Embattled Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall announced Saturday that she will step down in June, ending a remarkable 11-year tenure that won praise nationally but soured under the glare of a test-cheating investigation.
Hall’s decision to leave APS had been expected by year’s end, precipitated by a power struggle among school board members as well as a Dec. 31 contractual deadline to notify the board of her intentions.
She decided to do it this weekend, she said — notifying board members privately Friday and making a public announcement Saturday — before a judge rules on a lawsuit about the contested leadership of the board. A hearing in that suit is scheduled Tuesday.
“Any announcement that came after Tuesday’s court action could have been construed as a reaction to that court decision,” Hall said in an e-mail interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I want to do everything possible to keep the schools and the staff focused on our core business of educating our students, to address the findings of the [test cheating] investigation and to help in any way possible for a smooth transition to new leadership for Atlanta Public Schools,” Hall said.
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Her notice to the board came the same day that the AJC asked the state attorney general to investigate Atlanta Public Schools for withholding a report largely confirming the newspaper’s findings last year that test results in a dozen schools were highly suspicious.
Her decision to depart ups the ante for the school system, which in the coming months must now search for her replacement as it deals with other critical issues.
Two feuding sides of the board are scheduled to face off in court Tuesday over a lawsuit seeking to overturn the September appointments of a new chairman and vice chairwoman.
Board members were warned by one of the nation’s top school accrediting agencies this month that their capacity to govern was “in serious jeopardy,” and that staff from the agency will be in the city school system Dec. 9-10 to conduct a formal review.
The system also faces two inquiries — one by federal prosecutors, the other by investigators appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue — into test cheating allegations at 58 Atlanta elementary and middle schools that could bring criminal charges against school officials.
Mike Bowers, one of the investigators Perdue appointed, said Saturday that Hall’s announcement about her plans would not affect his team’s work.
“I don’t see where Dr. Hall’s staying or leaving affects what he told us we were supposed to do,” said Bowers, a former state attorney general. “Our principal mission, from day one, and this is straight from the governor, is to get to the truth.”
Hall is the latest in a string of high-profile urban superintendents to leave their posts.
Earlier this month, New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Chicago schools chief Ron Huberman announced they would step down. The controversial reformer of the Washington, D.C., public school system, Michelle Rhee, resigned in October.
What set Hall apart from most big-city school chiefs was her 11-year tenure — the average urban superintendent lasts less than half that time — and recognition that has made her one of the nation’s most in-demand education speakers.
Atlanta hired Hall in 1999 after she rose through the ranks in the public schools of Newark, N.J., and New York City. When she arrived, 90 percent of the system’s kindergarten teachers said they did not believe their pupils would graduate.
By last summer, Hall boasted in her annual “state of the system” address that APS, once derided as a basement dweller, “is becoming a model urban school district” with double-digit test score gains, higher-than-ever corporate support and groundbreaking initiatives garnering national attention.
Among the achievements she cited: a 33 percent increase in graduation rates and one in three elementary students exceeding state standards.
Along the way, Hall became a prominent figure in the education reform movement, winning a national superintendent of the year honor in 2009. She chairs the advisory board of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendents Program and is chair-elect of the board of the Council of the Great City Schools. This spring, President Barack Obama named her to the National Board for Education Sciences.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Hall as recently as last month, noting that under her leadership Atlanta students made double-digit gains on national exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
But over the last two years, APS has faced a series of reports and investigations questioning improbable test score gains at some city schools. More than 100 city educators have been reported to the state teacher certification body, and the state and the U.S. attorney’s office are now investigating.
Questions about the tests were first raised in December 2008, when the AJC published an analysis that showed improbable gains at some Georgia schools — including some in Atlanta — on tests taken first in spring and then in summer by students struggling to master core skills.
Last fall, a second AJC analysis showed 12 Atlanta schools posted highly unlikely gains or drops on the spring 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the state’s main academic measure for students in grades one through eight.
Subsequent AJC reports have also questioned the accuracy of Atlanta’s graduation rate calculations, as well as officials’ response to cheating allegations. Perdue has repeatedly rebuked Hall for being too slow to respond.
Given that background, parents and other community leaders said Saturday they were not surprised she decided to leave.
“I think it was probably inevitable. In the light of what’s going on, it’s probably just time for a change,” said Reide Onley, PTA co-president of Buckhead’s Sutton Middle School.
“We’re better off than we were more than 10 years ago when she came,” said Doug Wood, co-president of the Council of Intown Neighborhoods and Schools. The more immediate question, Wood said, is how the board will respond, given its in-fighting.
“First, they have to be functioning and agree on a vision,” Wood said. “They haven’t come to that conclusion yet.”
APS board Chairman Khaatim Sherrer El, speaking on behalf of the board Saturday, said members were aware their actions would be closely watched.
El praised Hall’s work for “taking over a school system that had long been emblematic of failure and turning it into a model of academic achievement.” He then added that it was the board’s job “to ensure that the momentum of Atlanta’s school system continues. ... We intend to engage in a community-wide dialogue on both the role of Dr. Hall’s successor and on the goals and strategies of Atlanta’s schools in the coming years.”
Hall earned $344,331 in 2009, and received a performance bonus of $78,100. By leaving in June at the end of her contract, she will not receive any severance or buyout pay.
Mark Musick, former president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a public school advocacy group, also said Saturday that Hall’s announcement was no surprise.
“This is the right decision,” he said. “It’s right for her and its right for APS. And it is right for the next superintendent.”
He said Hall impressed him early in her tenure by speaking candidly about the system’s enormous challenges. She also appeared never to waver from her belief that disadvantaged city kids could learn, despite the fact that some people didn’t think so.
In more recent years, however, Hall seemed to have a tin ear when dealing with controversies, Musick said, such as a scandal she faced involving the district’s mismanagement of E-rate grants.
“I started to wonder about her ability to deal with problems,” he said.
Musick said he believes her first five years were better than those that followed, but that overall, she left the district better off than when she arrived.
“I’m not surprised,” said State Rep. Rashad Taylor, D-Atlanta. “I think Dr. Hall has been there a long time and it’s a stressful job and at some point you’ve got to step aside and let someone else take over.”
He said he expected she would have stepped aside even if the cheating scandal hadn’t erupted. He also said he didn’t expect the district would struggle to recruit a replacement.
“I think a lot of people are up for the challenge,” he said.
Staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this report.