Education

Georgia's Clayton County Schools Lose Accreditation

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The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked accreditation for the Clayton County School District south of Atlanta. This is only the second time in 40 years that an entire district has lost accreditation. That means the district's 50,000 students might not be able to qualify for scholarships or attend the college they've chosen.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

A big school district south of Atlanta has lost its accreditation. That can sound like an abstract move by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, known as SACS. But this is only the second time in 40 years this action has been taken against an entire school district, and it means that kids might not be able to qualify for scholarships or attend the college they've chosen.

It affects the Clayton County Schools, a district of about 50,000 students. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: The accrediting agency issued a report in February that outlined major problems with the Clayton County district. They had nothing to do with academics. Instead, the agency focused on a dysfunctional school board, ethics complaints, and violations of the state's open meeting law.

It gave the district until September 1st to get back on track, but Dr. Mark Elgard(ph) says Clayton County only fully met one of the nine mandates, and the school board has continued to struggle.

MARK ELGARD: I think the evidence will show that board members, when they had disagreements, a lot of those disagreements ended up being personal, not professional, and that they worked to discredit one another throughout their activities as board members both in and outside of board meetings.

LOHR: Dr. Elgard says the board bears a significant responsibility for SACS's decision to revoke accreditation. He says the district had good intentions but did not have the results it needed. Superintendent Dr. John Thompson called it a sad day for the district, the community and the state.

JOHN THOMPSON: I was devastated. I was devastated to no end. I just kept thinking about 53,000 kids being thrown under the bus over the fact some adults didn't do what they were supposed to do; (unintelligible) supposed to do. So that's all I kept thinking about: how could you do this to these children?

LOHR: Dr. Thompson promised the district would appeal SACS's decision and work to regain accreditation at the same time. It was clear many here in this district, including the superintendent, were not expecting the decision, and they had trouble understanding how their efforts had failed.

THOMPSON: It's about a whole community, a whole community, 250-some-thousand people that have to have education as an economical base. This whole thing has affected everyone - homeowners, you know, businesspeople.

LOHR: Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue also stepped in yesterday and removed four school board members from office because, he said, they violated their duties under state law. In a prepared statement, the governor said he hoped the board, parents and teachers will treat the loss of accreditation as a wakeup call.

At a public meeting last night in Jonesboro, hundreds of parents showed up to talk to Superintendent Thompson and to be heard, including Tabitha Floyd.

TABITHA FLOYD: Today my emotions, and I think most of the people in this room and in the county, it's pretty much the equivalent of being at a funeral. It's a very, very dark day for us. And what bothers me the most: why is it that we didn't know. We actually really thought that the maximum penalty we would've gotten would've been suspension, but for them to - I had to leave my job today I was so upset. I couldn't even say a word.

LOHR: The superintendent tried to reassure Floyd. He asked parents not to pull their kids out of school, to trust that the district is turning around. But Melissa Vargas, who said she had two kids in the schools, wanted more concrete evidence.

MELISSA VARGAS: You're asking us to trust and to leave our kids in your school. How can we trust and leave your kids in the school? We already did that, and none of us thought today that we would lose accreditation.

LOHR: Many parents here were not satisfied with the answers they got. Some say the district has no backup plan if it fails to regain accreditation. And that leaves kids wondering about their college admissions. Clayton County has already lost 2,000 students in the first two weeks of the school year, and there's no telling how many more parents will decide to leave.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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