ATLANTA - A Channel 2 Action News investigation has found that hundreds of Georgia high school seniors transfer from public to private schools just weeks before their scheduled graduation every spring.
Investigative reporter Richard Belcher discovered the apparent motive in at least some of those cases is those seniors failed the state graduation test.
In one Atlanta high school, a graduation coach actually encouraged students to transfer to a private school, which does not require a graduation test.
The transfers are legal, but a senior official at Atlanta Public Schools says the district does not want to encourage the practice.
This spring, Belcher received a tip that as many as 20 seniors had left Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School in early May, right before graduation.
Belcher spent months piecing the story together – finding the pictures 16 Maynard Jackson seniors in the school’s yearbook as well as in the May commencement program of Life Christian Academy, a private school in College Park. Five other former Maynard Jackson seniors were also featured in the program.
After knocking on many doors, one mother confirmed that her daughter transferred to Life Christian at the last minute because of the graduation test.
“Yeah, Life Christian is a godsend to a lot of students (who can’t pass the graduation test),” the mother told Belcher.
Life Christian is accredited by the Georgia Accrediting Commission, but it does not require the graduation test that the transferring students failed at Maynard Jackson.
Belcher received a cool reception when he tried to approach school administrators.
A mother and a former student told Channel 2 Action News the idea for late transfers came directly from Arlena Edmonds, a graduation coach at Maynard Jackson High School.
APS does not dispute that, but would not say if Edmonds had been disciplined.
“I can’t discuss disciplinary action against an employee,” APS associate superintendent Dr. Timothy Gadson said.
Gadson did say that APS should not promote such transfers.
“That is not something that we as a district support or even recommend. So, I would say, no, we don’t make those kinds of recommendations that in the 11th hour students transfer from a school,” Gadson said. “I don’t support any student making a move to get out of taking an assessment.”
In fact, Gadson says a senior administrator sent high school principals a memo in the spring directing them not to encourage such transfers. But that did not stop what happened at Maynard Jackson.
Gadson says the message from APS is now very clear and principals know not to encourage the practice.
Another question still unresolved is how much the late departure of these students improved the graduation rates at Maynard Jackson. APS initially said there was no improvement, but now it is investigating.
APS says 28 seniors left between May 5 and May 20, 2014. Statewide, 310 seniors transferred to private schools after May 1, about the same number as in each of the past two years.
APS says it is now investigating whether Jackson High School correctly reported the number of seniors who transferred to private school after May 1, 2014. It is also investigating how the transfers of so many seniors, who were not going to graduate on time, affected the graduation rate at Jackson.