Two years of hard work now boils down to intense scrutiny over the next three days for Clayton County schools.
A 12-member accreditation review team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools arrives in Clayton on Sunday to decide whether the southside school system’s accreditation should remain intact for five more years.
Roughly 1,000 school districts nationwide are slated for their five-year reviews this year, and the routine checkup often can feel like an invasive, drop-your-pants-and-cough kind of exercise.
The review takes on even greater intensity for a school system such as Clayton, which has been under constant scrutiny since its 2008 accreditation loss. The attention ratcheted up a few notches last fall when SACS sent the school district a warning saying the school board was veering off-course because of reported in-fighting and micromanaging — the same problems that led to the district being stripped of its accreditation. September’s warning sent the district and community into a renewed round of panic.
“Just the name SACS puts people on pins and needles at times,” said Tony McCrear, whose two oldest children attend Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Forest Park. McCrear and his wife, Sasha, frequently attend school board meetings.
The school district assured the agency it hadn’t relapsed and outlined how it was meeting SACS guidelines, including seeking help in finding a permanent superintendent. In turn, SACS made a quick visit to the community to allay concerns.
Now SACS is back, and this year’s review comes with a new set of standards aimed at getting a closer look at what’s happening inside classrooms. Clayton is among the first school districts this calendar year to deal with the new guidelines, which are updated every five years.
While in Clayton, the SACS team will visit schools and classrooms, pore through school self-assessment documents, and study how test scores are used by teachers to guide their instructions. The team also will look at how well the school system is doing in providing “adult advocates” — mentors who help students get through the day and school year.
SACS reviewers also will meet with parents, teachers, staff, administrators and school board members.
“We’re placing a greater focus on students and teachers in the classrooms,” said Mark Elgart, president and chief executive of AdvancEd, SACS’ parent company. Elgart noted more than half of SACS’ requirements in the review process this year will focus on what’s happening in the classroom. He said despite its past problems, Clayton will start with a clean slate going into the accreditation review. But, like all school districts being reviewed, Clayton will emerge with areas it needs to improve.
“Clayton should expect there are going to be significant areas of improvement, and that’s not a negative. That’s an expectation of this process,” Elgart said.
To that end, Clayton may have an edge on other school districts because it has a point person familiar with SACS’ review methods.
At the helm: Monika Wiley, a petite, no-nonsense math whiz who has logged time as a member of SACS review teams evaluating school districts throughout the Southeast. Wiley has spent a lot of 14-hour days during the past year getting Clayton ready for its close-up with SACS.
Wiley has relied heavily on to-do lists, school visits, and training sessions for the staff to make sure they’re up to speed on SACS standards and expectations. And she has read each of the self-assessments and executive summaries of the district’s 66 schools to pinpoint weaknesses. One area of concern: pulling up math scores.
“It taught us a lot,” said Wiley, who also heads Clayton’s fine arts department. She relied on a team of fine arts instructors to keep that part of her job running smoothly while she focused on getting the district ready for SACS.
Wiley’s role is pivotal because she has incorporated ideas from her trips as a SACS reviewer into the upcoming Clayton session. On a review trip to Dalton schools, for instance, officials there provided her review team with access to its software. In turn, Wiley has made sure the name and access codes of Clayton’s software program will be part of the informational binders the 12 review team members will get when they arrive Sunday.
Clayton has spent the last two years getting ready for this week’s visit and Wiley has spent a lot of that time concentrating on factors beyond data and paperwork. She has visited nearly all of Clayton’s schools and met with teachers and faculty to address their concerns and keep nervousness about SACS’ visit to a minimum.
“It’s a good nervousness because it’s been a while since someone has been in our district to see all of the great things we’re doing,” Wiley said.
One priority is making sure the school system works as a cohesive unit and not 66 separate silos, as was the case in the past.
“It’s a unified approach,” said Luvenia Jackson, Clayton’s interim superintendent. “For example, when we’re talking about academic achievement, we’re aligning our achievement from human resources to financial to academics so that alignment is horizontal. Schools have dialogue with each other in defining what students really need.”
Another big focus is how well the school system has included parents in the education and planning process. Wiley has worked to make sure parents are involved at all levels.
“Their involvement has increased this (school) year,” she said. The district had almost 200 parents at the first strategic planning meeting in August and managed to get nearly 10,000 parents to participate in school district surveys. Typically, getting 1,000 to 2,000 parents to participate is considered good, school officials say.
McCrear, the father whose two eldest children attend Unidos Dual Language Charter School, expressed confidence in Clayton’s readiness. “I’m not overly concerned about anything major that we feel may jeopardize our accreditation,” McCrear said. “The only concern we have at this point is making sure our school board is on top of their job and doing things in the best interest of the community and our children.”
Another parent, Mary Dewberry, who is president of the county’s PTA council, said she welcomes the SACS visit but wants the school district to begin an earnest search for a permanent superintendent, which is one of SACS’ expectations.
Dewberry, whose two sons attend Adamson Middle School in Rex, said interim leader Jackson has done “a marvelous turnaround” of the school system. “However, we need to focus more on getting a permanent superintendent.”
For her part, Jackson said: “We’ve worked long hours in making sure the reports and our administrators and teachers and data are exemplary. We’re ready for our SACS visit.”
Title: Director of Fine Arts and District SACS Chair for Clayton County Schools
Education: Graduate of Florida A&M University; earned leadership certificate from Florida Atlantic University; masters in math education from Nova Southeastern University and educational specialist degree from the University of West Georgia.
Career path: Math teacher and assistant principal in West Palm Beach, Fla.; assistant principal at Jonesboro High School; principal at North Clayton Middle School before assuming current job in May 2012.
Family: 7-year-old son D’Allo, whom she co-parents with her ex-husband, Gabriel Wiley, an assistant principal at a middle school in Henry County.
Aspirations: She’s pursuing a doctorate in school improvement at the University of West Georgia.
What the SACS team will be examining:
The SACS review team visits school districts every five years as part of the normal district accreditation process. In that time, criteria and guidelines are often updated or changed. For example, there will be greater focus on students and teachers in the classroom this year. More than half of the SACS’ requirements are focused on what’s happening in the classroom. Here are some key points the 12-member team will focus on during its April 14-17 visit:
- How teachers use student test results to guide instructions.
- Greater emphasis on student achievement in all academic areas, not just state tests such as the CRCT.
- Greater uniformity among schools in terms of policies, process of improvement and the use of data to improve the schools and district. In the past, there was less structure.
- Greater focus on providing students with an adult advocate. The advocate is someone on staff who serves as a mentor to students helping them with a variety of things ranging from just getting through the school day to planning their school year. The advocate goes beyond the duties of a guidance counselor.
Source: Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancEd, parent company of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Clayton Schools and SACS: A Timeline
November 2007: Several members of the Clayton County school board file complaints with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools citing what they consider to be unethical behavior by fellow board members.
August 2008: SACS revokes accreditation for the Clayton County School District. It is the first school system in 40 years to lose its accreditation. The loss is not due to academics but to a dysfunctional school board, ethics complaints and violations of the state’s open meeting law. Gov. Sonny Perdue removes four school board members, saying they violated their duties.
May 2009: Accreditation is restored on a probationary basis.
August 2011: The Clayton school system celebrates accreditation being fully restored.
January 2012: Reports say board members have been preoccupied with personality clashes, sanctions against fellow board members and other drama.
September 2012: Clayton school Superintendent Ed Heatley receives a “letter of concern” from SACS. The letter questions whether the school board is having issues similar to those that caused the system to lose accreditation in 2008.
April 14-17: A review team of 12 evaluators is slated to visit Clayton schools as part of a regular five-year accreditation review.