Atlanta School Year Begins Amid a Testing Scandal
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ATLANTA -- After a summer of scandal, Michele Alford will welcome her new third-grade class on Monday the way she always has: with a test. After her students realize that the school year has begun and their grumbling subsides, she will ask the children, "Where did I go to college?" and "What are my interests?"
"I call it the Teacher Test," Ms. Alford said last week as she readied Room 111 at Toomer Elementary School. "I do it so that they can ask me questions and see me as a real person."
One month after Atlanta was rocked by revelations of a widespread school cheating scandal -- nearly 200 teachers and principals admitted to tampering with standardized tests to raise students' scores -- Ms. Alford and her Toomer colleagues are bracing for some much more difficult questions from students this year, and a test of their own.
Many students will know that two Toomer teachers admitted wrongdoing in the investigation, and that a former principal was implicated. Although all have either left voluntarily or are on administrative leave pending a procedural hearing, their actions echoed down the cinder-block hallways as the teachers prepared their classrooms for Monday's new year. First bell rings at 8.
"Of course it affects me," said Pat Crawford, a fourth-grade teacher in her seventh year at Toomer Elementary. "There's some anger there, of course, for what went on. But we'll try to make the kids feel at ease, and tell them that we're going to have a great year."
Samantha Tulin, a new third-grade teacher, said: "The nation's eyes are on us. I want to be part of the positive after all the smoke clears."
The wreckage is still burning. A 413-page report by special investigators for the Georgia governor's office that was released to the public on July 5 recounted in stunning detail how elementary- and middle-school teachers and administrators throughout the Atlanta public school system manipulated students' answers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, Georgia's method of gauging student achievement and complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The most egregious cheating included principals overseeing social gatherings in which answers were erased and corrected. At Toomer, in the residential Kirkwood neighborhood east of downtown, the report claimed that some teachers either told students the answers or suggested them with voice inflection during testing.
The scandal has reignited the larger national debate over the reliance on test results to evaluate educators and the pressure that such emphasis can breed among superintendents and principals. Teacher cheating knows no borders, as developing situations in Philadelphia, Washington and other cities indicate, but Atlanta, as the most thoroughly investigated example, has become symbolic of it.
Ms. Alford worked in her classroom last Tuesday, carefully hanging an animal-cell poster illustrating the plasma membrane and Golgi complex with rolled masking tape. She arranged desks into small clusters, and empty coat hooks in a corner were a reminder of the cacophony that was days away.
"My goal is to take the curriculum and breathe some life into it," Ms. Alford said. "We have standards we have to meet. I know that. I want to bring relevance to that. When we talk about decimals, we'll talk about the grocery store."
Much of the enthusiasm at Toomer Elementary flows from its young and energetic principal, Nicole Evans Jones, now in her second full year. Her predecessor left before the governor's investigation began, but at a time when reports of cheating in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were becoming more incriminating by the week.
The scandal came at a challenging time for Toomer, where two nearby charter schools have begun siphoning off enrollment from its current 165 students. But Dr. Jones said she plans to convert parent skepticism into parent involvement. Mandarin instruction will begin this fall undeterred.
"The work remains the same," she said. "If this gets them in the doors, then they're engaged. You have to build that trust, and we're going to build that."
Dr. Jones filled her open third-grade slot with Ms. Tulin, who recently graduated as senior class president at Spelman College in Atlanta and immediately signed up for the Teach for America program. She was originally headed for New Orleans, but decided to stay closer to home and tend to a different disaster area.
"I know how in New Orleans, after the hurricane, they rebuilt the school system in many ways," Ms. Tulin said. "I kind of think the same thing can happen with Atlanta. So many people left. The district is so desperate to do good things, and it leaves room for innovation."
As for the community's trust, that was particularly tested at Bessie Branham Park, a few blocks east of Toomer. Throughout July and into last week, while pushing children on the swings or watching them come down the slides, parents discussed the scandal and hashed out whether they would leave Atlanta's public schools for good. Last week, several parents at the park explained why they decided to stay.
"The news this summer made me sick. It made me feel like a bit of a fraud for saying how good the school was," said Alice Jonsson, whose son is about to begin first grade. "But I love the principal. Was she named? No. Was her previous school named? No. Are the cheaters still there? No. I know it's still a good place."
The good was demonstrated only moments later, when Eliza Peterson, 6, saw her kindergarten teacher from last year walking down the hill toward the playground.
"Ms. Casey!" she yelped, galloping into her teacher's arms.
Looking on, Eliza's father, Allen Peterson, explained how he and his wife had wrestled with whether to keep Eliza at Toomer up until that very morning. He and his wife pursued a place at the Drew Charter School in the same neighborhood, but a growing waiting list there -- no doubt lengthened by some former Toomer families -- left them focusing on Toomer's positives. So on Tuesday, father and daughter walked together to the school to sign up.
"It was pretty shocking to have the national news right in front of us, but I'm pretty confident we can move forward and make things good from here," Mr. Peterson said. "I may be wrong, but I believe that anybody in teaching is doing it for good reasons. It's about helping people, not getting rich or famous. Progress is going to happen by parents and teachers working together. It's up to us."
Mr. Peterson recalled a moment from earlier in the morning, after Eliza skipped down Toomer's Dr. Seuss hallways and watched the teachers setting up their classrooms. As they walked home hand in hand, Eliza looked up at her father. "Daddy, I know what I want to be when I grow up," she said. "A teacher."
First Published August 8, 2011 12:00 am