DORIE TURNER, Associated Press
ATLANTA — Atlanta Public Schools is keeping its accreditation with a national agency, a victory for a district that has been plagued by the country's largest test cheating scandal, board members announced Tuesday.
The 50,000-student district has been taken off probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and has been placed on "accreditation with advisement" — one step below full accreditation — for the next year, school board chairwoman Brenda Muhammad said. A team that visited the district in September found "significant progress" toward meeting a list of goals from SACS, according to a report from the suburban Atlanta-based accrediting agency.
"Quite frankly we are so excited today that we can hardly stand here," Muhammad said during a press conference flanked by board members and interim Superintendent Erroll Davis. "This is another indication that Atlanta Public Schools is moving forward."
SACS put Atlanta on probation in January because of its squabbling, ineffective school board and threatened to pull accreditation entirely if the board didn't get its act together. SACS accredits Atlanta's high schools.
In response, the board elected new leadership and worked to heal rifts, appointing Davis to replace retiring Superintendent Beverly Hall.
Just as it seemed the board had brought order back to the district, state investigators revealed evidence in July of widespread cheating in nearly half of the district's 100 schools dating back to 2001. The scandal could have ripped the board apart again, but instead board members worked with Davis to reorganize central office staff and fire administrators linked to the cheating.
The board also supported Davis as he moved to fire the 178 educators named in the state report, saying they would never teach in an Atlanta school again. It's that stability amid turmoil that Muhammad said helped convince SACS that the board was no longer ineffective.
"They have taken seriously the improvements needed to govern effectively and their importance in leading a school system," said Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, parent company of the accrediting agency. "The board of education and superintendent have shown leadership in moving Atlanta Public Schools forward."
Losing accreditation would have put the 50,000-student district in danger of losing private grants and could keep students from gaining admission and winning scholarships at some colleges. It also creates a stigma that sends families running to other districts or private schools to avoid having their children in an unaccredited school system.
Gov. Nathan Deal said the district being taken off probation has "affirmed my faith" in the board's ability to put aside personal differences and focus on students.
"The district still has work to do, but we're finally going in the right direction. We have to make sure the errors of the past are not repeated," Deal said in a prepared statement.
Clayton County schools just south of Atlanta lost accreditation with SACS for nine months starting in fall 2008 because of a squabbling school board. The district won accreditation back in May 2009 but remained on probation for two years to address lingering issues.
That probation was lifted in July when the district gained full accreditation. The problems drew national headlines and damaged the district's reputation.
Atlanta parents celebrated after the district's press conference Tuesday.
"The system is incredibly stronger today than it was a year ago with the leadership replacements they made," said Abby Martin, who has a high school sophomore and twins in eighth-grade. "I think Atlanta Public Schools is really in a strong position to move forward."