Community ponders dreams lost with accreditation

Melissa and René Vargis thought they had found the American dream when they bought a house in Morrow 10 years ago.

"We wanted our children to attend one school system throughout their educational careers," Melissa Vargis said. "We wanted them to grow up with their friends so they have those friendships for years to come."

Heather Angel, a senior at Mt. Zion High School, had dreams of attending colleges like Ohio State University, Ithaca College, Elon University, or Auburn University.

Both Angel and the Vargis family are left wondering about their dreams, now that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has revoked the accreditation of Clayton County schools. "A lot of seniors started crying," said Angel. "We realized our futures are kinda trashed, now that the school system isn't accredited."

Across the county, responses to SACS' decision range from frustration to anger. Clayton County is the first school system to lose its accreditation since Duval County (Fla.) schools in 1969.

About 400 parents were at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center Thursday night, hoping to spend three minutes each addressing board members. However, only four chairs were on the stage, and one of them was for the board's secretary.

Corrective Superintendent John Thompson, accompanied by new board members Alieka Anderson, Trinia Garrett and Michael King, announced that the public participation meeting would not proceed. Earlier, Gov. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order removing board members Michelle Strong, Sandra Scott, Lois Baines-Hunter and Yolanda Everett. That left the board with only three members. School officials were not sure a board meeting could be held without five members.

Thompson talked with parents instead. At times, it was contentious. "We trusted you before and we lost accreditation. How can we trust you now?" Melissa Vargis asked Thompson.

"You have to have faith..." Thompson responded.

"Faith is gone, sir," said Vargis, cutting off Thompson before he could finish his sentence.

Vargis later said she might send her children to live with a relative in Atlanta so they can attend school in an accredited district.

State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) called SACS' decision "the worst of times," but promised "we will persevere ... None of our jobs are over until we get the accreditation back."

Incoming board member, Jessie Goree, who will replace Everett in January, attended the meeting where SACS officials told school system officials about the accreditation decision. The mother of a senior at North Clayton High School, Goree said she cried during most of the meeting, because of her worries about how the loss of accreditation would affect her son and his classmates.

Goree said the board should accept an offer from SACS president Mark Elgart, and state board of education members, James Bostic and Brad Bryant, to help the school system and the board meet the remaining mandates. "I still don't understand what it is they [SACS] want from us," she said. "If I was on the board now, I would probably be meeting with SACS every two weeks to make sure we are headed in the right direction."

David Barton, vice chairman of governmental affairs for the Metro South Association of Realtors, said SACS, not the school system, is to blame for the loss of accreditation. "I personally think the accreditation was pulled to show SACS has some teeth," Barton said. "They could have said, 'You're on probation. Go fix these problems,' but they didn't do that."

As the news about the accreditation loss filtered into the community, reports started coming out that students, particularly those in high schools, got angry and began protesting the school board.

Vernetta Reeves, whose daughter, Genetta, is a senior at Jonesboro High School, said the school's seniors had planned to conduct a walkout on Thursday, to protest the school system, but the pupils changed their minds when cooler heads prevailed. Still, Reeves said she is going to find a an accredited school to which she can send her eldest daughter for the remainder of the school year.

"She's being recruited by Harvard [University], but her heart is set on attending Howard [University]," Reeves said. "We don't know how the loss of accreditation will affect her chances of getting into Howard, but I don't want to take that chance."

Promises of support for the students and the school system poured in from officials across the state within hours of the announcement of SACS' decision.

State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), who served on the school board from 1994-2000, said SACS' decision will hurt the county in terms of economic growth and development, but "I will do everything in my power for [the] school district and county officials to regain accreditation, so that all Clayton County students are afforded every educational opportunity."

State School Superintendent Kathy Cox said she was saddened by the SACS decision, but also hoped it served as a reminder to the citizens of Georgia as to how important it is to participate in the elections of "functional, productive and professional" school board members. In the meantime, she plans to work with other state officials to help the 50,000 students of Clayton County schools.

"I will work with Gov. [Sonny] Perdue, University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll Davis and other leaders around the state to help secure the futures of these students and all who attend Clayton County public schools," Cox said. "We will seek any and all flexibility in state policies and rules to make sure thousands of students are not harmed by the actions of the school board."

U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said he plans to reach out to the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education, and the U.S. Department of Education to alert them to the accreditation situation, and to solicit their assistance on behalf of the school system.

"This is a sad situation that could have been averted," Scott said. "All nine mandates dealt with mismanagement at the school board level and unfortunately the board chose inaction rather than to protect the interests of the citizens of Clayton County. The loss of accreditation was not due to the quality of students or teachers, test scores, level of funding, or academics."