Former Atlanta schools chief surrenders in cheating probe

Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall, center, on Tuesday heads toward the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta to turn herself in. (Ben Gray ~ Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATLANTA -- When Beverly Hall arrived in Atlanta as superintendent of the city's public school system, she cautioned she wouldn't be riding in on a white horse and it would take time to fix the problems of low student performance.

But test scores dramatically improved during her 12-year tenure in the mostly poor, urban district, earning her bonuses and accolades as the nation's top superintendent. Now, she's fighting to clear her name after she and nearly three dozen subordinates were indicted in what prosecutors say was a broad conspiracy to achieve those results by cheating.

"Her legacy is gone, it's destroyed," said Jerome Harris, Hall's friend and former boss when the two worked together in Brooklyn, N.Y. "The job, they've taken that away, but that's not important. She's not looking for a job. She's fighting for her name."

Tuesday was the deadline for Hall and the other 34 educators indicted last week to surrender. Hall arrived at the Fulton County jail about 7:30 p.m.

Other educators turned themselves in throughout the day. Harris, who has known Hall for three decades, was outside the jail Tuesday among a group criticizing the high bond amounts for the indicted teachers, principals, administrators and other employees. Hall's bond initially was recommended at $7.5 million, though it was later set at $200,000, the Fulton County Sheriff's Office said in a news release.

Hall garnered a reputation as a fixer who could turn things around. After beginning her career as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn in 1970, Hall worked her way up to the No. 2 position in the New York City schools system.

In 1995, Hall was called to take over as superintendent of the Newark, N.J., school district, which had been seized by the state because of low test scores, questionable spending practices and high dropout rates.

In Newark, Hall made changes, and within a year, nearly a quarter of the district's 82 schools had new principals.

It was her work raising student attendance and modest test gains in Newark that made her an attractive candidate for Atlanta, and she was hired in 1999. Her salary included a financial incentive -- 30 percent of her annual salary -- for meeting certain performance objectives that included test scores and attendance.

Her contract was renewed a few years later, and Hall was credited with making changes to the system's academic and business operations.

In recent years, however, her achievements crumbled. A state audit suggested tests were altered, and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue said "any reasonable person can see that cheating occurred and children were harmed."

District officials challenged the audit, saying there was no concrete evidence of cheating.

Further investigations revealed more anomalies in test scores, and calls for Hall's resignation mounted. A 2011 state investigative report said administrators under pressure to maintain high scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law created a culture of "fear, intimidation and retaliation." Hall resigned that year.

Hall has consistently denied being involved in or having knowledge of any cheating. However, after the state's investigation was made public, she said: "If I did anything that gave teachers the impression that I was unapproachable and unresponsive to their concerns, I also apologize for that."

Harris, who spoke with Hall a few days ago, said he worries about the long road ahead for his friend.

"This will almost kill her," Harris said.

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