By Denisa R. Superville and Corey Mitchell
Beverly Hall, the former Atlanta superintendent who was nationally lauded for boosting the district’s academic performance—an illusion that was shattered years later with the discovery that some of those gains were the results of widespread cheating—has died. She was 68.
Hall’s death, announced on Monday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, comes as prosecutors in Fulton County. Ga., pursue a raft of criminal charges against 12 former Atlanta educators in connection with a cheating scandal—the largest in recent history—under Hall’s watch. The complex, multi-defendant trial is expected to enter the closing-argument phase later this month.
Hall and 34 others were indicted in 2013 on racketeering and conspiracy charges in connection with the cheating and attempts to hide it. In the 64-count indictment returned by a Fulton County grand jury in 2013, Hall and her colleagues were accused of facilitating cheating on Georgia’s state exams, covering it up, and retaliating against those who tried to expose the misdeeds.
Many of those who were charged, including Hall, received performance bonuses based on the improvements, which later turned out to be false. The New York Times reported at the time of the indictment that Hall had received $500,000 in performance bonuses during her tenure as superintendent.
Hall, who retired as superintendent in 2010, had steadfastly denied any involvement. In a statement released after her death, her legal team said that Hall, who had been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, fought her illness with “great courage and dignity” and never doubted that she would have been acquitted.
“For the last year and a half, Dr. Hall’s directions to her doctor have been simple: get me well enough to stand trial; and to her lawyers: see to it that I get a fair trial,” the statement continued. " She was never concerned about the outcome of such a trial, only that the process be fair. She never doubted that in a fair trial, with the jury hearing the state’s contentions and her rebuttal, to include her own testimony, she would be acquitted. In the end, she was not strong enough to go to trial although that had been her earnest hope.”
Since last summer, 12 of those charged have been on trial, while most others took plea deals in exchange for their testimony. The state wound up its arguments in mid-February, and closing arguments are expected in two weeks.
Hall’s case was separated from the others after her attorneys successfully argued that she was being treated for breast cancer and would be unable to able to withstand the grueling nature of a trial.
Hall’s legacy will be a difficult one to parse. Prior to the cheating allegations that have complicated her standing as a K-12 leader, Hall was a widely respected for her leadership in overseeing Atlanta’s meteoric rise in academic achievement. In 2009, she was named Superintendent of the Year, the highest honor in her field, by the American Association of School Administrators.
“To some, she was a visionary who raised standards and modernized Atlanta schools with a mantra of “no exceptions, no excuses,” Alan Judd, said, writing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Monday after the announcement of Hall’s death. “To others, she most resembled a Mafia boss who demanded fealty from subordinates while perpetrating a massive, self-serving academic fraud.”
AASA Executive Director Daniel Domenech, who knew Hall from early in his career when she worked in New York City and he worked as a superintendent in two Long Island, N.Y. school districts, said: “I feel very sad for Beverly. She was such a great educator, a great superintendent. I would like to remember her that way.”
Domenech recalled that Hall was well-respected by her peers during her time in the New York schools.
“It just breaks my heart that she had to endure the last few years under the cloud of that scandal and then the cancer,” he said. “You’re innocent until proven guilty so she died innocent of the charges. And scandal aside, she did bring improvement to (Atlanta).”
A Jamaican immigrant, Hall began her career as a teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y. She later worked as superintendent in Newark, N.J—the first to be appointed after the state took over the district—before arriving in Atlanta in 1999.
While she was lauded for the growth in test scores, she was criticized for operating an environment in which teachers and principals feared they would lose their jobs if they did not meet certain benchmarks during Hall’s tenure.
Before her name became associated with cheating and every gain intensely scrutinized, Hall was profiled in Education Week where she touted the practical changes that she had made since coming to the district that had set it on a positive, upward trajectory. She arrived in Atlanta, the fifth superintendent in 10 years, to find that fourth graders were trailing their peers in the state in math by 20 percentage points, and 700 teacher vacancies in need of being filled. In less than 10 years, Atlanta fourth graders’ math scores nearly matched those of their peers, absences dropped, and by the beginning of the 2008 school year, only 18 teacher vacancies were left in the district.
Hall told Education Week that those gains were possible through a number of efforts, including improving teaching; replacing most principals; adopting whole-school-reform models and using standardized curricula; and setting high academic goals and rewarding those who reach them. Shortly after she arrived, Hall replaced 89 percent of the principals—who were previously hired based on personal connections and affiliations and less on their abilities as instructional leaders.
To reverse that, she developed an internal program to train principals and groom future school leaders.
“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.
She formed collaborative partnerships with business leaders and community organizations such as 100 Black Men of Atlanta and the Concerned Black Clergy. She also put her energy into boosting graduation rates by implementing Project GRAD, which provided additional incentives such as college scholarships for high school graduates to attend college.
In a statement, the Atlanta Public schools said that Hall “shepherded strategic initiatives including more than $40 million in grants for mathematics, science, teacher effectiveness and small schools. Also under her leadership, APS built and renovated dozens of schools and facilities throughout the district.”
With so many needles pointing forward, the district was being held up as a national model for what could be possible in urban school districts. It drew millions in foundation dollars from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the GE Foundation.
Then it all came crashing down.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noticing sharp increases in scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, Georgia’s state test, started investigating in 2008. A 2011 report by the Governor’s Office confirmed the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s stories and implicated 178 educators in 44 schools. According to the report, students were sometimes supplied the right answers; at other times, the incorrect answer was erased and a correct one inputted. They found that cheating occurred at 44 of the 56 schools examined, and that the cheating dated back to 2001.
“Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew or should have known that cheating and other offenses were occurring,” the investigators wrote.
Since Hall did not get her day in court, what she did and did not know will continue to be the subject of speculation.
Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents 67 of the nation’s big-city school districts, mourned Hall’s passing on Monday. Hall served as an executive committee member of the Council of the Great City Schools and received its highest honor, the Richard R. Green Award, in 2006.
Casserly remembered Hall as an “educator of the first rank” from whom many students benefitted and whose work on behalf of urban students will endure for decades.
“Beverly Hall was an extraordinary person. An educator of the first rank. A mentor to many. A role model to thousands. And a friend to legions of others across the nation,” Casserly said in his statement. “She was deeply loved by those who knew her and respected for her intellect, her integrity, her passion for children, and her commitment to public education.
Casserly said he was lucky to have been Hall’s “comrade in arms” since meeting her in New York decades ago.
“Here in Atlanta, Beverly Hall led the public schools on one of the most substantial and important improvement efforts any city in the country has ever seen,” he said. " To this day, the gains she garnered on the tamper-proof National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and math are unmatched anywhere else in the nation...”
“She was selected by her colleagues across the country for her commitment to excellence and equity for every child, a beacon from which she never wavered,” he continued. Few people will ever match her courage or energy. If you ever watched her around children, you knew she was an educator’s educator. Today, Atlanta lost one of its giants. Urban public education has lost one of its great stalwarts. All of us lost one of the best friends anyone could ever have. And America’s children lost one of their truest champions. "
Photo: Beverly Hall closes up her notebook at the conclusion of her final Atlanta school board meeting as superintendent in June 2011 --Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal Constitution-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.