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Clayton's accreditation woes pushing some to private schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Corrective Superintendent John Thompson expects to see the school system lose at least 200 high school students as a result of the ongoing accreditation crisis.

"I just hate that people are taking advantage of our situation for their own personal gain," Thompson said. "We have people who have been waiting to make this move, and the accreditation situation gave them a reason to leave.

"They [students and parents] shouldn't give up the social networking they've built up over 10 or 11 years just for one year at a private school," Thompson said.

Some local private schools are prominently advertising their status as accredited institutions, while Clayton County parents are left wondering what the future holds for the public schools.

The school district is facing an accreditation crisis in which officials have to meet the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) nine mandates for improvement by Sept. 1, or face losing accreditation.

Thompson said he is going to have district officials review attendance and enrollment after the new school year begins on Thursday. He wants to see how many students the district lost because of the accreditation crisis. It will take the first 10 school days to get an accurate count, he said.

The superintendent said private schools have targeted the district's high academic achievers, especially high school juniors and seniors, primarily because of concerns about college eligibility, and the state-backed HOPE scholarships.

Safeguards exist to protect these students, however. State law has been amended so that academically qualified students remain eligible for the HOPE scholarship, even if their district loses its accreditation, and the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents will accept Clayton students at public colleges in the state, regardless of the outcome of the accreditation issue.

Danny Dorsel, principal at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School in Fairburn, said inquiries from Clayton County parents are up this year, but he does not know how it will affect enrollment at the school. He said enrollment is up from several areas, including Clayton, Henry, Fayette and Fulton counties.

Our Lady of Mercy, which begins classes on Aug. 11, has mentioned its status as a SACS accredited school in its advertisements, but Dorsel said it is because "accreditation is important for admission to colleges and universities" and is therefore "important to us and our families."

The Primrose School in Fayetteville, where classes also begin on Aug. 11, is seeing an increase in the number of Clayton students enrolling at the school. Over the summer, one-third of all the inquiries received by school officials came from Clayton parents, mainly from the Riverdale area, said Jerry Gross, the school's principal.

Primrose typically had about two Clayton students in its first two and a half years of operation, but there will be 10 Clayton children -- 10 percent of the school's student population -- during the 2008-09 school year, Gross said.

Gross said his school is seeking more students, but officials are not specifically targeting Clayton County students. "This is not to say there is anything wrong with the Clayton County School System," Gross said. "This is an opportunity to provide a service to the community, and to provide parents with an alternative option for quality education."

Officials at Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Jonesboro and Eagle's Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comments for this article.