ATLANTA — When Beverly Hall first arrived in Atlanta as superintendent of the city’s public school system, she cautioned that it would take time to fix the problems of low student performance.
But test scores dramatically improved in 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 others 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 they worked together in Brooklyn, N.Y. “The job, they’ve taken that away, but that’s not important. … She’s fighting for her name.”
Tuesday was the deadline for Hall and 34 other educators indicted last week to surrender. 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 before the end of the night. Other educators surrendered 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 recommended at $7.5 million and later set at $200,000, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office said.
“I honestly believe Dr. Hall wouldn’t tolerate cheating,” Harris said. “She has that integrity. She wouldn’t tolerate it.”
Under her leadership in Atlanta, 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 and defended the 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.
Further investigations revealed more anomalies in scores, and calls for Hall’s resignation mounted. A 2011 investigative report said administrators under pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind law created a culture of “fear, intimidation and retaliation.” Hall resigned that year but has denied being involved in or having knowledge of 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.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, a longtime Hall supporter, wrote in a blog posting Tuesday that people should wait to pass judgment on Hall and others until they have their day in court.
“Yes cheating is awful,” Franklin wrote. “And so is conviction before a fair trial.”
Harris, who spoke with Hall a few days ago, said he worries about the long road ahead for his friend. He sighed as he gestured toward the tall, imposing walls of the Fulton County Jail.
“This will almost kill her,” Harris said.