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Posted by on October 29, 2012.

Buckhead: Former principal changed minds about public schools

Mark MyGrant, former North Atlanta High principal. /File photo

On Oct. 4, North Atlanta High Principal Mark MyGrant visited Phyllis Smith’s Buckhead home to talk with parents of graduating Sutton Middle School students.

The man with the easy smile and mischievous sense of humor was days away from his official retirement.  Smith provided hors d’oeuvres and a buffet dinner.

MyGrant had already convinced Smith and other parents to choose public schools over private.  For many families, he’d been their children’s principal since the sixth grade. He was a salesman for the entire North Atlanta cluster. Smith had hosted similar meetings for several years.

“We end up always getting parents from private schools that hear about it and want to come,” Smith said. “The interest has grown because Mark always came and did the dog-and-pony show.”

But the next day, things turned ugly.

Atlanta Public Schools officials went to North Atlanta on Oct. 5 as classes were winding down and told MyGrant to leave the school’s campus.

APS officials announced they were reassigning his leadership team, but didn’t offer any further explanation for the changes until Oct. 9. The event has been dubbed “Bloody Friday” by parents, a theatrical name worthy of the weeks of drama that have unfolded since.

Students staged a walkout after Superintendent Erroll Davis met with the community on Oct. 9. Davis claimed he made the changes because state Department of Education planned to take over North Atlanta because of weak test scores. That was disputed by state officials.

On Oct. 22, the Atlanta Board of Education delayed a decision to extend Davis’ contract after District 4 Board of Education member Nancy Meister asked for it to be postponed, citing the controversy. Now the school system is probing alleged “grade changing” at the school.

Since “Bloody Friday,” a conflicting account of MyGrant’s tenure at the school has emerged.

MyGrant has said the removal stemmed from allegations he hired two employees who were accused of racism.

Parents who followed MyGrant from middle school said they were baffled by the allegations.

Paschell Cummings Mix, parent of three North Atlanta graduates, called the claims “crazy” and said the accusers may have hidden agendas.

“Just because Mark is white he’s racist? I don’t get that,” she said.

Nothing in MyGrant’s personnel record supports the allegations. The documents tell the story of a man who was good at his job. MyGrant joined APS in the 1980s. His file shows he was once named teacher of the year when he taught at McGill Elementary School early in his career with the school system. It contains letters of glowing recommendation from parents and complimentary performance reviews.

MyGrant had planned to retire at the end of the 2012 school year, but APS requested he stay on as an interim when officials had trouble finding his replacement. Howard Taylor, from Gwinnett County Schools, was named the school’s new principal on Oct. 1.

Parents who worked with MyGrant felt personally hurt by APS’ decision to remove him before his last day. Their former principal has become more introspective, trying to distance himself from the controversy while defending his legacy.

The former principal did not want to rehash the circumstances of his departure. But he spoke at length about his time as principal of both Sutton and North Atlanta.

MyGrant became principal at Sutton in 1998. He said he was surprised at how few parents in the school zone sent their children to public school after elementary. He implemented several changes to convince these parents to reconsider. He divided the schools up into three separate academies for sixth, seventh and eighth grades. He attended Parent Teacher Association meetings. He forged partnerships with other community groups, like the Buckhead Business Association.

Shawna Lassiter is the mom of a 2011 North Atlanta graduate. She said MyGrant’s efforts changed the North Atlanta community’s attitude toward public education.

“He would speak about the things they were doing there and really just get people to go in the doors, because people just had this perception that you don’t stay in public schools,” she said.

When he moved to North Atlanta in 2007, the average term of a principal at the school was 18 months.

“There were actually principals that stayed for a semester,” MyGrant said. “So you can imagine with that constant turnover there just weren’t standard practices.”

He and his leadership team changed that too, creating a handbook and implementing traditions that persist.  The school’s diversity became a selling point. North Atlanta is a Title 1 school. The racial makeup of its student body in the 2010-2011 school year was 56 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent white.

Former graduates who have reached out to MyGrant have told him they benefited from the mix of students at the school.

“A lot of their friends were at the big private schools and now are sort of learning ‘diversity’ as they enter college or the workforce,” MyGrant said. “For my kids it was a natural thing.”

The shakeup has been difficult for parents who bought in to public education after MyGrant sold them on it. It has undermined the tenuous trust the parents had placed in Superintendent Erroll Davis and the school board.

Before Oct. 5, the community had weathered a contentious rezoning battle that left the cluster mostly unchanged. Students will soon move into a new high school.

Parents believe Board Chairman Reuben McDaniel, who according to Smith and MyGrant was at the Oct. 4 party, orchestrated MyGrant’s ouster and that he knew what was about to happen the next day. APS spokesman Stephen Alford responded on McDaniel’s behalf, saying the board chairman went to the meeting to pick up his wife who was in attendance. MyGrant was gone by the time McDaniel arrived, according to Alford.

Smith disputed the account, saying McDaniel and his wife both had dinner and listened to MyGrant’s presentation.

While MyGrant spoke, McDaniel listened, Smith said. She described McDaniel’s expression as “the cat that swallowed the canary.”

“He was all smiles and ‘isn’t this wonderful?’” Smith said.

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