BREAKING NEWS -- SACS lifts accreditation probation for Clayton Schools

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

The last vestiges of Clayton County's long accreditation struggle were swept away Friday. AdvancED, the parent organization of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), announced it is removing the probationary status from the district's accreditation.

The agency first began raising questions about the school system in November 2007, and through a later investigation, determined the district was being run by a "dysfunctional" school board. The system lost its accreditation in 2008, after failing to meet eight of nine mandates that the accrediting agency had issued earlier that year. The mandates ranged from establishing a fully functioning school board, to removing outside influences, to conducting forensic audits of financial and student attendance records.

The system then regained accreditation on a two-year, probationary status in May 2009, after making some progress on the mandates. It has spent the last two years undergoing visits by a SACS review team every six months to ensure further progress was being made, but the agency's leader said the district has now done everything it has been asked to do over the last three years.

"Lifting probation means that the school system has fully completed the nine mandates and other requirements related to the loss of accreditation," said AdvancED President Mark Elgart, in an e-mailed statement.

The lifting of the probationary status means the district is fully accredited for the next five years, and will not have to undergo another review by SACS and AdvancED until 2016, according to a statement from the accrediting agency.

Elgart said that the school system, at this point, is "stable, focused, and prepared to continue the endless journey of improving student learning." He also said the "current stability in the system has, and will, continue to help the system continue its journey of continuous improvement."

The review team that made the recommendation for lifting the probation, praised the school board for engaging in "focused decision-making with specific attention to policy-making," and identifying professional development needs "through the use of a self-assessment exercise and community surveys."

Through the school board's actions, the review team wrote, the district was able to successfully demonstrate that it was in full compliance with SACS/AdvancED standards.

School Board Chairperson Pam Adamson said she and Superintendent Edmond Heatley, along with several school board members and top district officials were caught off guard, on Friday, when they found out a final decision had been reached on the probation. She said district officials were not expecting AdvancED to have a final decision until sometime in June.

"We were sitting in the room [at AdvancED's headquarters in Alpharetta], when Dr. Elgart walked in, and he said to us, 'I don't want to prolong the suspense anymore, you are off probation,'" Adamson said. "We were totally shocked, because we weren't expecting them to make a decision this soon."

Adamson said she was "extremely proud" of the board for taking the steps necessary to finally end the district's accreditation trauma. In the midst of the crisis in 2008, the board ended up having to be completely reconstituted, after members of the so-called "old board" resigned, or were forcibly removed from office.

"Everybody who's on the board right now came on board during all of this mess," Adamson said. "Everybody ran to try to get that accreditation back, so I'm extremely proud of the work that we've accomplished."

She added that Kay Sledge, the district's fine arts director and accreditation czar, was also instrumental in making sure the school system did what it needed to do to get off probation.

"You have to have someone who handles everything, and makes sure all of the reports [to SACS] get written, and who reads the report to make sure it's right, and then, gathers all of the evidence that you plan to present to SACS ... and she's the person who did that for us," Adamson said.

Sledge could not be reached for comment on Friday. School System Spokesman Charles White said that on top of receiving good news about the district's accreditation, Sledge also welcomed a new grandchild into the world on the same day.

Elgart said he, and others in the education community, are proud of the work the district has accomplished over the last two years, but added that it is the people in the county who should be most proud of that work.

After the announcement, there was rejoicing around the county. In a written statement, Heatley called the move a "total win" for the county that can help move forward efforts to rejuvenate the quality of life in the community.

"Parents, elected officials, business leaders -- the whole community can take pride in this accomplishment," he said. "Every step of the way, we were united in our focus on what was in the best interests of our students."

Melody Totten, president of the Clayton County Council of PTAs (Parent-Teacher Associations), said she was elated. "I have a daughter that's about to graduate from high school, and I have a son that's about to enter high school, and now, I don't have to worry anymore about him graduating from an accredited school system," she said. "It's so profound that I just don't know how to explain it."

Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman said he was happy to hear the news, calling the probation a "shadow" that hung over teachers for the last two years. "Now, that we're off probation, it's a great day for Clayton County," he said.

Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beauford e-mailed members of the chamber's board of directors. "This is fantastic news, and our congratulations to Dr. Heatley, district administration and staff, Board of Education and the community, for all the work that has been done to make this a reality," Beauford wrote in the e-mail.

Later, Beauford said the chamber is partnering with the school system, and other community organizations, to plan a community celebration to mark the end of the accreditation battle.

Adamson said she sees the lifting of probation as the impetus for improved economic development in Clayton County. The reputation of the school system, which was tarnished by years of leadership instability and multiple run-ins with SACS, is one of the reasons people cite as why economic development has been sluggish in the county.

"This is a boost for the economic health of our county, for the school system to finally be off probation," Adamson said. "We should see our property values start going back up, because of this. It means people can come back to our county ... It'll take awhile, but I believe things will get better now."

Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott said the quality of a local school system, among other quality-of-life factors, "really does matter" to companies, and the accreditation crisis presented a "public relations challenge" for his department. "Education ... is one of the top factors that companies look at when trying to decide whether to locate, or relocate, to a community," he said.

Now that the district is fully accredited, however, the focus turns toward making sure the types of actions that led to the accreditation loss do not happen again. There are still problems to solve. Adamson said three Clayton County schools, and a school system agency, have been placed on "accreditation on advisement," because of some lingering issues. She said those inclulde: Kilpatrick Elementary School, Forest Park High School and WORKTEC.

A SACS official said "advisement" is just one step below being fully accredited, and "generally means there are some outstanding issues that need to be addressed." Adamson said SACS is offering support to the schools and the agency.

Elgart said the district must "remain focused and determined to improve the teaching and learning process for students. Healthy and effective school systems always believe, and commit, to being better tomorrow than they were yesterday."

Adamson said the mandates for improvement that came with the crisis, can still be used by the board as its figurative North Stars. "We still need to operate with integrity, [and] we still need to do all of our contracts and policies with integrity," she said. "Those nine mandates, and those four recommendations are still good principles for us to follow."

Totten said parents also need to do their part, to make sure the district stays on track, by not shirking off their responsibility as stakeholders. She said parents not being involved is what helped lead to the crisis in the first place.

"If you're not involved [in the schools], then you need to get involved," she said. "If you're already involved, then you need to stay involved. You can not fly by the seat of your pants, and let somebody else handle it. You've got to get involved."

But, for now, as Chapman said, "Happy days are here again!"