Ex-Atlanta schools leader fighting for legacy
ATLANTA (AP) — When Beverly Hall first arrived in Atlanta as superintendent of the city’s public school system, she cautioned she wouldn’t be riding in on a white horse and that it would take time to fix the problems of low student performance.
But test scores dramatically improved during her 12-year tenure in the mostly poor, urban district, earning her bonuses and accolades as the nation’s top superintendent. Now she’s fighting to clear her name after she and nearly three dozen subordinates were indicted in what prosecutors say was a broad conspiracy to achieve those results by cheating.
“Her legacy is gone, it’s destroyed,” said Jerome Harris, Hall’s friend and former boss when the two worked together in Brooklyn, N.Y. “The job, they’ve taken that away, but that’s not important. She’s not looking for a job. She’s fighting for her name.”
Tuesday was the deadline for Hall and the other 34 educators indicted last week to surrender to authorities, but only 10 had done so by late afternoon. Hall was not among them.
Harris, who has known Hall for three decades, was outside the jail Tuesday among a group criticizing the high bond amounts for the indicted teachers, principals, administrators and other employees. Hall’s bond was initially recommended at $7.5 million, though it was later set at $200,000, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
Harris recalled asking Hall to take over as principal of a troubled elementary school in Brooklyn. She cried, he said, because she didn’t want to leave her beloved students at the magnet school where she had been assigned at the time.
“People don’t have integrity like that,” said Harris, who was then superintendent of Brooklyn Community School District 13. “I honestly believe Dr. Hall wouldn’t tolerate cheating. She has that integrity. She wouldn’t tolerate it.”
Hall garnered a reputation as a fixer who could turn things around. After beginning her career as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn in 1970, Hall worked her way up to the No. 2 position in the New York city schools system.
In 1995, Hall was called in to take over as superintendent of the Newark, N.J., school district, which had been seized by the state because of low test scores, questionable spending practices and high dropout rates.
Almost immediately, she set about cleaning up school buildings, even declaring a health and safety emergency to speed up repairs in time for fall classes.
She criticized the old school board for losing its way and making it difficult for educators to concentrate on what was important — something Hall’s supporters say happened to her years later in Atlanta.
“Somewhere along the way, this system focused more on the adults than on the children,” Hall said in September 1995, during her time in Newark.
In Newark, Hall made changes that drew the ire of some employees and others in the community. Within a year, nearly a quarter of the district’s 82 schools had new principals and hundreds of workers were laid off, including custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Hall said the cuts were designed to free up money for more teachers and funding for full-day kindergarten, but critics complained she should have sought more input before making the decisions.
It was her work raising student attendance and modest test gains in Newark that made her an attractive candidate for Atlanta, and she was hired in 1999. From the beginning, her salary included a big financial incentive — 30 percent of her annual salary — for meeting certain performance objectives that included test scores and attendance.
Her contract was renewed a few years later, and Hall was credited with making sweeping changes to the system’s academic and business operations.
In recent years, however, her achievements crumbled. A state audit suggested tests were altered, and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue said “any reasonable person can see that cheating occurred and children were harmed.” Detractors criticized her use of a driver who shuttled her around the district, while others said she was unapproachable and ignored cheating allegations.
District officials challenged the audit and defended the district’s dramatic turnaround, saying there was no concrete evidence of cheating.
“There is a wanting to believe sometimes that poor minority children cannot achieve at high levels,” Hall told reporters at the time. “When you begin to see the kind of change we’ve seen in Atlanta Public Schools, you have to constantly prove the progress is real.”
Further investigations revealed more anomalies in test scores, and calls for Hall’s resignation mounted. A 2011 state investigative report said administrators under pressure to maintain high scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law created a culture of “fear, intimidation and retaliation.” Hall resigned that year.
Hall has consistently denied being involved in or having knowledge of any cheating. However, after the state’s investigation was made public, she said: “If I did anything that gave teachers the impression that I was unapproachable and unresponsive to their concerns, I also apologize for that.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, a longtime Hall supporter, wrote in a blog posting Tuesday that people should wait to pass judgment on Hall and others until they have their day in court.
“Yes cheating is awful,” Franklin wrote. “And so is conviction before a fair trial.”
Harris, who spoke with Hall a few days ago, said he worries about the long road ahead for his friend. He sighed as he gestured toward the tall, imposing walls of the Fulton County Jail.
“This will almost kill her,” Harris said.