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Can 'take-no-prisoners' superintendent save scandal-plagued Atlanta schools?

Atlanta's new interim superintendent has given new powers to whistleblowers and is eyeing bonus policies that rewarded high test scores.

By Staff writer / July 8, 2011

Gov. Nathan Deal (R) of Georgia discusses the findings of the special investigation into alleged cheating on test scores in the Atlanta Public School System, July 5 in Atlanta. Deal said 44 of the 56 schools investigated took part in cheating. Investigators found that 178 teachers and principals cheated. Of those, 82 confessed to the misconduct.

Bob Andres / Atlanta Journal & Constitution / AP

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In the wake of its massive cheating scandal, the Atlantic Public School district is trying to move forward on more solid ground. Among its first steps: new whistleblower procedures and ways to monitor unusually high test-score increases.

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Brand-new interim Superintendent Erroll Davis Jr. announced his preliminary plan yesterday, saying more details will come after he’s had a chance to thoroughly review the 800-plus page state report that implicated district leaders and 178 educators in the manipulation of state tests.

“I believe that we must change the culture of the organization. We have to move to a more open, more transparent, and more empowering culture,” Mr. Davis said at Thursday’s board meeting.

The board has suspended its search for a new permanent superintendent, giving Davis 12 months to effect that kind of cultural transformation.

That was a wise move because Davis’s business background and “straight-ahead, take-no-prisoners approach may be what is needed” in the short term, says Mark Musick, an Atlanta resident and president emeritus of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Davis is the former president and CEO of the multi-billion-dollar Alliant Energy Corporation.

Systemic changes at Atlanta Public Schools

Mr. Musick says he was particularly disturbed by the district’s handling of whistleblower allegations internally, instead of through a body that reports directly to the board. He hopes school districts across country are now checking their whistleblower policies.

As a corrective, Davis announced that the Office of Internal Resolution, which handles such complaints, will no longer be part of the Human Resources Department, but will move to Internal Audits, which reports directly to the Atlanta Board of Education.

Prior to Tuesday’s state report on cheating in Atlanta, the district had already set up a 24-hour hotline for people to report testing improprieties. It had also increased security for testing materials.

Davis also announced that “trigger points” will be set up for automatic investigations of schools whose scores increase by a larger-than-normal percentage.

Musick has a background in educational testing and worked at one point with the nonprofit Great Schools Atlanta. He says he began to have concerns with Superintendent Beverly Hall because “I had pointed out [test gains, saying,] this seems unbelievable, this seems too good to be true. And she was never interested in pursuing – with me or apparently with anyone else – [that] maybe we need to look further about that.”

Ms. Hall’s bonuses were tied in part to gains in test scores.

Such bonuses – for schools, teachers, and leaders – are among the policies Davis is reviewing, says Atlanta schools public information officer Keith Bromery.

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