Atlanta Public Schools is no longer at risk of losing accreditation for its 12 high schools.
An “elated” school board announced Tuesday the Southern Associations of Colleges and Schools, one of the nation’s top accrediting agencies, has taken the district off probation. APS was downgraded to “advisement” status, meaning the agency will watch to ensure the district’s progress is sustainable over the next year.
For APS students that means no longer worrying about the district harming their chances of winning scholarships or being admitted to college. For APS leadership, it means a district stigmatized by both a massive cheating scandal and a dysfunctional school board has proven it can rally toward a common goal.
“We took this work very seriously,” said board chairwoman Brenda Muhammad. “And the Atlanta Board of Education has worked diligently and cohesively to reach this outcome.”
In January, the district was placed on probation largely due to infighting among school board members. At that time, Mark Elgart, president and CEO of SACS’ parent company AdvancED, said the conflicts between school board members went beyond normal squabbles between elected officials. For example, when GBI agents visited Atlanta schools as part of an investigation into test cheating, the board spent the day in a meeting debating who was chair of the board.
The board was given six directives that pushed them to work together. Since, the board has agreed on several changes including electing a new chair, selecting a new superintendent, revising a critical policy on board leadership and overhauling an ethics panel designed to police the board’s behavior.
The board earned praise for changing its ways and for its ability to stick together, even in the midst of a widespread cheating scandal that toppled most of the district’s top leadership.
Encouraged by the changes, state school board members in July voted to let APS board members stay in office, despite a state law that allowed them to be removed.
After visiting the district in September and reviewing a detailed progress report, SACS determined the board completed four of the six required actions. The district has made considerable progress according to SACS, but there are still concerns the changes are sustainable.
“Several interviewees expressed cautionary concern about whether the APS Board’s improved functioning would continue after the ‘bright lights’ of SACS … the Governor’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, and the State Board of Education have been extinguished. This issue of sustainability raises concern,” the SACS report to the district said.
SACS officials ordered the board to develop a long-term plan to communicate with parents and the community and regain their trust, and to ensure board members continue to follow district policy. The board will have to report back to the agency in September 2012.
SACS’ options were to revoke the district’s accreditation, downgrade the district from probation to “warning” or “advisement,” or remove all sanctions and place it in good standing. SACS reviews district accreditation every five years, but can take action anytime during the cycle.
Had APS lost its accreditation, it would have been “devastating,” said Superintendent Erroll Davis. Students who graduate from unaccredited high schools may not be eligible for scholarships or for entry to certain colleges.
Parents and students expressed relief that the threat of accreditation loss was gone.
Cynthia Briscoe Brown, whose son and an exchange student under her care are both sophomores at North Atlanta High School, said she was “thrilled” to hear the SACS ruling Tuesday afternoon.
“I think it is entirely justified,” said Brown, who along with her husband serves as co-president of the North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools (NAPPS), which supports a cluster of eight schools in North Atlanta. “Those of us who have been watching the board for the last year and a half have seen a big improvements in how they relate to each other and how they direct policy.”
Praise for the decision also came from local and state leaders. Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, said the SACS decision was the result of quick-responding civic leaders coming together to help fix an Atlanta-based problem. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed thanked parents who pushed the board to become more functional and praised the board for their hard work. Gov. Nathan Deal said the board “affirmed my faith” that board members could put aside personal differences for the needs of children.
“The district still has work to do, but we’re finally going in the right direction,” Deal said in a statement. “We have to make sure the errors of the past are not repeated.”
The advisement status puts APS in the same standing as Cobb and DeKalb school districts.
Cobb County Schools is on “advisement” following a 2009 review, and spokesman Jay Dillon said the district has addressed all issues raised by SACS and plans to submit a progress report in December. Dillon said he is confident the sanction will be removed. DeKalb County Schools was placed on “advisement” in March and ordered to make eight improvements involving planning and leadership before Oct. 31. The agency visited DeKalb over two days last month and will decide its accreditation status later this month.
Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this article.