Erroll Davis: 52 percent APS graduation rate ‘unacceptable’

By Maria Saporta

If there’s one thing Erroll Davis doesn’t like, it’s whining.

“Whining is one of our core competencies,” said Davis, who is the not-so-interim superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools. In fact, he said there’s a saying at APS: “Shut up. Stop whining. Do your job.”

Davis was the keynote speaker at Monday’s Rotary Club of Atlanta when he used the opportunity to both look back and forward on the troubled school system that was marred by one of the most public cheating scandals in the nation.

“I’m in the 22nd month of a 90-day assignment,” said Davis, who obviously has become engrossed in his latest challenge. “May you live in interesting times.”

Davis, who stepped into the APS role only a couple of days after retiring as Chancellor of the Georgia Board of Regents, described his tenure as one of wild mood swings. He had hoped the worst was behind them, but the recent indictments of Atlanta teachers and education officials had caused the city to relive the pain and the embarrassment.

“What went wrong here? What we have witnessed is massive leadership failure at every level,” Davis said, adding that he was comforted by the fact that the business and philanthropic communities have remained committed and strong throughout this period. “A lot of good things are going on. (But) it’s hard to get those out under relentless and well-deserved attacks on the system.”

Davis said that APS has taken steps to “manage the risk” of this ever happening again.

“The transgressions and acts we are talking about essentially stopped four years ago,” Davis said. “None of the individuals who were indicted are on our payroll. We have made a lot of changes internally. Sixty percent of our principals have been replaced in two years.”

Davis said that the first couple of months in the summer of 2011 that he took over the reigns at APS were like trying to change tires on a moving vehicle.

Since then, he has worked to improve equity among the schools throughout the system — offering advanced math at all the middle schools instead of in just two — one in Buckhead and one in Midtown. Efforts have been made to have seamless language instruction from elementary to middle to high schools.

All of this is happening at a time of declining resources. APS’ budget has declined by $100 million in three years he said. At the same time, graduation rate is a “stunning” 52 percent.

“It is  unacceptable,” Davis said, comparing it to an airline crashing half of its planes. “We have a lot of tough decisions ahead with even less money this year than we had last year.”

Also, the Atlanta Board of Education is facing elections this years, another challenge or opportunity for the system.

What’s important is to remember where to place blame.

“No child cheated,” Davis said. “Adults did. We failed them miserably. Two years later we are far better than we were. We are still an under achieving system.”

But Davis kept coming back to the fact that only 52 percent of the students in APS graduate.

“Denial is not a river in Egypt,” Davis said. He urged that community explore all possible solutions including better use of technology in the classroom. “Kids know a hell of a lot more (about technology) than the teachers,” he said, explaining one of the challenges.

APS currently is searching for a permanent superintendent.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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