When Beverly L. Hall came to this city in 1999, student achievement was sliding downward, teacher morale was dismal, and enrollment was falling as parents pulled their children out of the school system.
Consider the district’s numerical profile:
• Ms. Hall was its fifth superintendent in a decade.
• Students in 4th grade lagged behind their peers statewide in reading and mathematics by nearly 20 percentage points.
• More than 60 percent of the city’s high school students missed at least two weeks of school per year.
• The district had 700 teaching vacancies to fill the first fall Ms. Hall opened the schools.
• Ninety percent of kindergarten teachers said they didn’t believe most of their students would finish high school.
Under Superintendent Hall’s steady hand, those numbers tell a very different story nine years later:
• Fourth graders’ reading and math scores are nearly on a par with their Georgia peers’.
• Chronic absences have plummeted.
• All of the district’s elementary schools made adequate yearly progress in 2006-07.
• Ms. Hall had only 18 teaching vacancies when school opened in August.
Atlanta’s 49,000-student school system—an overwhelming majority of whose students are African-American and poor—now stands as one of the nation’s most promising examples of urban school reform.
Under the superintendent’s driving focus on the nuts and bolts of schooling—improving the way teachers teach; replacing most principals; adopting whole-school-reform models and using standardized curricula; setting high academic goals and rewarding those who reach them—Atlanta’s students have posted achievement gains every single year since Ms. Hall became schools chief.
As she approaches her 10th year at the helm, Ms. Hall has become one of the longest-serving superintendents of an urban school district. (She has a contract through 2011.) Before coming to Atlanta, the Jamaica native, who is 59, served as the superintendent in Newark, N.J., and as an English teacher, junior high school principal, and top administrator in the New York City public schools.
But the Atlanta district’s achievements have not captured the national spotlight that other city school systems and their high-profile chiefs have attracted in this era of hard-nosed accountability. Ms. Hall’s quiet leadership style and homegrown strategies for school improvement, say those who follow her work, are overlooked by education reformers charmed by nontraditional education leaders.
While the Atlanta schools have won financial support from national philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, such backing has arrived mostly after the superintendent and her team had already put their ideas into practice.
Superintendent Beverly L. Hall is pursuing these strategies to improve the Atlanta schools:
• Project GRAD—
Ms. Hall’s signature initiative uses this whole-school-reform model in 33 district schools that were the lowest performers when the superintendent arrived in 1999.
• High School Transformation—
Breakup of the district’s large, comprehensive high school campuses into smaller, more personalized schools or small learning communities of no more than 400 students. Each has a theme and a focused curriculum. Supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates and Arthur Blank Family foundations.
• Middle School Transformation—
Two single-gender academies for middle school students opened last year, and the district is in the middle of planning new strategies to improve the city’s 15 other middle schools with a strong focus on recruiting and training teachers best suited to teach that age group.
• Math and Science Initiative—
Atlanta launched a districtwide professional-development and curriculum program in mathematics and science with support from a $22 million grant from the GE Foundation.
• School Board Governance—
A revision of the district’s charter under Georgia law clearly outlined duties for the elected board and duties for the superintendent. It requires a supermajority for any board vote to overturn a personnel decision.
“I think that Atlanta has been badly overlooked by a lot of people,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy organization that represents 66 of the nation’s largest districts. “She, as a superintendent, her staff, the board, and the Atlanta district in general have not been given their due.” (In 2006, Ms. Hall won the council’s Richard R. Green award for urban education leadership.)
Said Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the Urban Superintendents Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: “Atlanta is one of two unsung urban districts in the nation for what they’ve done on reform. Atlanta came from nowhere. They are like that small college team every year in the NCAA [basketball tournament] that comes out of nowhere to make it to the Final Four.” (Mr. Peterkin considers Austin, Texas, to be the other “unsung” district.)
Ms. Hall, characteristically, is more circumspect.
“Look, I’m always the first to say that we’ve made great progress here in Atlanta,” she said in a recent interview, “but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
One of Ms. Hall’s first major acts was to upend a decades-old culture of school board meddling in the selection of principals—most of whom were building managers, not instructional leaders. Within a few months of her arrival in Atlanta, Ms. Hall received an anonymous letter explaining that the city’s principals had always been chosen on the basis of personal connections and social affiliations.
“This person said no superintendent had ever been able to penetrate that, and that I wouldn’t either,” she recalled. “That threw down the gauntlet.”
Ms. Hall has replaced 89 percent of the principals since she took over. To find and groom new talent, the district created its own training program for aspiring school leaders. Ms. Hall and her team also began to use performance evaluations for principals, a policy that for the first time tied 25 percent of a school leader’s job rating to student achievement—a move that encouraged many principals to retire, she said.
“I knew that no matter what I mandated on curriculum or reform models, or how many resources we put into the schools, if I didn’t have a person on the ground who really knew instruction and would be accountable for results, we weren’t going to get anywhere,” she said.
But for the superintendent to claim discretion over principal selection, she needed broad backing to ensure that the school board would not interfere in personnel and other managerial decisions. Atlanta’s corporate and business community, eager for the district to improve academically and for a superintendent who would stay beyond two years, was willing to help.
Ms. Hall’s alliance with business leaders—which grew out of regular but informal meetings she held with chief executives from corporations such as Home Depot, Delta Airlines, and Georgia Pacific—led to the revision of the district’s governing charter in state law.
That revision clearly delineated the duties of the school board, separate from those of the superintendent, and required that any board vote to overturn a personnel decision by Ms. Hall would require a supermajority. The rewritten charter also included an ethics provision that allows any resident to file complaints against board members seen as overstepping their authority.
“This has just been key,” Ms. Hall said. “I absolutely benefited from the fact that both the business and broader community were fed up with the way the old boards had functioned.”
Her relationship with corporate executives has paid other dividends as well—in particular, the formation last year of the Atlanta Education Fund, which works with the district to raise outside funding from corporations and philanthropic organizations for reform initiatives.
“We wanted to take advantage of a time when we had a school leader with proven results from reform and great personal credibility,” said John G. Rice, the vice chairman and chief executive officer of GE Technology Infrastructure of the General Electric Co., and the chairman of the education fund. “We want to make sure that Beverly’s reforms are totally institutionalized and that there’s no way we can go backwards.”
Ms. Hall said cultivating ties in the broader community has been just as important. To that end, she has enlisted organizations such as 100 Black Men of Atlanta and the Concerned Black Clergy for their input and collaboration on a number of district initiatives. Every year, she holds a series of “fireside chats” with parents and community members in their neighborhoods to hear their concerns. Still, she has faced some criticism for her alliances with the business community.
“While people tend to agree that the business community has done a great deal to support our schools in recent years, there is a general concern that the chamber of commerce has more say on what goes on in the district than teachers or parents do,” said Verdaillia Turner, the president of the 2,300-member Atlanta Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
To get achievement moving, Hall decided in her second year to target the lowest-performing campuses in the city in what has become the signature improvement effort under her leadership. Thirty-three campuses—elementary, middle, and high schools that serve a total of 13,000 students—were mandated to adopt Project GRAD, a whole-school-reform approach with a focus on literacy and math skills, as well as the delivery of nonacademic services for disadvantaged children and their families.
The district tapped Atlanta’s chapter of Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit organization that supports public schools, to provide counseling, tutoring, health-care referrals, and other types of support for students. More than 90 percent of students in the Project GRAD schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“To ratchet up performance in these schools, we had to turn them upside down, and we knew that this model would provide the extra supports that most of these kids in the schools would need,” said Kathy Augustine, the district’s deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “It’s a holistic approach, and we thought the best way we could create all the right conditions for them to be high-performing schools.”
Project GRAD provides a strong incentive for students to perform well and persevere through high school graduation: $4,000 or more in scholarships to put toward college expenses if they meet several requirements, including graduating with at least a C average. Along the way, students receive hours of college counseling, help in filling out admissions and financial-aid applications, summer enrichment programs, and trips to college campuses nearby and far away. Once students are enrolled in college, Project GRAD counselors work to help retain them with annual follow-up visits to the students on campus.
The numbers suggest that Project grad is yielding promising results. Last spring, all Project GRAD elementary and middle schools in Atlanta met testing benchmarks to make adequate yearly progress, a key measure of improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Graduation rates at the three Project GRAD high schools have ticked up: At Booker T. Washington High School, for example, the four-year graduation rate went from 62 percent in 2003 to 86.8 percent in 2007. Other, less quantifiable measures have also emerged.
“Parents’ expectations of their children are much higher now,” said Kweku Forstall, who until recently served as the executive director of Project GRAD Atlanta. “And the program has also helped get higher education institutions to look at the Atlanta public schools as a source for high school graduates who will be successful in their programs.”
The rest of the city’s schools were required by Superintendent Hall to choose from several other reform models. Across the district, she mandated that schools teach Georgia’s state standards, something that had been happening only in isolated pockets, Ms. Augustine said.
Another of Ms. Hall’s early mandates—even before the passage of the NCLB law nearly seven years ago—was requiring every school to set achievement targets. A year later, she rewarded the faculty and staff members at 18 schools for meeting their targets with cash.
More recently, Atlanta has been tackling initiatives at the secondary level, including the breakup of all the district’s comprehensive high schools into smaller, more personalized units with no more than 400 students. The four high schools that now constitute The New Schools at Carver—which had been Carver High, a large, long-failing campus in a poor neighborhood south of downtown Atlanta—are on target to graduate 80 percent of their first class of seniors next spring, said Randy Bynum, the associate superintendent for high schools. That contrasts with the 23 percent graduation rate at Carver High in 2005, just before the school was broken up into smaller units with new principals and, in many cases, new teachers.
The Gates Foundation awarded the district $10.5 million in 2007 to help pay the costs of high school transformation. (The foundation also provides support for Diplomas Count, Education Week’s annual report on graduation-related issues.)
Middle schools are also being overhauled, most notably with the closure of one large campus that reopened as two new schools: one for boys, the other for girls. The Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, now in its second year, saw 6th grade scores improve dramatically in its first year, especially in English language arts and science, said Melody Morgan, the school’s principal.
The district is also working on a major, multipronged math and science initiative with the help of a $22 million grant from the GE Foundation, the philanthropic arm of General Electric.
As test scores rose steadily year after year, Ms. Hall wanted to ensure that Atlanta’s progress would not be dismissed by criticism that Georgia’s performance standards and assessment, before recent changes to both, weren’t as rigorous as many other states’. The superintendent decided the city’s students would take a more rigorous national exam and publicly report the scores as part of the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, a specially collected set of test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Despite early pushback—many on Ms. Hall’s team worried the district’s performance on NAEP would subject it to particularly harsh criticism—Atlanta has emerged as one of the top performers among the 11 urban districts that participate in TUDA, said Mr. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.
“Atlanta still has a ways to go, but the gains really have been eye-popping,” Mr. Casserly said. “I think what Atlanta has done on the NAEP has been instrumental in convincing a lot of people that the progress there is real.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Atlanta’s Own ‘Hall’ Of Famer