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Community reacts to SACS accreditation verdict

The Clayton County community breathed a collective sigh of relief after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) announced Friday that it would reinstate the school system's accreditation, under a two-year, probationary status.

In sentiments ranging from jubilance to cautious optimism, civic and business leaders, local officials, parents, students and others expressed the sense of relief they felt, and speculated about what the momentous decision will mean for the future of the county.

· Parent and student reaction:

Since February 2008, when Clayton County Public Schools was first put on notice that SACS was considering stripping its accreditation, many parents and students have been uneasy about the prospects of receiving a high school education in the county. After August of last year, when SACS revoked the system's accreditation, wary parents pulled 3,200 children out of the county's schools.

But, on Friday, many parents and students rejoiced, knowing, at last, that, at least this year's seniors at the county's high schools will graduate from an accredited school system, improving the odds that they will be able to attend the colleges and universities of their choice.

Kelvin Carter, a parent, and a resident of Jonesboro for 11 years, has renewed hope that his daughter, a senior at Mundy's Mill High School, will be able to attend college. "I am glad it came through ... [I] really am glad they got the accreditation back," Carter said. "She can go to college now."

Donna Koonce, president of the Kemp Elementary Parent Teacher Association (PTA), said the news of accreditation was a huge relief. "We waited too long for this," she said. "It was a big blow for us when [the school system] was unaccredited. We're homeowners, and we had big stakes here ... so it makes it even better."

Brieyana Green, 17, a student at Mundy's Mill High Scool, said the loss of accreditation made it more difficult for her to be accepted to out-of-state schools. She said Friday's decision by SACS gave her new hope. "I was mad [at the loss of accreditation], because I wanted to go to an out-of-state college," Green said. "I have a scholarship to FAMU (Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University), and they were going to take it away, because of my [lack of] accreditation. I was excited [with Friday's SACS decision], and I was doing back flips ... It means I can go to FAMU, and fulfill my goals and dreams."

Antoinette Skipper, 16, a junior at Mundy's Mill, has lived in Jonesboro her entire life. She said after the loss of accreditation, she considered leaving the school system, but now has new motivation to stay. "I was ready to go to another high school, but at the same time, I didn't go to another high school, because I love where I am," Skipper said. "[Accreditation] means a lot. It shows that our county can come together as a community, and shows that we can accomplish something."

· Political reaction:

The school system's loss of accreditation last year challenged local officials, many of whose political goals were stymied by the challenges facing the school system. In the 2008 election, the platforms of several candidates included pledges to work with the school system to help it regain accreditation.

Local leaders saw SACS' big announcement as a triumph, and a sign the county is working together and moving in the right direction. State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood) said Friday was "something I have anticipated, prayed about, thought about, and hoped for, for quite some time." He said members of the community must work together, with the school system to ensure the district does not fall back into the same pattern of behavior which led to the accreditation loss in the first place.

"We can not afford to stop here," Glanton cautioned. "We must continue to ask ourselves 'Are we moving in the right direction? This [re-accreditation] happened because of various elements who rallied around our children and our community."

Glanton said community members must work with the school system to help it become "operational" in the remaining three mandates, and the four new areas SACS officials said needed to be addressed over the next two years, including: working on the school system's vision, strategic plan, reviewing its organizational structure, and developing an action plan to address problems as they arise.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said several groups should be thanked for their efforts to restore the district's accreditation. However, he added that "the community has a great deal [more] to do." He thanked SACS for its efforts to "help get Clayton County back on track," teachers for continuing to focus on educating children, and the business community for "creating an atmosphere for re-investment."

State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), who served as a Clayton school board member for from 1993 to 2000, said she had made several personal telephone calls on behalf of Clayton County students applying to out-of-state universities. She said the school system's re-accreditation, however, ensures that students from Clayton will be considered as viable applicants.

"From my perspective ... it was unconscionable that educated adults, meaning SACS, would let the actions of the members of the school board affect the education of 53,000 students," Seay said. "SACS wanted 100 percent change, and we got 100 percent change. We, as voters, came out and did elect new board members. I think SACS took that into consideration."

Seay believes the new school board is "on the right track" and said the school system's Ethics Committee, in place since last year, would provide "another layer of oversight, so we can prohibit those kind of things from happening in the future."

State Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Morrow), believes the re-accreditation will "improve the public perception of the community. "We'll be able to demonstrate to the rest of the world what those of us in Clayton County already know ... that this is a great place to live, work, and play," Buckner said. "Our students can move forward with more confidence that doors will be opened to them, and they will be taken more seriously as potential employees, and as students at institutes of higher learning. I think we'll see students returning to the school system, and we'll be glad to see them come back."

U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said that accreditation represents "a huge blessing" and a chance to refocus the county's attention on improving secondary education.

"This county has been through so much and so many challenges ... we're very humbled by this, because so many people have worked hard for this day," Scott said. "The board of education should be proud of themselves because this was the first major hurdle we had to overcome. Now, we are coming out much stronger and more aware of the value of education. I think it's going to re-energize our county and get more people excited about living here, contributing here, and starting businesses here."

Scott said the reinstatement of accreditation will remove some of the "anxiety" felt in the community, which he believes will help the local economy and improve home values. "We will come out of this a much stronger community," he said. "We should take this big success here and marshal other successes out of it."

· Public safety reaction:

Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said that the county developed a negative image during the accreditation crisis. With accreditation restored, he believes young people will have more pride in the community. "The students were still getting a first-class education," Turner said, "however, perception is reality. The fact that we did get our accreditation is going to get people to view us in a positive light. When people have a sense of pride in themselves, their jobs, and where they live, that community will flourish.

"We always have been a school system of excellence in my opinion," he added. "Now that we have something that says we have our accreditation back, it will give the kids something to be proud of again ... and make them want to do better. Hopefully, now the parents and students, who took flight once they heard that the school system lost accreditation, will return to Clayton County. A lot of those people were some of our brightest students, as well as our most gifted athletes."

Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, believes Clayton County students will finally be "released" from a negative stigma "that they didn't even cause in the first place.

"This is a win-win, not only for the Clayton County school system, but a win for Clayton County, period," Kimbrough said. "I'm just glad that this is maybe the last major issue facing the county's future outlook, so we're back on the playing field ... back on the map."

· Business community reaction:

David Barton, president-elect of the Metro South Association of Realtors, said property values in Clayton County decreased during the accreditation crisis. However, he believes that property values are stabilizing, due, in part, to the stabilization of the school system.

"We have a new board, and it's showing it is functioning properly," Barton said. "The property values have decreased 20 to 30 percent, but we have stabilized in the last few months. There are more homes for sale in the $60,000s, and fewer in the $30,000s to $20,000s. We're probably seeing a 15 to 10 percent increase [in property values] in the last 60 days.

"I think people will see the value of what they have here, and know that every effort was made by the community to right the wrongs," he added. "This is a new era for Clayton County. We need to ensure that we show that things are the way it used to be."

Yulonda Beauford, president and CEO of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, said many families will be "able to move forward" with the school system's re-accreditation. She said the decision will make it easier to attract and retain businesses.

"By not having an accredited school system, it's difficult for [businesses] to consider us," Beauford said. "If a business is looking to locate here and they are looking out for their employees, that is one of the top things they look for.

"From an economic development standpoint, [re-accreditation] puts Clayton County back on the radar screen," she continued. "It also will help us keep some of those businesses that we already have here. I truly believe that metro Atlanta, the state of Georgia, and others who have been looking at us will look at us in a better light."

Beauford said that in order for the school system to maintain its accreditation, the community will have to make a collective effort to keep things on track.

"We must continue to work together, because, right now, we are only on a probationary status," she said. "Our school board was applauded today for working together as a functioning school board. We must continue to demonstrate to SACS that we can work together and make decisions."

-- Staff writers Curt Yeomans, Maria Jose Subiria and Linda Looney-Bond contributed to this article.