Former Atlanta School Chief Defends Actions

Thursday, September 8, 2011

ATLANTA ? Sitting in the polished offices of a lawyer who specializes in corporate criminal defense, Beverly Hall looked tired.

It is not easy being the pariah of a major American city.

Dr. Hall, once named as the nation?s school superintendent of the year and a veteran of 40 years in tough urban districts including New York and Newark, now stands marked by the biggest standardized test cheating scandal in the country?s history.

As Atlanta tries to sort fact from fiction and get back to the business of educating the 50,000 children in its public schools, Dr. Hall is left to defend her reputation, prepare for any possible legal action and consider whether her philosophy of education and style of leadership brought her to what is the lowest point in her career.

?I will survive this,? said Dr. Hall, 65, in her first public interview since a scathing 800-page report by state investigators outlined a pervasive pattern of cheating at 44 schools and involving 178 educators.

?I feel badly for myself, but I feel just as badly for all the people in this district who are working hard,? she said. ?Now everything they read and hear is negative. That is taking a tremendous toll on me.?

From 1999 to June, Dr. Hall was the forceful, erudite and data-driven superintendent of a once-failing urban school district that became a model of improvement.

During her reign, scholarship money delivered to Atlanta students jumped to $129 million from $9 million. Graduation rates, while still not stellar, rose to 66 percent, from 39 percent. Seventy-seven schools were either built or renovated, at a cost of about $1 billion.

Dr. Hall maintains that she never knowingly allowed cheating and does not condone it, but acknowledges that people under her did.

Still, the scope of the report ? which she and others argue was overreaching and contained inaccuracies ? shocks her.

?I can?t accept that there is a culture of cheating,? she said. ?What these 178 are accused of is horrific, but we have over 3,000 teachers.?

The devastating report came in July. Two longtime government lawyers who were asked by Gov. Nathan Deal to investigate charges that answers had been changed on state standardized tests found that students had sometimes simply given correct answers. In other cases, they said, staff members erased wrong ones and filled in the right ones. One school held weekend pizza parties to fix tests.

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