What Happens When a School District Fails?

A Georgia school district's loss of accreditation has led many students to switch to private schools.

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Students, families, and educators in Georgia still are struggling to make sense of how a school district recently lost its accreditation and what impact the ruling will have on the students' chances of getting into competitive colleges. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the nation's major accrediting agencies, revoked the Clayton County school system's accreditation in late August after the district's leaders failed to achieve eight of nine mandates for improvement set by SACS in February. Some of the unmet mandates include establishment of a responsible school board, removal of outside influences that disrupt the district's ability to function, and adherence to a code of ethics.

SACS Chief Executive Officer Mark Elgart said the board's problems permeated the system, but that dysfunction did not directly affect the quality of learning offered by the 50,000-student district located just south of Atlanta. Revocation of accreditation, he said, was the only way to prevent further damage to that system. The last school system to lose its accreditation in the United States was Florida's Duval County in 1969.

"Given a call to reform and a chance for action, most school districts we deal with take our warnings seriously and will do whatever it takes to keep their accreditation intact, so we were surprised to see that Clayton had not adhered to our mandates," Elgart said. "A vast number of districts can and do respond favorably when faced with similar problems and given a similar amount of time for achievement."

More than half of the district's nine-member school board resigned from their elected posts before SACS officially stripped Clayton County of its accreditation. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue removed the final four board members from office within hours of SACS's announcement in August. Clayton County's new superintendent of schools and its new school board members have told parents that they will get the schools' accreditation restored by the end of the school year. But as the college application season begins, seniors in Clayton County's nine high schools are reminded that regaining accreditation next year has little bearing on their college applications this year.

So far, about 2,000 students, many of whom are seniors, have left the district to avoid sending college applications as students poised to graduate from unaccredited high schools, Elgart said. Some have enrolled in area private schools while others have moved with their families to attend public schools in neighboring counties.

Forest Park High School Parent Teacher Student Association President Theresa Brown-Manuel said she is disappointed in the Clayton County schools' loss of accreditation because it easily could have been avoided. But Brown-Manuel also feels strongly that parents of seniors who have not removed their children from the school system should apply their anger to something positive.

"To help my son, who is a senior, and others in the community, I won't point the finger at anyone else but myself," Brown-Manuel said. "What can I do as a parent and as a member of the PTSA to help solve this problem? Well, I can do a lot." Georgia does not require in-state applicants to its state universities to receive their secondary education from an accredited high school, so Clayton County seniors will not be at a disadvantage when applying to any state schools. In addition, the dean of admissions and financial aid for the nation's top university as ranked by U.S.News & World Report said accreditation is not a deciding factor for applicants to Harvard University. Bill Fitzsimmons said that while Harvard values the accreditation process, its admissions counselors would not hold a lack of accreditation against a particular applicant since Harvard recognizes a wide range of college preparation methods.

"Our applicants come from all over the world. Some have been home-schooled and some have not gone to school," Fitzsimmons said. "If we think an applicant has taken full advantage of the opportunities for achievement in his or her life, then a lack of accreditation would not hold that applicant back from acceptance to Harvard."

Corrected on 09/19/2008: A previous version of this story misspelled Theresa Brown-Manuel's name.