Parents, school employees optimistic on accreditation

Michele Knighten could have taken her sons, North Clayton High School junior Demarcus Bell and Adamson Middle School seventh-grader Kahlil Payton, out of Clayton County schools when the district lost its accreditation last fall, but said she chose to stay and put her faith in a new school board.

Still, Knighten said, she had her concerns. Bell is an International Baccalaureate student at North Clayton with a 4.2 grade-point average who is beginning to consider his options for college. His mother said she believes he is good enough, academically, to get into Ivy League-calibre schools, but she is not sure what effect a lack of accreditation would have on his search.

Knighten and her sons were among the crowd of 200 parents, students and Clayton County Public Schools employees who attended a community forum at North Clayton High School Tuesday to hear an accreditation update from Interim Superintendent Valya Lee. After the forum, Knighten said she is putting her faith in district officials when they say the accreditation will be regained soon.

"I believe this new school board is a really good one," Knighten said. "It is of the utmost importance that they get the accreditation back. Demarcus could go to Harvard if he wanted to, but there is all of this uncertainty with the accreditation."

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools first issued nine mandates for improvement to Clayton County schools in February of last year. Six and a half months later, the district became the first U.S. school system in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation when only one of those mandates was met.

Lee told parents and school system employees Tuesday that securing accreditation is the district's No. 1 priority right now, and she called on the audience to support the school system.

"There's been a lot of adversity in Clayton County over the last year, but we can say that in adversity, there is triumph," Lee said. "We ask that you as a community support us, and that you get involved in your schools."

On March 13, school system officials submitted a 109-page report, detailing efforts to continue meeting the other eight mandates, to SACS officials.

The school system, and school board, have reached an operational status or higher by going through training in parliamentary procedure, teamwork, contact with outside groups, policy development and codes of conduct; having board members sign code-of-ethics and conflict-of-interest affidavits; revisiting the district strategic plan; hiring a parliamentarian; requiring the board chairperson to sign an affidavit for every executive session; and updating the district's balanced scorecard, according to the report.

District officials also hired an internal auditor. And the district enacted the recommendations of an external auditor, who reviewed the school system last year, and suggested the installation of GPS phones on school buses, and revising the way overtime was handled in the transportation department.

The student attendance record-keeping efforts have also been revised to include more training for school officials, and plans to make immediate corrections to incorrect data have been established, according to the report.

The board has also hired Marietta attorney Glenn Brock to conduct a national superintendent search, and a timeline to have a permanent superintendent was approved by the board in February.

Half of the report is made up of appendices that show examples of work done by school system officials to regain accreditation.

The appendices include a summary of academic achievement in the district over the last year, the school board's schedule from a December training retreat in Peachtree City, a forensic auditor's report from last year, the minutes and affidavits from the Jan. 5, 2009 school board meeting where the board voted to conduct a national superintendent search, affidavits from that meeting, an analysis of federal disability grant spending, and a brief explanation of how district officials developed an accreditation assessment rubric.

The appendices also include the cover page for an updated salary equity study completed and presented to the school board last month by the Deloitte Consulting, LLP. Deloitte first conducted a similar study for the district in 2006.

A day after the report was submitted, however, former Superintendent John Thompson, whose signature is on the SACS report, was fired by the school board. Lee was then appointed to temporarily replace him. A permanent superintendent is expected to be hired this summer.

SACS President Mark Elgart said the leadership change is not likely to affect the district's efforts to regain accreditation, as long as the school board sticks with the plan it developed earlier this year to have a permanent superintendent in place, or on his or her way, by July 1.

Lee has appointed Executive Director of Fine Arts Paul Robbins to lead the district's re-accreditation efforts. Prior to Lee becoming the interim superintendent, former Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons, who is now the acting director of professional learning, was leading the district's internal SACS committee.

Lee and Robbins served together under Simmons on the internal SACS committee before Lee became the interim superintendent.

During the forum, Robbins said the SACS review team will attend the April 13 board meeting, and begin conducting interviews of Lee, school board members, district officials who worked on the SACS report, and community members, on April 14 at 10 a.m. Robbins said the interviews could continue until the afternoon of April 15.

The seven-member review team may also visit several schools during the visit. A decision about the accreditation will be made by mid-May, Robbins said.

"Everybody has been knocking on us lately, and now it's time for us to knock back," Robbins said. "April 13, 14, and 15 ... put it on your calendar. There is no doubt we're going to get our accreditation back."