Attendance, withdrawals watched after accreditation loss

Daily attendance in the Clayton County School System has dropped nearly two percent points from what it was on the day before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) announced the district is no longer accredited.

On Aug. 27, the attendance rate was 96.5 percent, according to School System Spokesman Charles White. Two days later, when SACS made its announcement, the district had a 94.3 percent attendance rate, and it dropped again to 93.6 percent on Tuesday, White added.

Attendance rose with 94.4 percent of students attending school on Wednesday, and 94.7 percent showed up on Thursday. White said there was no average daily attendance rate with which the last few days can be compared.

White said the school system believes the accreditation loss could be one attendance-loss factor, and the Labor Day weekend may also be a factor. "There is a possibility that a portion of those students were absent because it was a long weekend, and their families may have been going out of town," said White.

There were also 142 withdrawals from the school system between Aug. 28 and Sept. 2, but the district's enrollment continues to hover around 50,000 students, according to White. Many other withdrawals came before the school year began, and are part of the overall loss of 2,000 pupils from last year.

Since the accreditation loss, the school system has gone on the offensive to assure parents and students that all is well. Still, the district is keeping a close eye on the attendance and withdrawal figures.

"We're tracking the situation right now to see what's going on," White said. "[Corrective Superintendent John Thompson] sent out a ConnectED on the same day that the accreditation announcement was made, and he also had a letter sent home to parents, explaining the situation ...

"Information has been given to principals about the situation, and they have been asked to share that information with their parents."

Since Aug. 28, neighboring school systems in Fayette and Henry counties have been receiving a flood of calls from Clayton County parents seeking enrollment. Spokespersons for both school systems quickly explained that students could not attend public schools in their counties, unless they live in Fayette or Henry.

"Henry County Schools serves a rapidly growing student population in overcrowded schools, and any students attending Henry County Schools must meet the residency requirements as outlined [in Henry County school board policy]," said Connie Rutherford, Henry County schools spokesperson.

"Our policy, and our student handbooks state that 'proof of residence is subject to investigation,' and we take this responsibility to investigate seriously," Rutherford added.

Meanwhile, Gov. Sonny Perdue is having his advisors look at ways to have more of an impact in the welfare of school systems. In the case of Clayton County, Perdue sent two members of the Georgia Board of Education to work with the district, and he instructed state agencies and officers, such as Secretary of State Karen Handel, to assist with SACS' mandated audits and investigations.

Perdue also signed a state law, which allowed the Clayton County legislative delegation to establish an ethics commission to watch over the district's school board. He also signed an amended state law which allows any senior who graduates from a Clayton County school this year and next, to be eligible for the HOPE scholarship.

Bert Brantley, the governor's spokesman, said Perdue has not decided on an option as to how he can offer more assistance to struggling school systems. One option could be an amendment to the State Constitution, but it would have to be approved by two-thirds of the Georgia General Assembly, and a majority of Georgia residents on a statewide ballot, said Brantley.

Barring an emergency special legislative session, a statewide vote on such an amendment could not take place until November 2010, when state offices are on the ballot. By then, the one-year accreditation reinstatement period for Clayton schools will have expired. The district will either have regained its accreditation or the graduating classes of 2011 and 2012 will not be eligible for HOPE scholarships, because the school system will be starting from scratch to regain SACS accreditation.

Perdue has to walk a fine line because he values local control, but he also wants the authority to do more when local control does not work, Brantley said.

-- Staff writer Johnny Jackson contributed to this article.