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Atlanta schools chief leaves amid cheating probe

Longtime Atlanta schools chief Beverly Hall has been lauded nationally as a top leader for turning around struggling urban districts, but she retires this week amid allegations of widespread cheating and accusations that she ordered a cover-up of test tampering.

It's not quite the ending Hall's supporters imagined for her nearly 12-year career as the superintendent of the 50,000-student district — where nearly three-fourths of students live at or below the poverty line.

The 64-year-old Jamaica native won the national Superintendent of the Year award in 2009 and landed on short lists for U.S. Department of Education jobs. Even her long tenure in Atlanta stands out nationally: few urban school superintendents stay in one district longer than four years.

But now Hall's actions are among those being scrutinized as part of yearlong criminal investigation into the cheating allegations, which stem from a state report showing high numbers of erasures on standardized tests given to Atlanta students in 2009. And the district faces losing accreditation after school board squabbles over the scandal led to the system being put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

"We feel terrible for Beverly that she's leaving with less than the adulations she ought to be receiving after the great work she has done," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which gave Hall her national award.

"The problem with superintendents is because you're making tough decisions all the time, the list of detractors grows and grows and grows, and they tip the scale and they get you," he said.

Hall declined requests from The Associated Press for an interview. A district spokesman confirmed she has an attorney but did not know the lawyer's name.

District officials have denied the allegations against Hall.

In a video message to schools staff last month, Hall warned that the state investigation launched by former Gov. Sonny Perdue last year would likely reveal "alarming" behavior.

"It's become increasingly clear that a segment of our staff chose to violate the trust that was placed in them," Hall said. "There is simply no excuse for unethical behavior and no room in this district for unethical conduct. I am confident that aggressive, swift action will be taken against anyone who believed so little in our students and in our system of support that they turned to dishonesty as the only option."

Hall came to Atlanta in 1999 after spending three years as the state-appointed superintendent of the Newark, N.J., school district. Before that, she was a top administrator in the New York City school system, the largest in the country.

The no-nonsense leader vowed to turn around the struggling Atlanta district, where barely two out of five students graduated high school in 2000 and scores on nationally administered tests trailed far behind state and national averages.

Now more than 65 percent of students get a diploma, and the district has seen some of the largest jumps in scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress — called "the nation's report card" — among large urban districts.

About 40 percent of eighth-graders passed muster on the reading test in 2002. In 2009, the latest scores available, that number had increased to 63 percent.

That performance has helped Hall win more than one national award, including garnering the top prize for urban education leaders from the Council of the Great City Schools in 2006.

Despite the gains, the district has failed to meet federal benchmarks and has been labeled as "failing" since the No Child Left Behind law was enacted in 2002. The cheating investigation has overshadowed much of the progress made by students.

A February 2010 audit by the state showed an unusually high number of erasures on standardized tests used to meet the federal standards. The report identified 74 schools statewide where there was possible cheating in 2009, and nearly half of those were in Atlanta.

The audit lead to investigations in more than a dozen Georgia districts, but the then-governor ordered an additional investigation into the Atlanta erasures because he said the probe conducted by the district was "woefully inadequate." The state probe is in its final stages, with investigators expected to announce the results early next month.

A former employee has accused Hall of ordering the destruction of documents that detailed a pattern of widespread cheating on standardized tests and telling employees that the district has a right to "sanitize" the investigation, according to a person familiar with the probe who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it. The employee is seeking a financial settlement after she resigned over accusations she had made lewd comments to male employees.

While many city leaders have defended Hall, some have called for her resignation since the state audit came out early last year, including state Rep. Ralph Long, a Democrat from one of Atlanta's poorest areas. He called Hall's work "disastrous" and "crippling" for the city's children because he believes the schools aren't preparing students for college or life.

"I think she fostered an environment that cultivated pushing upstanding citizens like principals and teachers into a bad situation, and she turned her head," Long said.

A number of other urban school districts and individual states have been caught up in cheating scandals in the last several years, including Baltimore and Houston, and Texas, Washington and Florida.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who led the city from 2002 to 2010, defended Hall in a recent post on her website Blogging While Blue. Franklin could not be reached for comment.

"As she packs her bags for her final day as superintendent, thank you Beverly Hall for your leadership and service to Atlanta. She leaves the school district significantly better than she found it," Franklin wrote in her June 23 post.

Many parents have come to her defense, too, instead blaming the district's woes on the school board and a handful of cheating educators.

Lisa Weldon, who lives in the tony Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead, said just a few of the children in her neighborhood went to public school when her 21-year-old started school. Now, more than 80 percent attend public schools, Weldon said.

"I think she's done a wonderful job," said Weldon, whose youngest child just graduated from North Atlanta High School. "I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt. I'm going to wait until she has her day in court, because I've been nothing but impressed."

In an interview with the AP in August 2010 just before Perdue ordered a state probe into the cheating allegations, Hall vowed to root out the guilty educators and punish them.

She blamed the cheating on a few rogue employees, saying it wasn't a systemic problem. The problem, she said, is that most people are incredulous when poor minority children improve their academic performance.

"Nobody talks enough about the fact that students have consistently shown show progress over the last decade, but they hear everything that could possibly go wrong in Atlanta," Hall said. "So it continues to reinforce, I think, a pervasive belief that urban systems can't function and poor kids can't learn. The downside of this is we lose sight of the overall positive growth and focus on the negative."

Dorie Turner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner

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