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Convicted APS principal: My students could spell cat and dog and more

Convicted APS educator Dana Evans writes about one of the byproducts of the cheating trial, the belief children in Atlanta schools did not learn. Evans was principal at Dobbs Elementary School.

While convicted of violating the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act and one count of false writings and statements, she drew the sympathy of the judge.

As the AJC reported, Judge Jerry Baxter was kindest to Evans,  who at one time was an up  and coming star in the Atlanta Public Schools system. He said in  court that Evans' conviction was "probably the biggest tragedy of  all of them ... And I want to tell you I consider you a wonderful  educator,  and that is what makes it so sad."

Evans told the AJC after the trial she could not accept a deal because, "I'm innocent. I have nothing to stand  on but the truth."

In this piece, she expands on something else she told the AJC after being sentenced to a year in prison and four years on probation. "Every child there (at Dobbs Elementary)  received strong academic support. I am brokenhearted.  I never hurt a child."

By Dana Evans

The theme I created while principal at Dobbs was “Growing Greatness” and at almost every school assembly I would have the students say a short quote I taught them, “Good, Better, Best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best!”

On April 2, the second day of my incarceration, one of the officers asked if we would like to go outside. We readily agreed. After being confined in cell block 129 and in various boxlike structures as small 4' x 2' (for four people), we relished an opportunity to just breathe fresh air.

As he opened the door, we eagerly anticipated seeing a field, courtyard, anything with sun and grass. I was saddened to see an approximately 20' x 20' concrete slab encased by concrete walls. Although I could see the sun, the view was blocked by a thick metal cage-like grate that covered the entire area, necessary I’m sure to keep prisoners from escaping.

But, I had yet to transition mentally from Dr. Dana Evans to prisoner so it was devastating to accept this would be my view of the sky. At very difficult times, looking at the sky had become somewhat of a ritual; I would find myself going outside, lifting my hands up, looking to the clouds and feeling as if I could see and feel God. For the first time, my view was obstructed.

We went outside and began to walk the perimeter of the concrete to get exercise. Ms. Cotman pointed out on the border small seedlings growing through and around the concrete. I was amazed in spite of being in the most inhospitable environment, something was able to grow, and not just grow but thrive. Even more miraculous was that these small plants were growing the farthest from the sun, in the most desolate places.

This moment reminded me of Dobbs and, like being thrown through a worm hole, I was transported back to the school looking at my kids. Remembering them, I looked at the sprouts of vegetation and saw my students. Resilient seeds braving the harshest conditions to defy the world and grow. During the opening remarks from the prosecution, Fani Willis told the jurors that “these students couldn’t do it, some couldn’t even spell cat or dog.”

I probably should have shouted, “I object your Honor!”  She doesn’t know my students; they can and do grow and flourish despite the world’s perception of their limitations.  I am most disturbed with the lasting effects of this diminished view of students living in poverty , the images of failure we seem to propagate daily on the news as we interview parents and students who struggle. I am disturbed at how this trial has decimated, at least in the minds of many, the legitimacy of our hard work to improve student achievement in public schools.

Against overwhelming odds, my students did “Grow Greatness.” In 2011, my last year at Dobbs, when the state’s testing goals were the highest and with a zero  percent erasure analysis (this is the standard used by the Governor's Investigation Team to identify cheating schools), we met those testing goals.

State Superintendent John Barge wrote a letter to Erroll Davis, APS superintendent at the time, congratulating the district. He wrote, “Almost half of the schools with evidence of cheating in 2009 and in prior years made AYP [testing goals] in 2011 when there was no evidence of cheating and when there was a much higher academic bar to meet. You all are to be congratulated for that!”

It’s unfortunate my congratulations for this hard work was a termination letter.

Yes, my students could spell cat and dog. Yes, my very intelligent, creative and passionate students grew in the shadows. I believe God was reminding me of what I already believed, that as long as there is a seed things can grow….Greatly.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.