Principal broke law with student 'furloughs'

A Bibb County high school principal violated state law when he “furloughed” failing students in 2008 and 2009, sending them home during finals and denying them the chance to take state-mandated exams.

Starting in 2008, Southwest High School principal Tyrone Bacon started a policy that students who were failing at least three of their five courses — and had no chance of passing them — would be sent home from school for five days during End-of-Course Testing. The practice was called “academic furlough.”

About 40 Southwest students were furloughed this past December. Eleven students were sent home in May 2009, and 16 students were dismissed in December 2008.

Bacon said Friday that the policy was meant to spur students to take classes more seriously.

“You had kids with 18s and 20s (in their courses) and had no mathematical chance of passing,” he said. “They were fighting and acting up, and kids who wanted to pass the test, they were being disturbed.”

“The program was about making it safe for those who wanted an opportunity and give those who didn’t, give them a shock,” Bacon added.

But the problem with such a practice, school system and state officials said, is that schools are required to give all students state-mandated exams such as End-of-Course Tests. Bacon conceded that he didn’t ask the state or central office officials beforehand if the dismissals were allowed. Not doing so, he said, was “an oversight.”

The students should not have been sent home, a school official said.

“The academic furlough denied students the opportunity to attend school for academic reasons, and students were not afforded due process in order to challenge being placed on academic furlough and removed from school,” said Sylvia McGee, Bibb’s interim superintendent. “This was a serious concern to the district and should not have occurred.”

McGee said the central office learned of the furloughs on the last day of December’s End-of-Course Testing administration. A parent complained. The school system was able to call the 40 failing students back to school and give them the test during a make-up day.

A central office investigation began then and was completed recently.

According to a Feb. 5 letter from the school system to Bacon, he won’t be offered a job for this coming school year.

The school system also sent a complaint to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, the state’s oversight agency for educators, that Bacon may have been responsible for a testing violation, McGee said.

“We immediately began our investigation and have taken subsequent actions based on what we discovered,” McGee said.

Georgia Department of Education officials said they are working with the Bibb school system to help rectify the problem.

The state is asking Southwest High to submit a plan preventing furloughs from happening again and to allow those students denied the test — even from 2008 — to take it.

“They are trying to go back and find kids not provided the test to make up the test,” said Melissa Fincher, the state’s associate superintendent for assessment and accountability. “They are waiting to have final numbers.”

It is “concerning,” she said, that students may not come back to take the tests or may not remember the coursework well enough to pass the exam.

Even though some students did not take the tests, it won’t affect the school’s Adequate Yearly Progress determination, since End-of-Course Tests do not serve as an accountability measure under the federal No Child Left Behind law, she said.

State lawmakers required the tests to measure whether students are learning the state curriculum in eight high school courses.

The results also help school officials identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, and they are used to help make instruction decisions. The exams also count as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said he had not heard of any such student furlough practice before, and he said he would not recommend that schools use it.

“It’s not the best policy to go by,” he said. “It’s a violation of state law.”

The PSC also could view what happened as a testing violation, but state officials said they couldn’t say for sure until they receive Bibb’s detailed report of its investigation and findings.

In its Feb. 5 letter, the school system said Bacon “failed to use good judgment” and comply with state standards. For the remainder of the school year, the letter said, Bacon should focus on student achievement and instruction and “close the year in a professional manner.”

“If anything disruptive or efforts aren’t made to help furloughed students be able to make up the test and a report on this progress isn’t made to administration, it would be cause for immediate termination,” the letter also said.

Since coming to Southwest in 2006, Bacon has been investigated by the central office five times. After one of the investigations, he was given a 10-day suspension, without pay, for allegedly mishandling federal funds.

There is an ongoing central office investigation of allegations that students paid money to make up course credits as well as missed school days, and there have been questions about a recent dance held during the school day.

“This is a separate matter that has only recently come to our attention and is still under investigation,” McGee said when asked about it.

Last month, The Telegraph reported that before Bacon was hired in Bibb County, he had had problems when he was a principal in the Lamar County school system. Those problems kept him from being rehired as the Lamar County High School principal.

There is a difference of opinion whether Bacon should be allowed to continue at Southwest or whether he should be replaced before the end of school.

About 30 supporters of Bacon’s attended Thursday night’s school board meeting, asking the board to allow him to return this coming fall.

Some of the students and teachers wore T-shirts that read “Save Our Principal” to school Thursday and the board meeting.

A freshman student also started a petition drive to save his job.

“Until Mr. Bacon’s first semester, the science department had at least one class being held by a substitute teacher for the entire semester. Test scores were abominable,” Southwest teacher and science chair Lara Relyea told the board. “Those of us who were there for the purpose of student achievement did the best we could, but without support,” before Bacon arrived.

Bacon reinforced the school’s leadership and worked to find ways to help students, she said. He has helped the school make some gains on school test scores.

But others say that if he broke rules, he should go.

“As far as Bacon being a disciplinarian, yes he is,” said Carlette Reliford, a former Southwest High teacher, who said she filed a complaint against Bacon in 2008.

She maintained that Bacon had turned in falsified time sheets showing that teachers had worked during a summer institute on days they had not actually worked.

In doing so, according to a school investigation, federal Title I funding from a new fiscal year was targeted.

“He had time sheets saying we worked on a Saturday,” Reliford said. “It showed I worked when I was under anesthesia having surgery.”

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.