“How can I in good conscience send my child to a school that didn’t even cheat right?”
The question from Shelby McDonald has surely been asked by many an Atlanta parent since rampant cheating on standardized tests was uncovered in the city’s public schools. Only rhetorically, of course, because the answer is: You can’t.
Unlike many of those parents, however, McDonald found a way out: a public charter school approved in 2009 by a state commission. That commission closed after a 2011 court ruling declared it unconstitutional, but it would be re-created if voters approve Amendment One in next month’s election.
“I did everything right. I looked at every [school’s] test score between here and what was driveable,” says McDonald, a widowed mother of one whose parents had pledged to drive her daughter as far as Macon each day if that’s what it took. She tried one charter-school lottery and lost. As a single mother, private school was out of the question.
“I did what I was supposed to do,” she says. “And what did I find out [about the local schools]? Y’all cheated!”
Cheating wasn’t an issue at the elementary school Rich Thompson’s daughter used to attend — at least, he didn’t think it was. But low expectations were.
Thompson was the PTA president at Deerwood Academy in southwest Atlanta when, one spring, he realized things weren’t as good as they seemed.
“We had the normal end-of-the-year Awards Day program,” Thompson recalls. “Pretty much every grade level walked across the stage, and every kid got some kind of a certificate or ribbon or trophy. The principal was patting them on the back, saying what a great job they did.”
Within a few days, however, Thompson came across the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s 2009 “Report Card for Parents,” which ranks the state’s public schools according to their test scores. Deerwood Academy’s third-graders ranked 940th out of 1,208 schools statewide. Its fifth-graders were 470th out of 1,201.
“I just got livid,” Thompson recalls. “How in the hell can everybody be so happy with our performance when one grade level is in the 900s and one is in the 400s compared with the other schools in the state? …
“There just wasn’t any interest in doing anything beyond getting the public recognition we were getting. And it just wasn’t enough for me.” His daughter now attends an independent, start-up charter school.
It wasn’t long before that public recognition proved even more hollow: Deerwood was one of the first schools implicated in the APS cheating scandal. “It was just a big sham,” Thompson says of all the certificates, ribbons and trophies.
Accolades for his son at a south Fulton school also seemed suspect to Gavin Samms.
“His teacher said, ‘He’s so wonderful. He’s so quiet,’ ” Samms recalls. “But I said, ‘He isn’t learning anything.’ “
His son, Samms says, “kept coming home with the same worksheets of things I taught him two years before.” No one at the school was interested in giving the boy more challenging work, he says.
Samms didn’t just look for another school. He started one: Fulton Leadership Academy, which the erstwhile state commission approved in 2009. Despite its focus on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) and test scores that last year beat both state standards and south Fulton schools’ averages, the Fulton school board denied FLA’s application to keep its charter. The state granted it under provisional authority that is highly questionable in light of the 2011 court ruling.
“They [the Fulton board] said we’re not ‘unique,’ ” Samms says. “It’s an all-boys school. We have STEM, we have an aviation focus. … You must see African-American boys in planes every day, because apparently we’re not unique enough.”
A note to those who think Amendment One is designed to pave the way for a modern white flight from Georgia’s public schools: Like Samms, McDonald and Thompson are black. Charter schools have a higher percentage of minorities or low-income students than traditional public schools, according to the Georgia Charter Schools Association.
They’re also more likely to serve them better, to hear these parents tell it.
– By Kyle Wingfield