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Superintendent releases her plea to SACS not to punish Clayton schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

There is "irrefutable evidence" the Clayton County school system is not a "ship without a rudder in dangerous water," according to Interim Superintendent Dr. Gloria Duncan's response to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Duncan sent the response in March as the AdvancED Accreditation Commission was preparing to vote to accept SACS' recommendation to revoke the school system's accreditation on Sept. 1.

The report was a plea to SACS for a change of heart so the school system would not lose its accreditation.

"The school system supports the notion of an effective and forward thinking local board of education and recognizes that one is central to adequately prepare young people for success in the 21st Century," according to the conclusion section of the district's response from Duncan. "However, as stated in the report of the review team, 'only the community can ensure that those elected are held accountable for their action...'

"It is for this reason that the district respectfully requests that the accreditation of the school system not be revoked."

Despite the district's plea, SACS president Dr. Mark Elgart said the response did not show the district was making any improvement.

Fifty-five of the 68 pages in Duncan's response were made available to the public on Saturday.

"This document represents the work of dedicated administrators who know the outstanding work that is performed each and every day in classrooms throughout our district," said Duncan.

"The information contained here is well researched and is data supported. In those instances where [we] found a deficiency, and, as with any school district, there were a few, we acknowledged the concerns and initiated responses to alleviate the issue," she added.

A Feb. 15 report by SACS alleged micromanagement, unethical behavior and misuse of district funds by members of the school board. It also said the school system was a "ship without a rudder in dangerous waters." There also was an allegation the school system's attendance records were falsified.

The district's response was designed to refute some of the claims made by SACS and indicate progress toward meeting the nine SACS mandates.

"The district's key aim for the internal review and response to the report, is to verify that the school district is operating with institutional integrity -- that it is fulfilling its vision and mission for its students and other stakeholders," according to school system's progress report released by Duncan.

"The Clayton County Public School District, and our schools, function as a whole and embody the practices and characteristics of a quality school district," according to the response.

Earlier, key board actions taken since SACS completed its investigation, include revising board policies, endorsing legislation which, if signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, will create a board ethics commission, developing protocol to deal with constituent concerns, accepting assistance from the governor and the Georgia Department of Education, and hiring conflict resolution experts to provide training for board members.

SACS leader Elgart did not respond Monday to calls from the Clayton News Daily.

Most of the school system's response tracked seven standards necessary for accreditation established by AdvancED-the parent organization of SACS. A school system must meet all seven requirements to obtain and keep accreditation.

Standard I: The system establishes and communicates a shared purpose and direction for improving the performance of students and the effectiveness of the system

Districts are expected to have a vision which outlines expectations for student achievement, and acts as a guide in the system's "allocation of time and human material and fiscal resources," according to the standard.

Clayton County schools updated its vision and mission statement last year. The system's new vision is to be the "highest performing school district in the Metro Atlanta area by 2012. The mission is to provide a safe learning environment for each pupil.

Standard II: The system provides governance and leadership that promote student performance and system effectiveness

This standard requires the board of education to advocate the district's vision and improvement efforts, while also allocating resources for educational programs. Board members must have well defined authority and share responsibility for leading the school system with its stakeholders.

Shortly after the majority of the Clayton County board came into office in 2005, members began reviewing and revising hundreds of their policies for the school system.

"While the ... policies are offered for consideration, any guidance relative to the level of adequacy and/or model policies (which may be provided by SACS) will be deeply appreciated," district leaders wrote in their response to the agency.

The response also mentions informal, moderator-led community forums which were held throughout the county four times a year. While the district did have occasional informal Saturday morning meetings with former Superintendent Barbara Pulliam at various schools throughout the system, those meetings stopped when she abruptly resigned in July 2007.

Standard III: The system provides research-based curriculum and instructional methods that facilitate achievement for all students

The school system's curriculum must have "clear and measurable expectations for student learning that provides opportunities for all students to acquire requisite knowledge, skills and attitudes." The district is responsible for making sure teachers utilize "proven instructional practices that actively engage students in the learning process; provide opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and skills to real world situations, and give students feedback to improve their performance."

Clayton County schools have three types of curriculums: written, taught, and assessed.

All of the curriculums are based on the guidelines by the Georgia Department of Education in their Georgia Performance Standards.

The written curriculum is designed to ensure there is a common and continuous thread in what a student learns as he, or she, moves from first-grade, through the elementary, middle and high schools, and finally in the twelfth-grade.

The taught curriculum relates to how a teacher instructs his, or her, students. The teacher is expected to work collaboratively with other teachers as they create lesson plans, and also offer input during revisions of the written curriculum.

The assessed curriculum uses student achievement data as a basis for what is taught in the classroom. District officials make refinements in the curriculum based on what the data reveals is working, or not working.

The report also cites the use of the controversial Kaplan program, which was first implemented during the 2005-06 school year, as a positive step the district took to improvement curriculum. Duncan announced in August 2007, however, the Kaplan program would not be used this year, despite already agreeing to pay for the final year of the program.

Duncan's decision was based on the controversy surrounding the Kaplan program. Advocates claimed the program resulted in higher test scores on standardized tests, but critics claimed it stifled a teacher's ability to be creative in the classroom. SACS officials cited the decision to abandon the Kaplan program this year as an example of poor curriculum decision being made by district officials.

Standard IV: The system enacts a comprehensive assessment system that monitors and documents performance and uses these results to improve student performance and school effectiveness

A school system must have a method to review the academic performances of students. This assessment information must then be used to continually improve student success.

The Clayton County district uses a circular school improvement model which begins with organizing and reviewing data. Performance measures are then set by school system officials who analyze the data in an effort to uncover root causes for problem areas. The officials plan and implement solutions, and then check on progress being made in the classrooms. They then start the process over again.

Standard V: The school system has the resources and services necessary to support its vision and purpose and to ensure achievement for all students

District leaders must be advocates for school system's vision and improvement efforts. The reason why their support is needed because they are responsible for allocating the resources necessary to meet the vision, according to this standard.

The Clayton County school system has five departments charged with helping the district meet this standard. These departments are human resources, professional learning, budget planning, facilities planning, and student services. They are responsible for making sure the district has quality teachers, facilities and support programs so students will be successful in their classrooms.

Standard VI: The system fosters effective communications and relationships with and among its stakeholders

A school system must work in collaboration with its stakeholders so both groups can make sure students are learning when they are in a classroom.

Clayton County schools place information at each branch of the public school system, as well as a partnership with the library system's foundation which resulted in online homework assistance being available to students. Many students, and other residents of the county, use the computers at each branch of the library system, because it has Internet access.

The district's response once again cited community forums as an activity the system's leaders use to communicate with the county's residents.

Standard VII: The system establishes, implements, and monitors a continuous process of improvement that focuses on student performance

The district has to make sure stakeholders participate in continuous improvement efforts, while also making sure each school's improvement plan is aligned with the system's vision, and is focused on improving student achievement.

Clayton County schools established a department to deal with research, assessment and evaluation in 2006.

"Members of this department now work in conjunction with stakeholders and the executive leadership of the district to supervise the continuous improvement process and monitor the progress toward district goals," according to the school system's response to SACS.