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Ex-Atlanta schools superintendent surrenders

Tuesday - 4/2/2013, 10:12pm  ET

Photos of some of the 35 defendants in Atlanta's school cheating scandal decorate a board as the media wait for the defendants to turn themselves in at Fulton County Jail, Tuesday, April 2, 2013, in Atlanta. The defendants are named in a 65-count indictment that alleges a broad conspiracy involving cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools. All 35 defendants must turn themselves in Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- When Beverly Hall first 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 that 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 to authorities. Hall arrived at the Fulton County jail about 7:30 p.m., and her attorney, J. Tom Morgan -- a former DeKalb County District Attorney -- said he planned to have her out of jail before the end of the night.

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 was initially recommended at $7.5 million, though it was later set at $200,000, the Fulton County Sheriff's Office said in a news release.

Harris recalled asking Hall to take over as principal of a troubled elementary school in Brooklyn. She cried, he said, because she didn't want to leave her beloved students at the magnet school where she had been assigned at the time.

"People don't have integrity like that," said Harris, who was then superintendent of Brooklyn Community School District 13. "I honestly believe Dr. Hall wouldn't tolerate cheating. She has that integrity. She wouldn't tolerate it."

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 in 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.

Almost immediately, she set about cleaning up school buildings, even declaring a health and safety emergency to speed up repairs in time for fall classes.

She criticized the old school board for losing its way and making it difficult for educators to concentrate on what was important -- something Hall's critics say happened to her years later in Atlanta.

"Somewhere along the way, this system focused more on the adults than on the children," Hall said in September 1995, during her time in Newark.

In Newark, Hall made changes that drew the ire of some employees and others in the community. Within a year, nearly a quarter of the district's 82 schools had new principals and hundreds of workers were laid off, including custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Hall said the cuts were designed to free up money for more teachers and funding for full-day kindergarten, but critics complained she should have sought more input before making the decisions.

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. From the beginning, her salary included a big 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 sweeping 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." Detractors criticized her use of a driver who shuttled her around the district, while others said she was unapproachable and ignored cheating allegations.

District officials challenged the audit and defended the district's dramatic turnaround, saying there was no concrete evidence of cheating.

"There is a wanting to believe sometimes that poor minority children cannot achieve at high levels," Hall told reporters at the time. "When you begin to see the kind of change we've seen in Atlanta Public Schools, you have to constantly prove the progress is real."

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