State report depicts Parks Middle as example of problems in district

Christopher Waller worked miracles.

Or so Beverly Hall seemed willing to believe.

As principal of Atlanta’s Parks Middle School, Waller awed his bosses with the most dramatic of school transformations. Before Waller took charge, 1 percent of Parks’ eighth-graders exceeded expectations on the state’s curriculum test. In Waller’s first year, 46 percent reached that level.

As superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, Hall needed results that validated the reform narrative she had crafted. She not only accepted Waller’s achievements without skepticism, she held them up as a model for others. Five years later, Hall would say she had never heard anything bad about Waller’s school, despite repeated accusations the principal engaged in academic fraud, sexual harassment and other improprieties.

This co-dependent relationship — Hall wanted high test scores, Waller produced them, and Hall rewarded and protected him — illustrates the toxic culture that state investigators say infected Atlanta’s school system for the past decade.

A voluminous report released Tuesday alleges widespread cheating in Atlanta schools, and places special emphasis on what happened at Parks after Waller became principal in 2006. The report and other documents depict Parks as an especially egregious example of problems investigators cited throughout the district: clandestine cheating, retaliation against whistle-blowers, a cover-up of wrongdoing, and continual denial of problems even as evidence mounted.

Seven educators from Parks confessed to cheating, and investigators implicated six others, including Waller. Citing documents and interviews with school employees, the investigators allege that cheating occurred at the school each year from 2006 through 2010.

Waller did not return two telephone messages and an email seeking comment Tuesday. Hall said through her lawyer Tuesday that she denies allegations of wrongdoing.

In a statement to investigators, Waller said if tampering occurred, it must have been after test papers left Parks. He wouldn’t have cheated, he said, because he wouldn’t have risked his $107,000-a-year salary — and because he is a minister.

Hall told investigators she might have questioned Parks’ scores if she had heard other allegations about Waller. In late 2005 and early 2006, however, she had received at least three letters that alleged academic and other misbehavior by the principal.

On Jan. 13, 2006, Hall attached a routing sheet to one of those letters and checked a box that instructed two aides: “Please handle.”

But Hall crossed out the rest of the line: “And inform me.”

‘I need the numbers’

Waller came to Parks in 2005, apparently determined to make an impact, and to make it quickly.

By January 2006, according to letters sent to Hall, Waller was pressuring teachers to cheat on that spring’s CRCT.

“We know that they are cheating at the elementary schools,” Waller said, according to one letter. “It is no way that those elementary test scores are real. Unless we do like them, we will continue to look bad.”

A few weeks later, teacher Damany Lewis told investigators, Waller approached him with an unusual question: “Do you think you could get into something undetected?”

Lewis, who gave investigators an extensive statement admitting his role in the cheating, answered yes. But he did not know what Waller wanted until the principal summoned him a few days afterward. Waller and an aide from a school program called Success-For-All had several CRCT booklets, each shrink-wrapped in plastic. Lewis used a razor blade to slice the plastic around each booklet, slipped out the tests and made copies so teachers could give answers to students. With a lighter, Lewis melted the plastic shut again.

Each year after that, Lewis told investigators, Waller would call him into his office when CRCT booklets arrived.

“Do what you do,” Waller would say, according to Lewis.

The first year, teachers told investigators, only a few people participated in cheating “parties” that Waller organized. By 2010, Waller’s last year at Parks, the numbers grew, and the arrangements became more elaborate. In 2009, for instance, teacher Crystal Draper said two staff members loaded test papers into a blue cooler and delivered them to rooms where teachers were correcting students’ mistakes. They returned later with the cooler and hauled the tests away.

Waller continually exhorted the faculty to create higher scores, teacher Dorothea Wilson told investigators.

“I need the numbers, I need the numbers,” Waller would say, according to Wilson.

One impediment complicated the cheating, teachers said: Arthur Kiel, the school’s testing coordinator.

Kiel firmly opposed tampering with tests, teachers said, so Waller invented excuses to send him out of the office during erasure parties. Once, Waller scheduled an impromptu after-school dance and assigned Kiel to supervise. Another time, Waller sent Kiel to a retirement party.

Kiel kept test papers locked in his office while the CRCT was administered each year. But in 2007 he noticed that items on his desk had been disturbed. He angrily complained to Waller.

From then on, teachers took extra care to avoid detection, they told investigators.

To reduce their footprint in Kiel’s office, teachers took papers next door to correct students’ mistakes.

Lewis used a digital camera to take pictures of the office. The snapshots showed the teachers how to put everything back in its place before Kiel returned.

The cheating quickly got results. In 2006, Waller’s first year at Parks, the percentage of eighth-graders who passed the math section of the CRCT rose from 24 to 86. By 2007, Parks was meeting 100 percent of its goals set by the district.

Questions began emerging about other aspects of Waller’s performance, however.

One teacher accused Waller of sexual harassment, claiming he punished her when she rejected his advances, district records not contained in the investigators’ report show. Another complained Waller had created “an antagonistic and hostile environment” that penalized out-of-favor staff members. One anonymous tipster reported that Waller was having an affair with a subordinate. Others alleged Waller tried to “get rid” of teachers who declined to help cheat on the CRCT and transferred or fired those who filed complaints about him.

District inquiries did not substantiate the allegations, and Waller denied any wrongdoing.

In an article published by an educational foundation, Waller hinted at his management style: “If you have folks on the team who don’t think you can win, you are in trouble. ... So we had to get some people off the bus first.”

Regardless, teachers told investigators, a high-ranking district administrator made it clear to the faculty that their complaints would go nowhere.

“There is nothing you can do to make us think negatively of principal Waller,” Michael Pitts, an area superintendent, reportedly said during a faculty meeting at Parks. “Stop writing letters about Waller because he is not going anywhere.”

‘Highest honors’

In early 2006, with complaints multiplying, the district hired a private investigator to look into Waller’s activities. Reginal Dukes, a former Atlanta police detective, concluded that Waller misused a federally funded after-school program, manipulated student grades and attendance records, and persuaded or coerced teachers to enable cheating on an eighth-grade writing test.

But when Dukes presented his findings to district officials, he told investigators, he got a chilly reception.

During the meeting, Dukes said, Hall never opened his report. As he outlined his findings, he said, Hall sat with a “glazed-over” look.

Finally, Dukes said, Hall asked whether he had “any direct proof” or confessions. He responded that he had found strong evidence of improprieties. Officials told him to continue his inquiry. Nevertheless, the district never disciplined Waller.

Instead, the investigators said, Hall continued to hold up Waller as a model principal.

In describing Waller’s success, Hall told an education newsletter: “You have to find someone who is able to go in and, while not being a dictator, get people’s attention and articulate a vision and mission in a way that people want to be on board with it.”

When Parks became Atlanta’s only middle school to meet all its academic targets, including test scores, in 2008, Hall told the Board of Education that Waller deserved “the highest honors.” The same year, Waller was one of the district’s winners of the $7,500 Atlanta Family Award, honored for Parks’ consistently increasing test scores.

Despite the accolades, Waller — who had been an assistant principal in Newton County before coming to Parks — threatened to leave, the investigators’ report said. So the Atlanta office of the Annie E. Casey Foundation interceded, with Hall’s blessing. The organization gave Waller $10,000, and he remained at Parks.

The foundation’s Atlanta director, Gail Hayes, told investigators that neither Hall nor other administrators had told her about the allegations concerning Waller — not when she was arranging the payment, and not even when she served on a commission last year that looked into CRCT cheating for the district.

She knew nothing at all about Waller’s history until the investigators told her this spring.

Investigators ‘got nothing’

When the state commissioned an analysis of wrong-to-right test erasures on the 2009 CRCT, no school looked worse than Parks. The erasure analysis flagged more than 89 percent of Parks’ classrooms, most of which had produced increased scores that were all but impossible statistically.

When investigators questioned Waller, he denied cheating or even suspecting that cheating had occurred. He suggested that Kiel, Parks’ testing coordinator, might have been to blame. (Investigators strongly dispute this suggestion.)

As the investigation got under way, according to the report, Waller called a meeting of the teachers who had helped cheat on the CRCT. He didn’t know that at least one teacher was secretly wearing a recording device provided by the investigators.

At first, Waller said it had to be “the school district or the state” that cheated.

Later, he told the teachers: “If you didn’t erase yourself, you have nothing to worry about.”

No one, he said, had to tell what they did.

The investigators, he said, “got nothing.”