Former Gideons Elementary instructional coordinator Sheridan Rogers testifies about cheating Thursday morning. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: Kent D. Johnson
Photo: Kent D. Johnson

APS trial: Witnesses differ over eating fish and grits while cheating

Teachers must have gotten hungry while illegally changing answers on students’ tests.

Former Gideons Elementary School teacher Bernadine Macon mostly corroborated Thursday what a former colleague had previously told the jury in the Atlanta schools cheating trial about how a group of educators met at her Douglasville home in 2009 to change answers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Macon’s testimony diverged from that of Oliver Banks, though, in one obvious area: food.

Banks testified Wednesday that Macon served fish and grits for the occasion.

Macon, however, said her three fellow fifth grade teachers and a paraprofessional spent about 12 hours erasing and marking up tests on a Saturday and only had coffee.

“I know I did not do any cooking,” Macon testified, under cross examination.

The defense obviously thought it was an important point, since it went to her credibility, or that of Banks: attorneys for two defendants asked her about it.

Macon said that on the second day of erasures, a Sunday, they took a break and dined at Five Guys, a burger restaurant.

Macon said she and the other four teachers were changing answers at the behest of former Gideons testing coordinator Sheridan Rogers, who pleaded guilty to obstruction and testified right before Macon.

Macon said former Gideons Principal Armstead Salters did not direct her to cheat but did send the fifth grade team of educators to Rogers. Macon said Rogers gave them completed tests with transparent sheets marked with correct answers. The transparencies were to be laid over the tests for quick correction. Macon said Rogers instructed them to “make the necessary changes.”

2:10 p.m.

The judge overseeing the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial on Thursday stopped the clock running on a prosecution witness’ sentence of probation, which was to run out in December.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter notified prosecutors and defense attorneys of his decision at the lunch break. Baxter’s pronouncement indicates he thinks Sheridan Rogers may not have given truthful testimony when she signed her plea agreement in December or when she testified this week on the witness stand.

“I’d like to have a hearing when the case is over with this witness,” Baxter said. “I’m tolling her sentence at this time.”

Rogers pleaded guilty on Dec. 20 to a greatly reduced charge of misdemeanor obstruction as part of her plea agreement with prosecutors. She was sentenced to one year on probation, which would expire in just over two months. But that sentence is suspended and Rogers must wait to find out whether prosecutors file a motion to revoke her probation and whether she must be sentenced once again.

During her testimony Thursday, Rogers said she told the truth when interviewed by GBI agents during a state investigation of the APS test-cheating scandal.

“I don’t remember leaving anything out, but they claim I did,” Rogers said of the agents.

Defense attorney George Lawson, who represents former regional supervisor Michael Pitts, noted that Rogers earlier testified that former Gideons principal Armstead Salters ordered her to cheat. She had said he told her to give teachers standardized tests and answer sheets after students had turned them in.

Lawson then produced a GBI document that summarized what Rogers told agents during an interview. The document said Rogers told agents that she never had a conversation with Salters about test-cheating.

Rogers responded, “No I did not lie and this is not correct here because I had said previously that he demanded that I give the test to the teachers.”

Rogers was the second witness who pleaded guilty in the scandal to testify as a prosecution witness. Salters, the first such witness, testified Tuesday and backed off many details he swore to in his plea agreement, causing Baxter to suspend his sentence of probation as well.

Defense lawyers continued to cross-examine Rogers this afternoon.

12:15 p.m.

A former testing coordinator at Gideons Elementary School admitted that she might have faced 35 years in prison had she refused to plead guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case.

Under questioning by Fulton County prosecutor Clint Rucker this week, Sheridan Rogers told jurors that she helped teachers cheat under orders of the school principal. After her testimony for the prosecution, her credibility came under assault by defense attorneys Thursday who noted that, instead of prison, she got 12 months probation with the possibility of her record being wiped clean for her cooperation.

Rogers’ testimony is important in establishing that cheating occurred at the school and that then-Principal Armstead Salters ordered it.

Salters had admitted as part of his guilty plea that he ordered cheating at the school because of pressure placed on him by then-regional supervisor Michael Pitts, one of the 12 defendants. On Tuesday, though, Salters recanted, acknowledging on the witness stand that his change of course could land him in prison.

Rogers, however, was steadfast in her testimony for the prosecution against Salters, telling jurors that “he told me, when teachers came to me, to give them the test.” She also named teachers to whom she gave the test.

Rogers blamed the motivation to cheat on pressure from “downtown” to produce increasingly improved results on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, a high-stakes mandatory state exam.

Under cross examination by George Lawson, who represents Pitts, Rogers denied lying to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. So why then, Lawson asked her, did the GBI say that she did lie and then withdraw its offer of immunity?

Rogers attributed that to a misunderstanding.

After the GBI finished with her, she was indicted and charged with four felonies. But the Fulton District Attorney offered her another option: plea to a misdemeanor and cooperate.

“That’s what you bought with your testimony, isn’t it,” Lawson asked on Thursday, the eighth day of the trial.

“No, I was asked to come,” Rogers said.

“Well, your plea agreement mandates that you come, doesn’t it,” Lawson retorted.

“Yes,” Rogers acknowledged. “It does.”

9:21

A former testing coordinator at Gideons Elementary School continues her testimony Thursday in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial.

She is expected to be followed by Bernadine Macon, once a fifth-grade Gideons teacher who hosted test-changing sessions at her Douglasville home, where she served fish and grits for the occasion, according to testimony this week.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, at the close of testimony Wednesday, said Macon had contacted his office and was emotionally distraught about taking the witness stand. Lead prosecutor Fani Willis said she was aware of Macon’s concerns but said she still intends to call the former teacher to the stand.

On Wednesday, Sheridan Rogers, the former Gideons’ testing coordinator, testified she handed out standardized tests and their accompanying answer sheets to teachers so they could correct students’ wrong answers. She said she did this under orders from Amstead Salters, then Gideons’ principal.

Both Rogers and Salters worked for decades in the Atlanta Public School system. They both said educators at Gideons were part of a close-knit family of educators who did everything they could to lift up schoolchildren who were performing far below their grade level. Yet both witnesses gave conflicting testimony about their own culpability in the cheating scandal.

Salters testified Tuesday that Rogers orchestrated test-cheating on her own accord. But Rogers testified Wednesday that Salters issued directives to her to let teachers get tests and answer sheets after students finished taking the exams, sometimes pounding his fist on his desk to send the message home.

Once testimony resumes Thursday, Rogers is expected to be cross-examined by a number of the lawyers representing the 12 former APS educators and administrators on trial.

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