By Curt Yeomans
Seniors graduating from Clayton County's eight high schools will receive diplomas from a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-accredited school system at ceremonies scheduled to be held later this month, officials from the accrediting agency announced Friday.
SACS President Mark Elgart said Clayton County Schools, which lost its accreditation last year largely because of a "dysfunctional" school board, will retroactively regain the agency's seal of approval - on a two-year probationary basis. Elgart said SACS' parent organization, the 40-member AdvancED Accreditation commission, voted unanimously by teleconference Wednesday to place the district on probation.
"Congratulations to the system, but with that [decision] came, and does come, many expectations that must be filled in the coming weeks, months and years," Elgart said. "Probation is our most severe sanction [without losing accreditation], which recognizes that there are significant challenges that must be addressed in a comprehensive and timely manner over the next two years."
Throughout the next two years, the school system will undergo a series of SACS reviews every six months, so the accrediting agency can make sure it remains on the right track. Elgart said the school system could lose its accreditation again, if a SACS review team returns at any time during the next two years, and finds the district is slipping backwards.
Three of SACS' original nine mandates for improving the school system still must be completed, while four new areas were added, Elgart said. He explained the remaining mandates are: Enacting and committing to a strong ethics policy; implementing all of the recommendations included in a forensic audit of the district's finances, and hiring a permanent superintendent.
SACS' review team listed the board as "emerging" in each of those areas, based on a four-stage scale that ranged from "not evident," to "highly functional," according to a report from the agency. The review team reported the district was "operational" - the second-highest stage on the scale - on the other six mandates.
While the school system works to complete the remaining mandates, however, it must also conduct a comprehensive revision of its vision, mission and values; "implement immediately" a thorough strategic planning process which includes stakeholder input; review the district's organizational structure, and establish an action plan for dealing with problems and conflicts between board members and school system staff.
"Evidence exists that the rebuilding process for the Clayton County Public Schools is underway," the review team wrote in the report. "The newly elected Board of Education is committed to establishing a new culture and direction for the school system. Effective governance is a significant key to any rebuilding process for a school system.
"Although the rebuilding process will take time, the initial accomplishments provide a sense of hope for the future," according to the report.
School system pledges to continue work
Clayton Schools Interim Superintendent Valya Lee, and school board Chairperson Alieka Anderson, held a press conference after SACS made its announcement, to thank parents, business leaders, local legislators, and county officials for supporting the district throughout the "perilous time" when it was unaccredited.
"This is truly one of the most pre-eminent days of our lives," Anderson said. "For the past eight months, the Clayton County Board of Education has worked diligently to achieve accreditation for the children of Clayton County.
"This board of education is dedicated to the mandate[s] set forth by the SACS committee, and will make every effort to make sure that the students of Clayton County Public Schools receive a quality education that will afford our students an opportunity to compete with students all across the world," Anderson said.
Lee said the school system has been "scrutinized, evaluated, and analyzed more than any other school system in America," over the last few months, but Clayton County is now a "much improved and transparent school system."
"The probation, in and of itself, lends to the impetus that we must continue to do a little bit more work in the school system," Lee said. "This decision means that our parents can send their children to school tomorrow confident that they will receive an exemplary education in a safe, orderly, structured and accredited environment."
The interim superintendent also pleaded with parents of the 3,200 students who have left the district since it lost its accreditation to consider a return to the school system so they can help it rebuild.
"And to the parents who made the difficult decision to remove your students from Clayton County during this difficult time, I say to you, bring our children home!"
Observers offer advice
Former Clayton County Board of Education Chairperson Ericka Davis said she is "really proud" of the current school board members - particularly Anderson - for working together on regaining the accreditation. Davis was on the school board in 2003, when the district was put on probation for governance issues, and remained on the board until a few months before the accreditation was revoked last year.
She said the task of moving forward during a period of probation can simultaneously be easy and difficult to deal with. When the school system was placed on probation in 2003, it took two years to regain full accreditation. She said the key, now, will be how well the board works as a team.
"If they can show that, then I don't think it will take two years to get the accreditation back," Davis said.
Clayton County Council of PTA's President Cyd Cox said one key to moving forward will be who occupies the superintendent position. Cox said the school system's next superintendent is gong to have to be someone who can work with the board, build on what the school system already has in place, and bring in new ideas on curriculum and teaching.
"Parents aren't just worried about what the school board does, they are also concerned about the quality of education their children are receiving," Cox said.
State Board of Education Member Brad Bryant said the district's next superintendent is "going to have to be absolutely the right fit" for Clayton County.
State Board of Education Member James Bostic said, "It has to be someone who has experience at being a superintendent, not just a person who has been a superintendent for two months."
Bostic and Bryant both served as liaisons between Gov. Sonny Perdue and the school system for the last year.
Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman said teachers he heard from on Friday were happy to hear the news about the school system's re-accreditation, but all eyes remain on the board as educators look to see if the district will continue to improve during the probationary period.
"No. 1, the board is going to have to continue operating in a professional manner, and not become divided again," Chapman said.
Former Superintendent John Thompson, who was fired in March by the school board the day after he sent the district's final accreditation progress report to SACS, had little to say about the school system's re-accredited status. Thompson was hired by members of the former school board in April 2008 to turn the school system around, and to prevent a loss of accreditation.
After months of Thompson proclaiming the district had met all of its mandates for keeping accreditation, though, SACS officials in August said the school system met only one mandate. The district lost its accreditation as a result. Afterward, Thompson began working with SACS officials on a plan to get the accreditation re-instated before the graduation ceremonies take place at the end of this month.
"I congratulate them, and wish them luck," Thompson said Friday. "They are in my prayers." He declined further comment.
State officials pledge support
In a written statement, Perdue said the re-accreditation of Clayton County schools was "a huge step in the right direction" for the district. He also stressed, however, more work needs to be done to prevent future accreditation losses for not just Clayton County Public Schools, but other school systems across the state.
Perdue said he will continue pushing the Georgia General Assembly next year to pass a comprehensive school board reform bill that is aimed at curtailing the type of behavior that led to Clayton County's loss of accreditation. The bill, known as Senate Bill 84, was passed by the state Senate this year, but it stalled in the House.
"SACS' decision [Friday] shows the progress that can be made when a community rallies around its schools and holds their elected officials accountable," Perdue said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this progress came only after students were forced to suffer the consequences of adults behaving irresponsibly."
State School Superintendent Kathy Cox said the Georgia Department of Education will also offer assistance to the school system to make sure it stays on track. Last December, she told Clayton school board members, during a training retreat in Peachtree City, to build trust in each other so they can more effectively govern the district.
"I know that reaching this point took a lot of collaboration and focus, and that hard work must carry on if the district is going to continue to improve its governance and operations," she said. "We stand ready to help in whatever way we are able."
- Staff writer Linda Looney-Bond contributed to this article.