The has removed the Atlanta Public Schools from probation, giving some much-needed positive news to a district battered by two scandals this year.
SACS left the district on "Advisement," meaning there are a couple of issues the accrediting agency wants to continue to monitor in the next 12 months to ensure APS' board doesn't backslide into problems.
SACS, which in , threatened to remove APS' accreditation — essentially making high school diplomas worthless — if board members failed to make significant improvements on six action items:
- Develop and implement a long-term plan to communication with and engage stakeholders in the work of the district and to regain the trust of parents and students.
- Secure and actively use the services of a trained, impartial mediator who will work with board members to resolve communication, operational and personal issues that are impeding the effectiveness of the governing body.
- Ensure that the actions and behavior of all board members are aligned with board policies, especially those related to ethics and chain of command.
- Review and refine policies to achieve the mission to educate students.
- Develop and implement a process for selecting a new superintendent that is transparent and engages public participation. The final choice of superintendent should be determined by more than a simple majority of the board.
- Work with the state of Georgia to address inconsistencies between the state charter for the school board and system policies.
In its 12-page report, SACS found the board completed four of those six action items.
On the two that still needed improvement — communication/engagement with the public and ensuring board members' behavior aligned with board policies — the district has until Sept. 30 of next year when SACS will review the board's progress.
SACS said the board overall, which had devolved into cliques of squabbling dysfunction, has made significant improvements, though more needs to be done.
"Interviewees mentioned the proper functioning of the Board of Education had improved, but that work remained to be accomplished in this area," SACS wrote in its report. "It appears to the Monitoring Team that APS board members have, for the most part, put personality differences aside and have begun focusing on the proper role of the Board. This singular achievement by the Board places them on the right path to successfully regaining the trust and confidence of their community."
Douglas Wood, a Kirkwood parent with two children at Fred A. Toomer Elementary, welcomed SACS' decision.
"This is a positive move forward and all should be commended," said Wood, who also is co-president of the Council of Intown Neighborhoods and Schools. "This allows the board to again focus on the children and a variety of challenges facing the system.
Step Up Or Step Down, a Facebook network of APS parents that formed after the probation, echoed Wood's sentiments.
The group noted it wasn't yet time to relax, however.
"With the Advisement status from SACS, it's clear that all audiences recognize the need for continuous improvement and ongoing responsible governance of our schools," the group said in a statement. "We call for the broader community of public education stakeholders to continue pushing for a heightened sense of awareness and responsibility at the board level, within the district office, inside individual schools and throughout surrounding neighborhoods."
Board members certainly had a lot at stake, as did APS.
The accreditation issue came just months before the state completed its own investigation of allegations of widespread cheating under the tenure of Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of schools at APS who retired at the end of the last school year.
A state into allegations of cheating on standardized tests found 178 teachers and principals at 44 of the 56 schools investigated, did engage in cheating.
The two scandals put the district in the national spotlight and the butt of late-night talk show jokes and put into serious question just how much progress in standardized test score improvements students had really achieved.
Had the board spent more time focused on the school oversight and less time on in-fighting, the cheating scandal may not have exploded to the degree that it did.
Cecily Harsch-Kinnane, who represents District 3, told East Atlanta Patch the board as a whole has learned from its mistakes.
More importantly, she said the steps taken since January and new rules put in place should keep the board members — present and future — focused on doing what's in the best interest of students, parents and teachers.
In East Atlanta Patch, District 3 includes the East Atlanta Village, East Lake, Kirkwood and Edgewood neighborhoods as well communities in Virginia-Highland Patch and Midtown Patch.
"In doing the work around completing these actions, we also had to do a lot of work about what it means to serve as a board member, what it means to serve as a board, what our governance work really means and what it means to never let your focus off the kids," Harsch-Kinnane said.
"We've done enough self-checks so that we demonstrated our commitment and focus on the kids so that we will not let ourselves get distracted again. We were able to do enough work within ourselves and put things in place for future boards also, so that future boards wouldn't be allowed to stray off-course."
While not proud of how the board arrived to the this point
"I will always feel horrible for what we did to the student-parent-teacher population of the system to create angst by our actions. That said, I do think we are stronger for having gone through it," she said. "I think all of us could have different versions of how we got into this, but no matter what your version is we all played a role in allowing ourselves get distracted."
The main issue, Harsch-Kinnane said, is that the board look at all future actions through the prism of what it means for the students.
"Now that that's happened and you realize the import of not allowing yourself to be and to be focused and see everything through the lens of what's this going to do to make certain that all students in Atlanta Public Schools are as well-cared for and as well-educated as they possibly can be," she said. "I think it does strengthen our ability to focus on everything at every level."