Monthly Archives: December 2013

Francis Mack, Sheridan Rogers, Tameka Goodson

Two former testing coordinators and a school improvement specialist are scheduled to plead guilty Friday in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal.

These pleas will bring to 11 the number of educators who have admitted to wrongdoing in the massive case.

Those about to plead guilty Friday: former testing coordinator Francis Mack from D.H. Stanton Elementary School and Sheridan Rogers, who served as testing coordinator at Gideons Elementary; and school improvement specialist Tameka Goodson of Kennedy Middle School.

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Armstead Salters – Pleads Guilty

A career educator Thursday became the first principal to plead guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal and the first defendant to be convicted of a felony.

Armstead Salters, who oversaw C.L. Gideons Elementary School for three decades, admitted he directed his teachers to change wrong answers on standardized tests to right ones.

It was an “open secret” throughout APS that cheating was going on at Gideons for years, Fulton County prosecutor Clint Rucker said during the court hearing. Even so, Gideons “received constant praise and accolades” from top APS administrators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who also is charged in the case, Rucker said.

Shortly after Salters entered his plea, the third former teacher from Humphries Elementary School also pleaded guilty. Eight APS defendants now stand convicted. The 26 who remain are scheduled to go to trial next spring unless more enter pleas before then.

Salters, 74, began his teaching career in 1966 as a high school science teacher. In 1981, he was promoted to be Gideons’ principal, a position he held until 2010.

The pressure to meet testing targets was “excessive and extreme,” Salters said in a letter of apology, a condition placed on him by prosecutors as part of his plea. It was unrelenting and “created a toxic culture throughout APS where all that mattered was test scores, even if ill-gotten,” Salters’ plea agreement said.

“I placed the concern of the school administration for test results and test scores above the interests of the children,” he said.

Salters disclosed to prosecutors how he coordinated test cheating and explained why he did it. Gideons, located in southwest Atlanta, had a challenging, transient student population after nearby housing projects closed down in the early 2000s. Its students performed slightly below average in reading, language arts and math.

Salters’ plea agreement said he knew that Hall, after becoming superintendent, began firing teachers whose schools did not meet desired results. The superintendent “publicly boasted about this fact on many occasions,” only increasing the pressure to make sure his school did well, the plea agreement said.

Test tampering began occurring at Gideons as early as 2005 and continued until 2009, Salters told prosecutors. This was possible because the school’s testing coordinator, Sheridan Rogers, another defendant in the case, gave teachers access to their students’ tests so they could correct wrong answers, Salters said.

The former principal said he told teachers to go see Rogers and admitted that he told Rogers, “Let them have the tests.”

Salters agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and is expected to testify against Rogers at the upcoming trial.

Salters pleaded guilty to a single felony count of making false statements and writings. This was because he signed and then submitted the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests taken by his students and gave assurances there had been no ethical breaches in the testing procedure.

Salters was sentenced to two years on probation and ordered to complete 1,000 hours of community service. He also agreed to return $2,000 in bonuses he received.

Wendy Ahmed, a former Humphries Elementary teacher, followed Salters to the courtroom podium. She admitted to telling her students the correct answers while they took the 2009 CRCT.

Ahmed pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction. She was sentenced to a year on probation and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service and return $500 in bonus money.

Standing before Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, Ahmed said she could not find the words to express her shame.

“I made poor decisions that did more harm than good to my students,” Ahmed said, her voice trembling. “I took so much pride in teaching the children of Atlanta, yet I allowed the fear of administrators to alter my beliefs and values.”

Baxter has ordered lawyers representing the remaining APS defendants to appear before him Friday to see whether they have checked in with prosecutors to determine what deals are being offered.

Gerald Griggs, an attorney who represents former Dobbs Elementary teacher Angela Williamson, said his client will fight the charges at trial.

“It’s a sad day in Atlanta to hear the punishments that are being handed out now to individuals who accepted responsibility for a systemic issue,” said Griggs, who observed Thursday’s pleas. “The one constant is the pressure all these teachers faced. Once the trial is underway, we will truly know the scope of that pressure.”

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Atlanta students outperform urban districts in national report card

Atlanta students made the biggest improvements in fourth grade reading and eighth grade math compared to nine other urban school systems over the last 10 years, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress test results released Wednesday.

Atlanta Public Schools tied with Los Angeles for making the greatest gains among those cities in eighth grade reading, and it was second only to Washington, D.C., in raising fourth grade math scores.

Superintendent Erroll Davis said the increase in NAEP scores reflects Atlanta Public Schools’ focus on academic standards, teacher collaboration and professional development.

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New Atlanta school leaders

Georgia Politics Pundit

Now that Atlanta voters have replaced six of their nine elected education leaders, a daunting public school turnaround effort will begin.

The new school board is out to prove that this election made a difference, that change is possible in the struggling school district, that students in an urban education system can make big academic improvements.

They’ve seen the city school system damaged by scandal and squabbles, and say they’re looking forward to a new era of collaboration to benefit the 49,000 students they serve.

The rookie board members hit the ground running Wednesday by receiving training on how to be effective in their new jobs — skills they’ll need to take on the enormous task of raising the city’s 51 percent graduation rate and boosting academic results that trail every other school system in the metro area.

“The new board will work together much more than the last board,” said Jason Esteves, an attorney and former middle school social studies teacher who won his runoff for a citywide seat Tuesday. “With six new members, I think there will be a sense of confidence in the community. People will have a clear picture of what our vision is.”

With four representatives who are former teachers under 40 years old, the incoming board gains educational experience and energy while losing some of the knowledge of members who had sat on the school board for years.

When the new board is sworn in Jan. 6, even the most senior board members will have held their positions for only four years.

Making up the young crowd are Esteves, the school board’s first Hispanic member; Eshé Collins, an attorney and program director at Georgia State University; Matt Westmoreland, a history teacher at Carver Early College; and Courtney English, a strategy and development consultant. All four got their start in education through the Teach for America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities.

“I don’t necessarily think that age is a determining factor of experience. Older folks become entrenched in old ideas. They become part of the bureaucracy,” English said. “This is an opportunity for a fresh start.”

During their training Wednesday, the Georgia School Boards Association taught them about ethics, education laws, running effective meetings and how to set policies without interfering with the administrative job of the superintendent. One of their essential goals, according to state law, is to maintain accreditation for the benefit of the city’s students.

While they’re a diverse bunch, school board members said Wednesday their priority is to work as a team from the start.

“Before we can lead, we as a group need to develop a sense of collaboration,” Collins said.

Once they take office next month, the board members will have to make a series of critical decisions setting the course for the future of education in Atlanta.

They’ll pick a superintendent to replace Erroll Davis, who is retiring early next year. They’ll try to find ways to give school principals more authority, freeing them from mandates handed down from administrators in Atlanta Public Schools’ downtown headquarters. They’ll work to avoid high school dropouts, get parents involved and offer a more challenging curriculum.

“One of the reasons many of us ran for school board was to put behind us the divisiveness and infighting of the past,” said Cynthia Briscoe Brown, an attorney who defeated board Chairman Reuben McDaniel on Tuesday. “Everyone in this group is committed not to always agreeing with one another, but to listening and learning from each other and working together without political agendas.”

The school system is still recovering from a series of controversies: the nation’s largest cheating scandal, an accreditation crisis and a painful redistricting process that resulted in several school closings.

“The new board is fully aware that those wounds exist and is aware of the strained relationships that led to them,” Westmoreland said. “You’re going to see a concerted effort on our part to work as cooperatively with one another as possible to make sure issues like that don’t ever come up again.”

Although four board members graduated from the Teach for America program, that doesn’t mean they have an agenda to promote charter schools, Esteves said. About 1 in 12 Atlanta students are enrolled in independently managed charter schools, raising concerns from some parents that their growth comes at the expense of traditional schools.

“People shouldn’t be concerned that there will be some radical change or that there’s a conspiracy theory of privatization,” he said. “You’ll find the opposite: We’re invested in making sure our traditional schools are among the best in the state and country.”

Atlanta Board of Education runoff results

District 5

Steven Lee, 1,883 votes, 59 percent

Mary Palmer 1,285 votes, 41 percent

District 6

Eshe Collins, 1,368 votes, 59 percent

Dell Byrd, 948 votes, 41 percent

District 8 At-Large

Cynthia Briscoe Brown 9,885 votes, 66 percent

Reuben McDaniel, 5,125 votes, 34 percent

District 9 At-Large

Jason Esteves, 10,474 votes, 71 percent

Lori James, 4,183 votes, 29 percent

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