, were the children whose academic weaknesses went undetected and uncorrected: “I have seen the effects on these students.”
Johnson said she met with former APS regional supervisor Michael Pitts, one of the 12 defendants on trial in the conspiracy case, and complained about Parks principal Christopher Waller.
“I told him we were being coerced and pressured to cheat on the upcoming CRCT test,” Johnson testified, referring to the high-stakes Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
Johnson said she left Parks two months before the school’s students took the 2006 CRCT because she didn’t want to participate in the cheating she feared would occur.
Her fears were realized. In 2005, 1 percent of Parks’ students exceeded expectations on the math test; in 2006, 46 percent did. The percentage of students who met expectations on the reading test jumped to 78 percent in 2006 versus 35 percent the year before.
Waller, indicted in the test-cheating case, now concedes the gains were the result of criminal wrongdoing. He has admitted he orchestrated test-cheating, getting his teachers to correct their students’ wrong answers, and pleaded guilty in February to a felony charge of false statements and writings.
At issue now is what his bosses, including Pitts, did about it.
Waller was once hailed by former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall as a model educator because of the test performance of his school. In the coming weeks, he will testify as a witness for the prosecution.
Johnson’s resolute testimony was buttressed by a former colleague, who broke down on the witness stand lamenting the toll test-cheating took on schoolchildren.
Fabiola Aurelien, who taught math at Parks Middle School, said she had repeatedly complained about cheating at the school to Waller, yet nothing was done to stop it.
Aurelien transferred out of Parks in disgust, ultimately landing at Atlanta’s Carver High School. There, in her advanced algebra class, she discovered a girl who could barely write or do basic math. When the student blamed her academic struggles on her time at Parks, Aurelien said she shot off an angry email to Waller.
“You’re so lucky nobody cares to find out what you’re doing to these kids,” Aurelien said she wrote. With trembling hands, she brought a tissue to her face, and sobbed.
Johnson, who works once again for APS as a data analyst, said after she first complained to Pitts in October 2005, she began mailing anonymous letters about misconduct at Parks to several top APS administrators, including Pitts and Hall. She said she even sent copies to former state superintendent Kathy Cox and the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which polices educator ethics.
Johnson said she hoped someone would act on her tips about test-cheating and other fraud.
Shortly after sending the letters, Pitts made a highly unusual visit to Parks and assembled the teachers for a meeting, both Aurelien and Johnson said.
“We don’t want to hear any more complaints about what’s going on here at Parks,” Johnson recalled Pitts saying. “I and Dr. Hall are 100 percent behind Waller.”
Under cross-examination, Johnson acknowledged she was unaware if Pitts did anything in response to her allegations.
Pitts’ lawyer, George Lawson, then challenged her. That doesn’t mean Pitts didn’t pass along the complaints to the APS central office, does it? Lawson asked.
No, it doesn’t, Johnson agreed.
The data-savvy Johnson left a corporate job at American Express to begin working at Parks in August 2002. Turning emotional, she said she wanted to help children in low-income communities.
“I know the difference one person can make in a student’s life,” she said. “I wanted to be that person for kids.”
Soon after arriving at Parks, before the cheating started, Johnson realized that the academic abilities of students arriving from feeder elementary schools fell far below what was reflected in their test scores from those schools. “Anyone with common sense” could see that test-cheating had occurred in those elementary schools, she said.
Over the next few years, Parks’ students did not excel on standardized tests because no cheating was going on, Johnson said.
But all that changed when Waller became Parks’ principal in February 2005, she said.
Almost immediately, she said, Waller implemented a strategy of “divide and conquer.” What mattered most to Waller was who was on his “team,” namely who would cheat on the CRCT.
“We all know they’re cheating at the elementary schools,” Waller told his staff, Johnson testified. “If they get here and scores plummet, we’re going to look bad. … They’re cheating. If we can’t beat them, we’re going to have to join them.”
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