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Local Education

    An internal audit found Atlanta Public Schools employees spent nearly $20 million over two years using district-issued purchasing cards with lax oversight. The audit examined the use of 538 Visa cards held by 284 APS employees, including some principals, secretaries, business managers and central office managers responsible for budgets. Cardholders made 44,226 transactions from May 2016 to May 2018, racking up a total of $19,484,470 buying things such as office supplies, books, equipment and auto parts. The purchasing card program aims to reduce the use of petty cash funds and streamline the purchase of items needed to run schools and do district business. But the audit found APS was not monitoring transactions “for appropriateness” — leading to policy violations such as cardholders’ failure to keep receipts and get multiple quotes for purchases over $2,001. Auditors also found examples of the purchasing cards being used to buy gift cards. LEARN MORE: What are p-cards and why do governments use them? The report, completed last fall and obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open-records request, uncovered other problems. Cardholders were not required to receive training before using their cards and some got cards even though their applications for the program were not completed, approved and on file. When employees stopped working for APS, the district didn’t always know to cancel their cards. One cardholder, the executive director of transportation, had no purchase limit on single transactions. APS said that was to pay for emergency maintenance for buses. The audit noted that “effective controls and adequate management oversight must be present to ensure potentially fraudulent, improper and abusive card usage does not go undetected.” Government credit cards can be ripe for problems because of the vast number of users and transactions. The potential misuse of City of Atlanta credit cards is part of a federal corruption investigation. AJC and Channel 2 Action News previously reported on the use of city credit cards for Paris hotel stays, steak dinners and political donations. Some of the questionable purchases have since been repaid. Public agencies that give employees purchasing cards are advised to provide ongoing training, have spending and transaction limits, require record keeping and conduct periodic checks for sales receipts and documentation, according to the Government Finance Officers Association, which represents thousands of public finance officials. The use of cards by public agencies has become increasingly common since the association adopted those guidelines in 2011, said deputy executive director Mike Mucha. Cards have become “an essential component of procuring goods and services,” leading to a proliferation of cardholders in organizations. Some APS employees have multiple cards to avoid commingling funds from different budgets. District spokesman Ian Smith said that the district has adopted all of the audit recommendations and taken extra precautions to improve oversight. That includes doing more monitoring, including random data sampling and requesting documents from cardholders. The district now requires annual training for cardholders and has established single-transaction credit limits and improved the process to notify the district when a cardholder’s employment status changes, he said. Smith said those changes are in addition to safeguards in place before the audit, such as restricting what kinds of goods and services can be bought using a card. “That audit has helped us strengthen existing protocols and procedures and mitigate any potential risks,” he said, in a written statement. School board member Leslie Grant, chairwoman of the audit committee, said the committee will track the district’s response to ensure it follows all recommendations. Several years ago, the accounting and consulting firm PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, helped the district identify areas that posed risk and warranted the district taking a closer look. A purchasing card review was among the suggested audits. Grant said misuse of purchasing cards may not pose a huge financial risk but can damage the district’s reputation if someone with easy access to a card makes a bad decision. Because it involves the public trust, those problems can become bigger issues, she said. “I am glad that we are putting together a comprehensive program of risk assessment, competent audit processes and the right type of oversight that will be open and accessible to the public,” Grant said.
  • Dooley Field is officially a done deal. The Georgia Board of Regents approved a proposal Tuesday to name the University of Georgia’s football field after former head coach and athletics director Vince Dooley. The board approved the proposal without opposition. University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley and some board members praised the idea when it was announced two weeks ago. The university’s athletic association’s board of directors unanimously approved the proposal earlier this month. Dooley, 86, was head football coach from 1963 to 1989. His teams won the 1980 national championship and six Southeastern Conference championships. Under his tenure as athletic director, UGA athletic teams won twenty-three national championships and seventy-eight SEC championships. Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium is expected to be crowned Sept. 7, when the Bulldogs face Murray State in the home opener.
  • The University of Georgia has barred a longtime math professor from campus as investigators review several sexual misconduct complaints against him. The university said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution late Friday that its Equal Opportunity Office is investigating allegations against the professor, William Kazez, who’s been a faculty member at UGA for about three decades. It also presented a campus police report from one woman who accused him of sexual harassment.  At least seven women — students and faculty members — have come forward in recent months with complaints going back several years of unwanted touching, groping and sex acts by Kazez, according to Lisa Anderson, a Decatur attorney representing two of the women who said she’s working with the others. She said the claims from women at the University of Georgia go back at least to 2014. The university said it would not discuss the specifics of its probe, but stressed it will vigorously investigate and “impose sanctions on faculty and employees found to have engaged in sexual misconduct.” “Professor Kazez has been barred from campus and is not teaching while the investigation is underway,” the statement said. An attorney representing Kazez said in an email Friday evening to the AJC that Kazez denies “acting unlawfully” towards the students and said he has not had any prior Equal Opportunity Office complaints against him in his UGA career. “Dr. Kazez has empathy for the accusers, however, some of their assertions have changed over time, and others could not have happened as alleged,” said the attorney, Janet E. Hill. “At this point, no violations have been proven. The University of Georgia has a process to investigate allegations such as these which is designed to protect the rights of the accusers and the accused. Dr. Kazez looks forward to resolving this matter through the established legal processes rather than in the court of public opinion.” Anderson, though, said the allegations against Kazez are some of the most egregious she’s heard. The women have been undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, she said. Anderson, executive director of Atlanta Women for Equality, who has represented several women throughout the state in recent years who’ve accused college students or faculty of misconduct, said Kazez used his influence over the women, particularly the graduate students, to coerce them to engage in sexual encounters with him. “This should not have happened in the first place. Now it has to stop,” Anderson said. “Kazez must never again be in a position where he can use his position of authority, respect and trust to hurt women and, on a broader scale, cripple our education system.  The University System of Georgia’s sexual harassment policy prohibits unwelcome sexual advancements, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The University of Georgia is part of the University System of Georgia. The University System also has a policy prohibiting employees from engaging in sexual contact or amorous relationships with any student or system employee who the individual supervises, teaches, or evaluates in any way. That policy prohibits employees from having a romantic or sexual relationship with any student or system employee whose terms or conditions of education or employment the individual could directly affect. Violators can be fired.  The university on April 26 told the AJC in response to an open records request that any information concerning an investigation of Kazez “would currently be exempt from disclosure.”  But on Friday afternoon, the university provided the AJC a campus police report filed March 18 by a woman against Kazez. The newspaper does not identify alleged sexual harassment or assault survivors without their consent.  The woman, a graduate student, said the alleged misconduct began in September 2017. The woman said she was in her office with Kazez when he began to touch her breasts, but she did not stop him, according to the police report. The woman said in another incident, Kazez touched her buttocks and she tried to move away from him. The woman said she and Kazez had sexual intercourse at least six times “and she said she was never physically forced nor was she told there would be consequences for having/not having sex with Kazez,” the report said. The woman said she told Kazez in January she wanted the sexual encounters to end, the report said. Kazez asked the woman to meet him in late February, but she refused, saying she would only do so with her lawyer present, the report said.  The woman asked university police for an escort to all of her classes, the report said. Police declined the request, but advised her to call if Kazez contacted her and threatened her or if she felt in danger. >> READ | Proposed changes to the way colleges investigate assault cases draws fire In December 2017, the University of Georgia received a complaint in an email from a woman who said Kazez once touched her inappropriately three decades ago when she was an undergraduate student and he was a post-doctoral student at the California Institute of Technology. The woman, Laura Anderson, no relation to Lisa, said she came forward with her claim in the wake of #MeToo movement as more women across the country who had been sexually assaulted or harassed began sharing their stories. Laura Anderson said Kazez invited her to come to his apartment to study one evening. He repeatedly asked to give her a massage. She said she initially declined but later let him do so, hoping to appease him. Laura Anderson told the University of Georgia in her email that Kazez touched her between her legs and “I extricated myself from the situation as fast as I could, and I gave him no further opportunities for such behavior. It was a disgusting experience.” The University of Georgia sent Laura Anderson a reply two days after her email thanking Anderson for sharing the information but said there had been no reports of inappropriate behavior by Kazez. Laura Anderson said in an interview this week with the AJC she did not report the incident when it happened because “it was 1988.” About 15% of the students at Caltech at the time were women, she said.  “There was no consciousness that women were out here,” she said. Laura Anderson, who teaches math at a university in New York, believes Kazez should be fired. She’s worried that Kazez could harm female students. “When you are a grad student, your whole career depends on faculty being happy with you,” she explained. Laura Anderson, aware of the current investigation, said of it all “it’s been nagging in the back of my mind all this time.”
  • Mike Looney will be the next superintendent of Fulton County Schools, Georgia’s fourth largest school district.  The Fulton County school board on Thursday voted unanimously  to hire Looney. He will be Fulton’s fourth superintendent, not including interim leaders, since spring 2008.  “Today is the conclusion of a thorough and thoughtful process,” said board president Linda Bryant.  Looney begins his three-year term with Fulton County Schools on June 17.  He will make a base salary of $329,000, more than the $295,000 salary received by previous superintendent Jeff Rose.  By comparison, DeKalb superintendent Steve Green makes a base salary of $306,000. Gwinnett superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who has held the position since 1996, makes a base salary of $357,418. Like other superintendents, Looney also will receive numerous other benefits, according to contracts obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open-records request.  In addition to his base salary, he will receive a $1,250 per month expense allowance to be used for “routine expenses” that come up as he fulfills his job duties. Looney will not be required to document those expenses. In addition, the district will pay or reimburse “reasonable travel and other expenses” as approved by the board.  Looney will receive an $800 a month automobile allowance, in addition to reimbursements for insurance, fuel, service and repairs.  The district will contribute 10 percent of his base salary to a retirement plan.  Looney plans to work for the district as a consultant prior to June 17, work that may entail attending school board meetings, reviewing the budget and district policies, and meeting with employees and community groups. The district will pay him a daily rate of $1,400 for days he works for Fulton before his official start date. That daily rate works out to the same amount as his annual salary.   The district also will pay for moving expenses and travel, and cover the cost of Looney’s first six months of temporary housing.  Looney, 56, takes over  after the resignation of Rose last fall. The board did a national search to find Rose’s successor and interviewed seven of the 40 applications it received from qualified candidates. The  board announced Looney as its top choice two weeks ago.  “I will bring a laser focus to student learning like we haven’t seen in recent times,” Looney said during brief remarks after the vote.  Georgia law allows school districts to keep much of a superintendent search secret, but school boards can’t vote to hire a superintendent until 14 days after releasing the finalist’s name. The waiting period is intended to allow for public comment on the board’s pick, and Fulton school board members used the time to visit Looney’s Tennessee district and meet with parents, school leaders and community members there.  Looney has been the superintendent of Williamson County Schools in Franklin, Tenn. for nearly a decade. The affluent district located in a suburb of Nashville has about 40,000 students, about half the size of Fulton, and 48 schools.  He previously worked as superintendent of Butler County Schools in Greenville, Ala., from 2005 to 2009. Before that he was assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama.
  • A University of Georgia graduate student defended himself Friday at a hearing against a complaint he violated its student code of conduct in a dispute that centered around race and the boundaries of freedom of expression rights. The student, Irami Osei-Frimpong, and his supporters believe the complaint against him, that he purposefully omitted a 2011 trespassing arrest from his admissions application, is a veiled attempt to remove him from campus for racially charged statements he made at a meeting that were posted online in January. Osei-Frimpong, an African American teaching assistant studying philosophy, made comments such as “some white people may have to die for black communities to be made whole in this struggle to advance to freedom.” His critics argued the comments advocated violence against whites and want him expelled. He denies any desire to incite violence and only wants to spark more conversation about racial inequities. Osei-Frimpong waived his federal privacy rights and allowed public access to the hearing, which drew a packed audience that required the university to arrange for people to listen to the hearing via speakerphone in overflow areas. He was accused of falsely filling out his graduate school application in December 2015 because he didn’t mention his prior studies at the University of Chicago and answered no to whether he had been charged or convicted of anything other than a minor traffic offense. The penalties for falsely filling out graduate school application forms includes dismissal. The three-student panel who heard the case will likely issue a decision in about a week. >> PREVIOUS COVERAGE | UGA assistant under fire for racially-charged comments about whites Osei-Frimpong vigorously defended himself during the six-hour hearing, at some points conducting what was akin to a classroom lecture. Five witnesses testified as part of his defense. “I know this is long, but this is my one and only pass at this,” he said. At one point during the hearing, Osei-Frimpong said the complaint against him is an attempt to “chill” his speech rights. Some organizations agreed. Three groups earlier this month wrote a joint letter to the university’s president, Jere Morehead, demanding he dismiss the complaint. “By failing to reaffirm that Osei-Frimpong’s speech was protected by the First Amendment, UGA sends the message that it will go to great lengths to punish speakers who offend ideological critics or donors,” the letter said. Others, though, were outraged by some of his remarks and threatened to withhold donations. University officials said in a statement a few days after the threats, that the administration “condemn(s) the advocacy or suggestion of violence in any form” and was seeking legal options. Near the end of January, the university received an anonymous call that Osei-Frimpong omitted mentioning an October 2011 arrest for participating in an Occupy Wall Street protest during his studies at the University of Chicago. An Illinois judge dismissed the charges against him, so he said he answered the question about prior charges or convictions correctly. Osei-Frimpong studied political science at the University of Chicago. He said he was thinking about schools where he studied philosophy when he answered the question about his past studies. “I don’t know about this conspiracy I’m hiding my arrest,” Osei-Frimpong said during the hearing. “I live a public life.” Cheri Bliss, the university’s director of graduate student services, said in response to his questions during the hearing the application requires full disclosure. “It’s a concern you did not list (attending the University of Chicago),” Bliss told him.
  • At next year’s high school graduation ceremonies, Atlanta seniors will wear, not just taste, the feeling. Atlanta Public Schools seniors in the class of 2020 will don graduation caps and gowns made out of recycled plastic bottles thanks to an innovative program by Coca-Cola.  The result may be the most uniquely Atlanta graduation gear ever.  2019 graduation dates for Atlanta high schools The caps and gowns will be made out of plastic bottles collected by the Atlanta-based company. The bottles are broken down into pellets and the material is then woven into fabric made of polyester yarn.  Coca-Cola began collecting plastic bottles this week at its headquarters as part of its Earth Day activities. The goal is to gather 7,000 bottles, enough to make graduation outfits for 200 graduates.  Over the following months, the company plans to hold more collection drives in the Atlanta area until it has enough bottles to make caps and gowns for the entire APS graduation class of 2020. Roughly 2,400 students have graduated from Atlanta high schools in each of the last two years.  Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said Coca-Cola’s donation will help lower the cost of senior fees paid by students’ families.  “It’s a beautiful gesture for giving back to both their hometown schools and the environment,” she said, in a news release issued by Coca-Cola.
  • Nathan Alexander is on a mission to recruit and encourage more black men to teach mathematics, as studies suggest simply having black men as teachers has a significant impact on black students. Alexander, a researcher and visiting professor in Morehouse College’s department of mathematics, founded the Black Male Mathematics Teacher Project, which connects black men who teach math across all grades and organizations, from K-12 classrooms to community-based programs and adult-education programs. U.S. Department of Education figures show just 2% of the country’s teachers are black men. Alexander said about .69% of those black men teach high school math. “Seeing a black man who teaches math … is powerful,” Alexander said. He uses math as the project’s focus because of its many uses in everyday life, as well as it being a personal love of his. In Georgia, the number of black teachers is slowly on the rise. During the 2017-2018 school year, there were 113,122 teachers in the state’s workforce and approximately 21.4% of them were black, up from 20.2% during the 2015-2016 school year, according to Georgia K-12 Teacher and Leader Workforce Status Reports from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. During the 2017-2018 school year, 24% of new teachers were black. In metro Atlanta, 8% of teachers are black men. About 80 percent are women, and more than two-thirds of them white. Research suggests the presence of black teachers in early grades can greatly influence a black student’s future. A 2018 study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University suggests black students who have one black teacher by third grade are 13 percent more likely to go to college. Two black teachers, and a black student is 32 percent more likely to go to college. Alexander points to his own experience and the man who influenced him: a black high school algebra teacher named James Rivers who encouraged him to be more active in math events at Monroe High School in Monroe, N.C., just outside of Charlotte. Rivers, Alexander said, pushed him to enter area math competitions and to become president of the school’s math club. “I believe that’s why I got into mathematics,” Alexander said. The Black Male Mathematics Teacher Project, which began in 2016, hopes to identify, prepare and retain black men who teach math across different education settings. It studies professional practices, beliefs and attitudes of black men teaching math and wants to create groups to support and encourage black men to enter the profession. A teacher’s approach to lessons has great impact, Alexander has seen. While he was a University of San Francisco assistant professor, annual trips to Belize with students paired him and several students with a handful of black teachers keen on improving how they thought about teaching. The trips were part of Project Learn Belize — where students and faculty work to immerse themselves in the country’s culture. He noticed people were not traveling out of their communities to teach. “There was a certain tenderness and a certain mindset they possess,” he said of the Belizean teachers. “When I looked at the teachers here, a lot of my work was convincing teachers to be of the community.” While working in San Quentin State Prison through the University of California-Berkeley, Alexander found himself co-teaching with Detroit, an inmate serving a life sentence. The man earned several associate degrees in prison and taught math for 15 of the 25 years he spent there. Alexander said he learned a lot during that experience, including not to underestimate the role — or awareness — of community-based teachers. Detroit, who left San Quentin in 2016, said he enjoyed helping others understand the concepts around math and science, often using real world scenarios that fit their lifestyles. “I was just a guy from the ‘hood doing a life sentence, and I tried to show them a different way of doing math … that they would be receptive to,” said Detroit, now a math tutor for a public charter school group in San Francisco. “In prison, I did it getting paid 15 cents an hour for 15 years.” According to data from the project’s first year, black men are just as likely as other teachers to have math certifications, but are more likely to have only the minimum education needed when teaching high school math and more likely to have low to moderate success. Recruiting men to the teaching ranks could be an uphill battle. “Somehow, teaching has increasingly become an occupation of choice for women,” said Richard Ingersoll, an education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Ingersoll was speaking to reporters and educators in Atlanta Tuesday as part of the Critical Issues Forum organized by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a series of lectures that discuss issues important to Georgia education. He said teaching jobs were initially created for women as a not-too-long-term role that women were expected to abandon as they got married and put more focus on raising families. Ingersoll’s research indicated that while the number of teachers of color was increasing, the number who quit their jobs was high as well. Teachers of color largely work in struggling schools, where turnover often is higher. “There is big concern about the trend,” he said. “It’s not about the person. It has to do with the schools.”  Alexander said reasons so few black men teach math are rooted in discriminatory practices, such as the Negro Act of 1740, a South Carolina law that made it illegal for enslaved Africans, among other things, to earn money or learn to write. Though the law was voided in 1865, its impact remained for years as many black residents were denied fair education and access to higher education. “Math was being used to keep us out of participating as a society through even voting,” he said. He cited the need for Bob Moses’ Algebra project — which began in the 1980s recognizing a lack of math literacy for black people — as evidence that repercussions from centuries-old laws persist. Alexander said he is encouraged by his students at Morehouse, including several who say they plan to teach math after graduation.
  • Schoolyard routine turned into chaos Thursday at a DeKalb County elementary when children began running and parents began getting reports with the words that have become one of their nightmares: active shooter. It turned out the shots that struck 10 students at Wynbrooke Traditional Theme School came from a BB or pellet gun, and no injuries were life-threatening. Shortly after lunch, children were on the playground at the Stone Mountain school when shots came from a wooded area adjacent to the playground. Not knowing exactly what was going on, panicked parents rushed to the school to pick up their children. Tarik Edmondson was among the first to arrive. “You just panic and you want to get your child,” he told media assembled at the entrance. Barbara Madison, who lives nearby and had rushed to get her niece, said, “My heart dropped when I heard about it.” The shots appear to have come from a position away from the school grounds, a statement from the district said. It is not clear if the students were targeted. DeKalb County School District police were still searching Thursday afternoon for the person who fired them. District officials said there will be increased police presence at the school Friday. Neither school officials nor school police would confirm if students will be allowed on the playground today. A suspect had not been identified. The access road to the north of the school complex was blocked by police. There’s a small playground on that side of the school where kindergartners and first-graders often play — away from the bigger kids. The school goes up to fifth grade. There wasn’t much police presence near the playground designated for older students. The school system did not give the ages of those who were shot. Nine students were taken to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston and one was picked up by parents, according to according to hospital spokeswoman Ayana Isles. She said all were in good condition and none had to stay in the hospital. Caleb Edmonson, 11, told Channel 2 that his class was at lunch when a teacher asked a janitor to lock the doors and close the blinds. “People started to think it was a drill,” Edmonson said, “but then like a couple of minutes later we saw an ambulance and police officers coming in, running down our hallways.” A statement signed by Principal Jermain Sumler-Faison said, “There was never a threat of anyone getting into the school building and the remaining students were not injured.” Several parents told reporters they got very little information from school officials. “I got a text from Channel 2,” a woman who wouldn’t give her name said. “If it wasn’t for the news, I wouldn’t have known anything.” Student Mya Mark said she was at lunch when she saw an ambulance pull up to the school. “I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.” Kevin Johnson said his son was struck in the back by a pellet or BB. The kindergartner was expected to be released from the hospital Thursday, as his injuries weren’t life-threatening. Johnson was grateful for the quick response of emergency workers and said he’s glad it wasn’t a real gun. The school was put on a level two lockdown, which means all classroom doors are locked, students and staff are not allowed to leave the classroom and all visitors and vendors in the building must immediately report to the main office. The Orchards subdivision runs along the north side of the school. Several police vehicles were stationed Thursday on Orchards Walk, the main road into the subdivision, as officers appeared to investigate homes on that side of the school. Asia Simone Burns and Alyssa Pointer contributed to this article.
  • ATHENS - A group of about 40 current and former University of Georgia students, faculty and community activists met Wednesday evening to demand the university approve several changes, including reparations, to remedy how they believe the school has benefited from slavery. The demands include: a center on campus that explores the university’s history with slavery guarantee full-tuition, all-fees-included scholarships for descendants of the enslaved who worked on campus and for every African American student who graduates from a public high school in Athens pay full-time and part-time workers at least $15 a hour to address a “massive racial wealth gap.” The group discussed plans for a march Monday afternoon to the university’s administration building to publicize its demands. The demands stem from an ongoing debate at Georgia’s flagship campus concerning how the university has handled the 2015 discovery of 100 remains in an area on campus that was known to be a former slave burial site.  “(The university has) a responsibility to the people they disgraced,” UGA graduate student Rachelle Berry told the group. Berry and others explained reparations could include the university investing in local afterschool programs and early childhood development. She said many students support the idea but others have questions and concerns. Some students and others at colleges and universities nationally in recent months have discussed how their schools can offer various forms of reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. Georgetown University students approved a non-binding referendum earlier this month to increase their fees to create a fund that pays for education and health programs for descendants of the enslaved that benefited the school. Sixty-six percent of its students voted for the referendum. UGA President Jere Morehead responded in a recent op-ed to the group here by noting the university’s ongoing efforts to offer more needs-based scholarships and what he said was a respectful process to handle the burial remains that included a memorial on campus.
  • Atlanta Public Schools may be more accustomed to critics than imitators, but three years into a turnaround effort APS has caught another district’s eye.  A contingent from Charleston visited Atlanta last week to check out schools and programs that the group is interested in replicating 300 miles away in South Carolina.  It may surprise some that other districts would view APS as a potential model.  After all, it was only four years ago that 11 former Atlanta educators were convicted of racketeering in a districtwide cheating scandal that thrust APS into an unwelcome national spotlight. Atlanta leaders are quick to acknowledge that although the district has posted some gains since launching its turnaround strategy in 2016,  much work remains to be done to improve still-struggling schools. It was only a few months ago that APS board members traveled to Denver to see what they could learn from the Colorado district.  But last week, the tables turned when APS hosted out-of-state visitors. The Charleston County School District has a number of troubled schools, including a half dozen listed on the state’s “priority” list. Those are the schools that fall into the bottom 10 percent of all schools in South Carolina.  The group’s request to check out APS was the first of its kind for Atlanta school board Chairman Jason Esteves. He and fellow board members Michelle Olympiadis, Cynthia Briscoe Brown and Eshe’ Collins met with the South Carolina group and took them to several Atlanta schools.  “I told them, ‘Look, what you saw today is a work in progress,’” Esteves said. “We don’t have the silver bullet here in Atlanta because we are still trying to address our issues.”Kevin Hollinshead, a Charleston school board member, said news stories about APS turnaround efforts sparked his interest. He said the two southern school systems share plenty in common. Both have an enrollment of just over 50,000 students, have a large African-American population, and have schools in very low-income neighborhoods. He acknowledged Atlanta has “gone through some turmoil” but thinks his district can learn from APS.  In 2016, the Atlanta school board approved a controversial turnaround plan to improve schools that were, at the time, in jeopardy of a proposed state takeover. The effort included closing and merging schools, providing more money for tutoring and social services, and hiring charter school groups to run a handful of schools. Some of those moves proved unpopular with parents and advocates.  The Charleston group included community leaders, retired teachers and a charter school group. They visited Hollis Innovation Academy, which opened in the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods in 2016. The school is expanding each year until it eventually will serve students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grades.  Hollinshead praised the extra social services-- what educators refer to as “wraparound services” -- offered at Hollis. The academy partners with community agencies, nonprofits and businesses to help parents and students with academic and non-academic needs. One program provides free legal assistance to help families avoid eviction.  Joe Bowers, director of operations for the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, also made the trip to Atlanta.  “The thing that really impressed me at Hollis was the support for the teachers that are in that high-poverty environment,” he said.  He also cited the freedom Atlanta principals have to make decisions about what is best for their schools.  “Autonomy is key,” Bowers said. “That’s the main reason why you are starting to see more success.” The Charleston group also visited two APS single-gender schools, the all-male BEST Academy and the all-female Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy.  Hollinshead said he wants to meet with state officials back in South Carolina to see if they will support some of the initiatives he saw in Atlanta. He’d like to start by increasing salaries to attract great teachers and providing more social services for students and families.  He plans to return to Atlanta for another visit this fall.