A Crisis for a Georgia School District

For the second time in five years, the school district in Georgia's Clayton County is on probation. The district faces a loss of accreditation that could mean next year's seniors will find trouble getting into college.

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For about 52,000 students in Clayton County, Georgia, it will be a summer of uncertainty. The school district in this Atlanta suburb has been put on probation. It could lose its accreditation.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on what that might mean for the students.

KATHY LOHR: This weekend several thousand seniors graduate from Clayton County schools and they'll be okay. The district is still accredited, but not necessarily this year's juniors. A group who attend Marrow(ph) High in Jonesboro, Georgia have been meeting for weeks to make sure other kids are aware of what's going on.

Ms. MEGAN JACKSON(ph): Because at first, when it on the news, everybody thought, oh yeah, we're going to fight this, and all the parents were all riled up. But now...

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: #2: Everybody forgot about it.

Ms. JACKSON: Exactly.

LOHR: Megan Jackson, an A student, is one of half a dozen juniors sitting in a circle trying to figure out how they can focus other kid's attention on the accreditation issue at the end of the school year. They've planned a pool party and a rally at the capitol next month. And they worry about next year.

Ms. JACKSON: It mainly affects on my college choice.

LOHR: The governor recently signed a bill to allow these students to qualify for Georgia's HOPE Scholarship Program, which helps them attend a state college even if the worst happens. But kids, like Megan Jackson, who want to go elsewhere, could be out of luck.

Ms. JACKSON: I never thought that something like this could happen to me or to any of my friends because of all the hard work that we've done. Sometimes, I wake up and I'm faced with this issue and it's, like, what can I do?

LOHR: The problems in Clayton County are not about academics. There are allegations against the school board and administrators of mismanagement, questionable accounting practices and ethics violations. In February, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, known as SACS, put the district on probation and listed nine areas that must be improved. That angered just about everyone. Akila Williams(ph) was one of thousands who showed up to protest the board's behavior.

Ms. AKILA WILLIAMS: Now, it is time for you to step down. As concerned and angry student, I don't' like people messing with my family, my funds or my future. And, I think, for me, you all have done all three.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LOHR: The district was on probation in 2003 but turned things around back then. Dr. Mark Elgar(ph) with SACS says the problems here are systemic.

Dr. MARK ELGART: (CEO and President, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) You cannot just focus on a few people and think you're going to fix this school system. This school system and community have to redefine what it believes in, what it expects its schools to do each and every day. And, in essence, it has to start over.

LOHR: SACS says the school board is dysfunctional. The issues involve open-meetings violations, conflicts of interest and lots of bickering. One of the SACS' recommendations was that the district hire a permanent superintendent. And last month, John Thompson(ph) took over.

Mr. JOHN THOMPSON (Superintendent, Clayton County, Georgia): I let them all know that the children are going to come first. We have to make sure that we take care of our boys and girls.

LOHR: Thompson was superintendent in North Carolina, Tulsa and Pittsburgh and came out of retirement for this job.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's the entire responsibility of the community. And we have to work together with one focus, one vision, to turn this piece around.

LOHR: The district has until September to show what it's done to retain accreditation. But, Thompson has set his own deadline, to meet the nine mandates by July 15th. That coincides with an election to replace the school board. But for students, it's about the basics.

Mr. MARCHEL SMITH(ph): I know people are not coming back tomorrow for sure.

LOHR: Sixteen-year-old Marcel Smith is head of the student group at Marrow(ph) High and a basketball player. He says two of his good friends have already transferred out of the district. Smith doesn't want to leave. He takes a deep breath before telling me he could move in with his grandmother in a neighboring county and finish high school there.

Mr. SMITH: So, you're always got to think what if. Because you also got to look at, okay, if you're doing all this hard work, it's nice and is good that is showing. But, like, what if this still doesn't happen your way.

LOHR: Marcel's mom, Vicky Smith(ph), is frustrated. But, she doesn't want to think about leaving the district.

Ms. VICKY SMITH: I want what's best for my child too. I want what's best to my community and running from the issues is not the answer for me. So I will stay here until - how do you say until the fat lady sings? And then I'll make a decision.

LOHR: If Clayton County doesn't meet the standard, it would be the first time in nearly 40 years that SACS revoked accreditation for an entire district. More than 30 candidates have declared their interest in running for the school board this summer. And thousands of students are holding their breath while officials sort things out.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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