Clayton school superintendent takes on tough task of restoring county's image

Basking in the afterglow of his district's fully restored accreditation, Clayton County school Superintendent Edmond Heatley called Wednesday for businesses, families and skeptics to take a fresh look at the county.

Heatley took the unusual step of holding a news conference to call attention to the school district no longer being on probation. He thanked the district's 50, 568 students, their parents and district employees for standing by the district through its struggles.

"Thanks for making a bold statement that this is not and was not the land of the lost," said Heatley, flanked by some 30 to 40 county dignitaries.

"Gaining our accreditation is not the end of the story," he said. "There's a lot of work left to be done in Clayton County."

Heatley called on the media to end what he says has been an unending string of negative reports about the school system and county. He said little attention has been given to the district's achievements: seven Gates Millennium Scholars, two Posse Scholarship winners and scores of students who've been accepted at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and other prestigious schools.

Heatley did not ignore blemishes. For instance, allegations of recent cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests at Kemp Elementary are being investigated.

"If there was cheating," he said, "we'll deal with it swiftly and appropriately."

Wednesday's news conference was an answer to the prayers of many residents who want to see the images fully restored for the school district, county and a region that many feel has become the poster child for metro Atlanta's ills.

Signs of restoration are emerging.

German automaker Porsche announced earlier this month that it is moving its North American headquarters from Sandy Springs to the southside near the airport. Days later, in a surprise move, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools lifted Clayton's two-year probation.

Lovejoy High School students were still grumbling about news coverage of four classmates being arrested in a food fight when they learned about the district's newly improved status on Friday the 13th.

"You could hear kids cheering in different classrooms," said Deborah McMurtrie Hobbs, who teaches in Lovejoy's International Baccalaureate program. Hobbs' class, all rising seniors, recalled how as ninth-graders many of them wrote letters and spoke before the school board about their fears of not getting into college or losing out on scholarships. They recalled seeing lots of classmates move away.

"Knowing my school's [fully] accredited makes my outlook on school better," said Amber Holmes, 16, who is running for class president. "We have bragging rights now."

Grant Wainscott, the director of Clayton's Office of Economic Development, said the school system regaining accreditation and the other good news has "far-reaching implications."

“The Porsche announcement couldn’t have come at a better time and frankly couldn’t be in a better part of the region," he said. "We think 2011 has already signaled really a turn in the economic and social future of Clayton County.”