Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard stood before a bank of reporters in April after a judge sentenced former Atlanta educators for their roles in a districtwide cheating conspiracy and promised to right the wrongs done to thousands of children.
“What we plan to do is rather simple,” he said in announcing the creation of the Atlanta Redemption Academy: identify students who were harmed by the cheating, assess the damage and then fix it with tutoring, GED classes or job training.
The educators were convicted of participating in a scheme to fraudulently boost students’ test scores, which in many cases allowed children to move on despite not having mastered material. The educators were to perform the community service portion of their sentences in the academy by helping those they had cheated.
Six months later, little has happened, and those plans are “on hold,” Howard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, admitting that his initial plans may have been too ambitious. He has not been able to raise the millions he estimates it would cost.
In response to a request the AJC made under state open records laws, Howard’s office said it had no planning documents, budget drafts or other records related to planning the Redemption Academy.
Even the Atlanta Public Schools’ separate program to help children affected by cheating won’t be completely up and running until at least January
That leaves some parents with the sense that, once again, Atlanta is cheating its children.
“They got their conviction. Now when are they going to come back to help the children?” asked Vanessa Haynes, whose daughter testified her fourth grade teacher told her and other students to erase and correct answers on Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Prosecutors promised Haynes that after trial, her daughter would get the extra help in reading and math, Haynes said.
She hasn’t heard anything about extra help from the school district or the district attorney’s office — despite multiple calls to the latter and being active at her daughter’s school.
“Go back and teach these children what you failed to teach them in the first place. Make it right,” Haynes said.
The delay in establishing the Redemption Academy, which would work only with students no longer in Atlanta schools, has caused problems for the 11 former educators convicted in the cheating scandal: Their sentences include thousands of hours of community service. Prosecutors, who must approve any community service, have said much of that work should be with the Redemption Academy.
Judge Jerry Baxter said after the sentencing he also wanted the former educators to get started on their community service working with the Redemption Academy, while they awaited the results of their appeals. The nine sentenced to prison are free on appeal bonds.
“If the case is reversed or thrown out, they still would have done good,” Baxter said during a court hearing. He declined to comment for this article.
“We would love to work with the Redemption Academy, if it existed,” said attorney Gerald Griggs, who represented former Dobbs Elementary School teacher Angela Williamson. “But it doesn’t exist. Hopefully the judge will accept what we’re doing now and will hold the District Attorney’s Office accountable. You have to ask, was this really about the children?”
Howard said the main barrier to establishing his Redemption Academy, planned as a nonprofit, has been money. It’ll take about $24 million to help affected students, he told the AJC, a figure he came up with based on APS estimates of the cost of the district’s own remediation efforts.
The marquis names Howard touted as co-chairs of his board — Bernice King, the CEO of the King Center and daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Rev. Gerald Durley, former administrator at Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse School of Medicine — are no longer active in the Redemption Academy. Howard said in their places, he had recruited local business leaders.
“We are hoping to get the business community to see this is a worthwhile endeavor,” Howard said. “A lot of the business community feel they were misused by the past (APS) administration. They feel burned by what’s happened before and that’s the kind of pushback we are getting.”
Identifying the affected students could also be a problem. The school district has not provided Howard’s office with any student information beyond that information subpoenaed for the criminal trial, APS spokesman James Malone said. And the district won’t provide information on former students unless students or their guardians consent, Malone said.
But according to school district records, Howard and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen met once in July. They discussed separate efforts: APS would focus on students currently enrolled with its own plans to help students affected by cheating; the Redemption Academy would work with students who had dropped out or transferred, according to APS records.
Georgia State University researchers worked with the district to identify affected students — those with a high number of wrong-to-right erasures on the 2009 state tests. A total of 7,064 students were affected. Some have since moved away, graduated, or dropped out, but 3,137 are still in Atlanta schools, Chief Academic Officer Olivine Roberts said. Most are now in middle or high school.
This month, the school district hired Communities in Schools of Atlanta to provide mentoring, support tutoring and offer other help. District staff are currently working with students and their families to figure out what help each student needs. The tutoring and other work is expected to start in earnest in January.
“We don’t want in any way to miss a student,” Roberts said. Roberts said the district is committed to helping those students “until they graduate from the system.”
But Howard’s Redemption Academy is “outside of the work being done here at Atlanta Public Schools,” district spokesman James Malone said.
And even if the academy is created, the district will not allow the convicted educators to work with current students.
“Our focus is on the students who were negatively impacted, not on providing community service opportunities for the adults involved,” APS spokeswoman Jill Strickland said.
WHO WAS SENTENCED
On April 1, a Fulton County jury convicted 11 former administrators and teachers of racketeering and other crimes. Two of them, however, were not ordered to prison once they admitted that they had been part of a standardized test cheating scheme and apologized. The other nine declined to take an offer extended by prosecutors and the judge and were, consequently, sentenced to prison.
All are free while they appeal.
Tamara Cotman — Former School Reform Team executive director. Racketeering. Three years in prison, seven years probation, 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine.
Sharon Davis-Williams — Former school reform team executive director. Racketeering. Three years in prison, seven years probation, 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine.
Michael Pitts — Former school reform team executive director. Racketeering, influencing a witness. Three years in prison, seven years probation, 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine.
Dana Evans — Former principal, Dobbs Elementary School. Racketeering, false statements and writings. One year in prison, four years probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
Angela Williamson — Former teacher, Dobbs Elementary School. Racketeering, false statements and writings. Two years in prison, three years probation, 1,500 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine.
Tabeeka Jordan — Former assistant principal of Deerwood Academy. Racketeering, theft by taking. Two years in prison, three years probation, 1,500 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine.
Donald Bullock — Former testing coordinator at B.E. Usher/Collier Heights Elementary. Racketeering, false statements and writings, false swearing. Six months of weekends in jail, five years of probation, 1,500 hours of community service, a $5,000 fine and an apology.
Theresia Copeland — Former testing coordinator at Benteen Elementary. Racketeering, false statements and writings. One year in prison, four years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine.
Diane Buckner-Webb — Former teacher at Dunbar Elementary. Racketeering, false statements and writings. One year in prison, four years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. Given first-offender status.
Pamela Cleveland — Former teacher at Dunbar Elementary. Racketeering, false statements and writings. Five years of probation with one year of home confinement, 1,000 hours of community service, a $1,000 fine and an apology.
Shani Robinson — Former teacher at Dunbar Elementary. Racketeering, false statements and writings. One year in prison, four years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. (Sentenced more than four months after others and after giving birth.)
BY THE NUMBERS
7,064 – Atlanta students who likely had their answers changed on 2009 state tests
3,137 - Students affected by cheating still enrolled in Atlanta schools
$24 million – Estimated cost of District Attorney Paul Howard’s Redemption Academy
11 – Number of convicted former Atlanta educators whose sentences include community service
Source: Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County District Attorney’s Office