Hall County students pushed to go to a new school

A Hall County student who transferred to an alternative school just days before graduation last year said this week that the district all but forced him to go and provided none of the extra help administrators had promised.

Dillan Hatcher said officials at Chestatee High School told him he was hurting the school’s chances of meeting federal standards for its graduation rate. Hatcher failed one portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test and, as a result, expected to receive a certificate of performance instead of a diploma. Only diplomas boost a school’s graduation rate.

Hatcher said that when he arrived at Lanier Career Academy the final week of school, educators told him it was too late in the year to enroll in any programs. He said he sat in front of a computer, texted friends and stared at the wall.

“I went for nothing,” he said. “I should have just gone home.”

Hall’s practice of transferring struggling students from regular high schools to Lanier days before graduation has been criticized by some who questioned whether the district simply shuffled students around to game the state’s accountability system. The pressure is much greater on regular high schools to meet graduation-rate standards than on Lanier.

Superintendent Will Schofield has vigorously defended the transfers. Last week, however, he said it is possible high schools had moved students to benefit their graduation rate in a few instances. But he said such transfers are not district practice.

“I would be pretty Pollyannaish if I said that that didn’t happen at some point somewhere,” he said. “But in terms of the whole philosophy of the program, that’s not who we are.”

At one point, West Hall High School was in the running for an award — a Blue Ribbon of Excellence — but missed adequate yearly progress, or AYP, by three students, he said. All the district had to do was transfer the three, he said, but school officials “took our lumps.”

Overall, the district has defended sending students to Lanier, saying the moves are almost always voluntary and allow the district to provide assistance to students in danger of dropping out. Some are studying to retake the graduation test over the summer; others may take GED classes.

Enrollment in Lanier even at the end of the year improves chances students will continue in their studies, officials said.

Pressure to move

The Hall district in northeast Georgia is only the latest school system to face accusations of monkeying with the numbers to try to improve schools’ status under the accountability system built after the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this month that, in the past three years, at least 94 Hall County students who were due to receive certificates instead of diplomas transferred to Lanier in the final days of the school year. A 2009 email by the former principal for Lanier urged other schools to transfer their certificate students to Lanier at semester’s end “to improve your graduation rate.”

Since then, several students who were told by school officials to transfer to Lanier, or who knew students that did, talked with the newspaper about their experience.

The newspaper also performed additional data analysis that showed multiple years in which a small number of graduates made the difference between making and missing AYP for some Hall schools.

Hatcher said that, after he failed the graduation test, Chestatee High officials pulled him into the school office and told him he needed to go to Lanier. They convinced his father the move was good for him.

“They said you’ll learn everything you need at LCA,” said Hatcher, who was reluctant to leave the school he had attended since freshman year.

“When I got to LCA, they said, ‘Get on the computer and do whatever,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘It’s too late in the year; we can’t get you in a program.’ ”

He passed the graduation test re-test anyway. A few weeks later, he received his diploma.

“They threw me under the bus,” said Hatcher, 18, who now works at his father’s landscaping business.

Chestatee High Principal Chip Underwood, who was assistant principal in 2010, said AYP typically isn’t mentioned in such meetings. Last year, the school made AYP by a 21-diploma margin, data shows.

“I don’t believe that to be the case at all,” Underwood said of Hatcher’s recollection he was told he would hurt the school’s effort to meet federal standards. “We use LCA to help kids get graduated. Does it affect AYP? I think it does minutely.”

Another former Chestatee student and friend of Hatcher’s, Christian Beasley, said he, too, felt intense pressure from school officials to transfer the last week of school after he failed part of the graduation test.

“They transferred me before they even told me about it,” he said. “They said they’d transferred my files to LCA and I had to start there on Monday.”

School officials told him Lanier would help him pass the graduation test, he said. “They said it would be a good thing,” he said.

Beasley’s parents, however, objected. They didn’t want him to receive his diploma from an alternative school, he said. He stayed at Chestatee and passed the graduation test anyway. “I don’t know why they wanted to send me off,” said Beasley, 19, who has a job doing maintenance, welding and fabricating.

Schofield said, given that Hall is a district of 26,000 students, a few may walk away not completely satisfied.

“Can you pick up a kid or two that is not happy with our experience? Absolutely,” he said. “But there are an awful lot of positive stories.”

Graduation targets

Analysis of state data shows that for some Hall schools, every diploma mattered.

Three of Hall’s traditional schools missed their graduation-rate targets in 2007. East Hall missed by 14 students. Chestatee was off by three students, state data shows. Johnson High missed by one.

Chestatee and Johnson still made AYP because of a second-chance option that allows schools that are close to the targets to use a multi-year average.

During the next two years, when transfers to Lanier soared districtwide, all three schools fared better.

East Hall made its graduation-rate goals by 10 students in 2008 and nine in 2009. Johnson succeeded as well, by 12 students in 2008 and 11 in 2009. Chestatee made the target by 18 students in 2008 and 14 in 2009.

During those two years, Hall high schools transferred a total of 79 students to Lanier at the last minute. State data obtained by the AJC does not show where the transfers originated.

Schofield said that, overall, the district has had great success in boosting graduates. Its graduation rate climbed by more than 11 percentage points, to about 79 percent, between 2007 and 2010. The Lanier transfers would not affect the districtwide rate.

For months, posters on local blogs have criticized Hall’s late-semester transfers to Lanier.

Some traffic was generated by Krysten Campbell, a 22-year-old former Chestatee student who said several students have complained to her about being bullied to transfer to Lanier.

“It’s just wrong what they’re doing to these kids, especially their last week of their senior year,” she said.

Campbell, a student at Gainesville State College, wrote Hall County school district officials to complain about the transfers as part of a class project. She then posted their responses on a local blog.

Hall officials have said that they expected few, if any, late transfers to Lanier this year. Campbell said she suspects that attention to the issue on blogs and in the media may be part of the reason.

“I guess that is kind of what it showed me: If I speak out loud enough, it can change,” she said.


How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed databases provided by the Georgia Department of Education for the 2008 through 2010 school years to determine when, and where, transfers were made in Hall County. The databases showed how many students earning Certificates of Performance transferred to Lanier Career Academy after May 1 each year. The state redacted the databases to remove potentially identifying information for small groupings of students, so it is possible that the actual number of transfers was slightly higher. The state also removed students’ names to keep their records confidential. For this story, the AJC also analyzed a second state database that includes information on whether schools and districts met federal standards.