Interim chief takes first steps to combat APS cheating scandal

Atlanta Public Schools interim Superintendent Erroll Davis began Thursday to dismantle former school chief Beverly Hall's administration, promising a host of changes that included academic reviews for students affected by the system's cheating scandal, more ethics training for teachers and scrutiny of unusual test scores.

He is not done. The "preliminary action plan," as Davis called it, came as city school board members voted unanimously to give him a year to clean up the district, essentially suspending an ongoing search for Hall's permanent replacement.

Davis said wholesale changes are needed to empower employees and win back public trust.

“One of things I want to take a hard look at is this issue of culture. No matter what strategy you adopt, culture will always trump strategy,” Davis said. “I believe that we must change the culture of the organization. We have to move to a more open, more transparent and more empowering culture, and I also think we have to make sure we have appropriate processes and procedures in place that demand that we listen more, that we engage our partners more ... much more so than in the past.”

The vote of confidence in Davis came after a three-hour closed-door session in which the interim school chief laid out personnel plans for how to handle the cheating scandal that has implicated 178 district employees. Those plans were not made public, although the first of them will be put in place Monday.

"The stability, we definitely need," board Chairwoman Brenda Muhammad said of Davis, whose contract will end June 30, 2012. Other details, including his pay, were not immediately known. Davis, who retired last week as chancellor of the University System of Georgia, repeated Thursday that he does not want the job permanently.

Muhammad said Davis can help the board as it seeks to win back full accreditation. APS was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in January for infighting on the board, which started last year as the scandal and subsequent investigations began.

"He's laid out a plan for us and, in order to execute the plan, he needs time," Muhammad said.

The announcement of Davis' plan and the board's extension of his contract came as the school system's troubles have been played out on a national stage following a release of a state report Tuesday. The report castigated the district -- and Hall -- for a deeply embedded culture of cheating, cover-ups and obstruction. The cheating scandal was first reported more than two years ago by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution but by midweek was among the most popular stories on websites and blogs coast to coast.

Board members also voted unanimously to accept the report.

Two of city's three elementary schools that operate on a year-round school calendar -- Boyd and Hutchinson -- were named in the report, and they are scheduled to open Wednesday. With that in mind, Davis said the first personnel actions stemming from the report will happen Monday at the board's next regularly scheduled meeting. They will not be the last. Davis estimated it would take four to six months total, given employees' contractual and legal rights to due process.

But Davis warned that anyone who cheated knowingly or unknowingly “has forfeited their right to remain in our system.”

Among changes Davis announced Thursday:

  • The district will conduct academic reviews for students whose scores were changed, or may have been changed, by teachers and principals. More than 5,400 students received additional tutoring and after-school programing last school year while the investigation was under way, although the district is seeking to identify additional students based on the report. "My sense is these programs will take on a permanent nature," Davis said.
  • All employees will be required to take annual ethics training as a condition of employment. These classes are likely to be online, Davis said. They will begin Aug. 1 -- seven days before most classes start for the new school year.
  • All testing coordinators will be trained by an external authority, possibly the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, a state agency that polices state teaching credentials.
  • The Office of Internal Resolution, which investigators said mishandled complaints and hindered their efforts, is under review and will be "deconstructed," Davis said. All investigations the office would have handled will now go to the district's Internal Audits Department, which reports directly to the school board.
  • Davis will work with select staff to set an automatic trigger for investigation when gains on test scores are unexpected or unusual. It has not been decided how much of a gain would trigger an investigation.
  • Yearly testing targets will be re-evaluated. Davis, however, rejected a notion that they would be thrown out altogether because, he said, it is not wrong to demand performance. Rather, it is wrong to demand performance by any means necessary. "The consequences for [cheating] should be far harsher than for missing a goal," Davis said.

Reacting to the state report, Davis said it “suggests that a focus on performance caused people to cheat," which he rejects.

The state report said Hall stressed annual academic targets by whatever means necessary, ignoring mounting evidence of misconduct over the past decade and willfully hindering the investigation by destroying or altering complaints.

More than 800 pages in length, it named 178 educators, including 38 principals, as participants in cheating, including erasing and correcting mistakes on students’ answer sheets. It concentrated on, but was not limited to, state tests given in 2009.

More than 80 APS employees confessed. The investigators said they confirmed cheating in 44 of 56 schools they examined.

Hall’s attorney, however, has said she “most definitely did not know of any widespread cheating” on standardized tests in 2009 or any other year. The attorney, Richard Deane, said there was no direct evidence to show she knew widespread cheating had occurred.

Muhammad said the board over the next few months will decide how to begin the search again for a new superintendent. The board ultimately neither wanted to rush the response to the scandal nor overwhelm Davis' successor, Muhammad said.

Last month, the board brought in two finalists — Cheryl L. Atkinson, superintendent of Lorain City Public Schools in Ohio, and Bonita Coleman-Potter, a deputy superintendent of Prince Georges County Public Schools in Maryland — who both earned praise from parents.

Muhammad said the search agency had been informed and would notify the finalists.

Coleman-Potter told the AJC that while she wishes Davis and the Atlanta school system well, she is disappointed by the decision to suspend the search.

She said she read all three volumes of the report online and that she thought the children who needed remediation did not get it.

Atkinson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Staff writers Maureen Downey and Angela Tuck contributed to this article.