Georgia school officials to get taste of Chain Gang

Atlanta writer Jonathan Grant will sign copies of his newly-published novel, Chain Gang Elementary, on December 1 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. during the Georgia School Boards Association’s pre-conference workshop sessions at Atlanta’s Renaissance Waverly Hotel.

With its tale of PTA embezzlement and a testing scandal set against a backdrop of immigration crackdowns and bitter cultural wars, the plot of Chain Gang Elementary (Thornbriar Press, $16.00, ISBN 978-0-9834921-0-8) seems like it’s been ripped straight from today’s headlines. Indeed, noted educator Diane Ravitch recently stated: “Truth or fiction: ‘Chain Gang Elementary’ cuts too close to reality. A novel that reads like daily news.”

Grant insists his book isn’t a recent concoction, however. “I’ve been working on it off and on for ten years,” he states. “It’s just more timely now. I saw the potential for testing scandals and rampant embezzlement, along with an unraveling of No Child Left Behind.”

In explaining the book’s plot, Grant says, “Chain Gang Elementary is a tale of war between parents and administrators at a suburban grade school, with casualties. And jokes.” As for how the book got its title, Grant says, “It’s the unfortunate nickname Malliford Elementary gets after its principal institutes some ‘old-school’ discipline, enraging parents.”

A lot of the buzz about Chain Gang centers on a hilarious, yet sobering excerpt from the novel about “The Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test” that highlights the madness that’s overtaken our schools. To read it online, go to

Chain Gang Elementary is available in stores and online. To learn more about this unique novel, visit Sample chapters are available for free download.

To learn more about the Georgia School Boards Association and its upcoming conference, visit the organization’s website at

About the author: Jonathan Grant is an award-winning writer and editor (The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia). He publishes Georgia Colleges (, a news website covering educational issues. Grant grew up on a Missouri farm and graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in English. He is a former newspaper journalist and served as a Georgia state government spokesman. He lives in suburban Atlanta with his family and has been PTA president at a five-star School of Excellence and an elected member of his local school council.

Chain Gang Elementary plot: After a fatal shooting at Bonaire Elementary, Richard and Anna Lee Gray seek a good, safe school for their son Nick in a nice, quiet neighborhood. Their search leads them to Malliford Elementary, a four-star “school of excellence.” When redistricting sends scores of minority students to Malliford, iron-willed Principal Estelle Rutherford declares war on kids to raise test scores and save her reputation. Dissident parents revolt, electing Richard to head the Parent-Teacher Organization, and tensions at the school explode. Welcome to Chain Gang Elementary, home to vast right-wing conspiracies, third-grade gangsters, and bake sale embezzlers—where toxic childhood secrets boil over, reformers go stark raving mad, and culture wars escalate into armed conflict.

More arrests expected in SAT cheating scandal

The New York Times reports that at least seven more students are expected to turn themselves in next week in an ongoing (and widening) Long Island SAT cheating scandal. The story broke in September with the arrest of Emory University student Sam Eshaghoff and six high school students who allegedly paid him up to $2,500 to take the SAT in their place, using a fake ID to gain entrance. In one case, authorities report that Eshaghoff used a girl’s ID to gain entrance to the testing center.

To read more, click  here.


PTA theft is a federal case when the school’s on a military base

From the Associated Press:

A Fort Bragg mother will serve eight months in federal prison for embezzling more than $27,000 from the parent teacher organizations of two schools serving the children of military personnel.

Melinda M. DiLorenzo was sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Bern (NC). Prosecutors say the 37-year-old woman was president of the PTA at Pope Elementary School and treasurer of the Albritton Middle School PTA during 2009 and 2010. In those positions, she was entrusted to handle money from events such as book sales and candy bar drives.

Prosecutors say DiLorenzo wrote herself at least eight checks from PTA accounts and withheld cash from deposits.

DiLorenzo pleaded guilty to larceny. She could not be reached for comment.

In addition to prison time, she was ordered to repay the stolen money.

Principal treats battery charge as no big deal; judge begs to differ


Latest update: Charges dismissed. See story and testimony in hearing here.

Update via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Duncan’s court date has been reset for 2 p.m. Jan. 26, according to a spokesman with the North Magistrate Court of Fulton County.”

See more updates at end of story.

This one’s interesting.  A Fulton County, Georgia principal has been charged with simple battery on a student. At first I thought it was a case of either “chain gang” discipline gone wrong or whiny parents, but upon reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage it seems there’s a little more to it than that.

The incident involved Chattahoochee High School Principal Timothy Duncan and a 13-year-old Taylor Middle School student who was doing volunteer work at the high school on Sunday, September 25. Allegedly, the principal saw some kids running in the hall, slammed a boy against the wall, and then, a la Homer Simpson, put his hands around the boy’s throat.

What happened is on security-camera video, and after talking to witnesses, a school system policeman wrote an incident report stating there was “probable cause” to charge the man with battery.  But police didn’t arrest him.

Instead, it was left to the family to swear out a warrant and prosecute the case. (Duncan is due to appear before a magistrate at 10 a.m. today.) Even more interesting, the Fulton County School System sees no reason to discipline the principal or put him on leave. (Although this could change if he was, say, convicted.) This suggests that school officials don’t have much faith in their own police department. It seems that some kind of double standard is involved.

According to the newspaper:

Samantha Evans, a spokeswoman for the Fulton County Schools, said Duncan has remained in his position. She said investigations by the system’s employee relations department and the Department of Family and Children Services found no reason to discipline him.

“That means there is no reason for him to be on any kind of leave,” said Evans, adding that could change depending on the outcome of the case.

“Clearly, any allegation we get, we will take it serious,” Evans said.

The 13-year-old’s mother, Teresa Thomas, said her son attends Taylor Middle School.

“This has taken a toll on him and on my family,” Thomas, a medical administrator from Johns Creek, said. “I just want to see justice for my child. My son is going to be affected for life by this . . . It was totally wrong and something needs to be done about it.”

She said her son is scheduled to attend Chattahoochee High next year but added, “I would be fearful to even have him there.”

So we’ll see how this turns out. To read more, click here.

Update: As it turns out, the principal will have his rescheduled day before the magistrate on January 4. He didn’t take the charge very seriously, either–until he got a warning from the judge to lawyer up.


Charged with simple battery, Tim Duncan, the principal of Chattahoochee High School, received a motion for continuance, after he showed up in court Wednesday without an attorney.

“This turned into a much bigger event than I thought it would be,” said Duncan, about his decision, prompted in part by a warning from the judge, to get an attorney. “I feel I will be vindicated.”

Update 2: Timothy Duncan talks to reporters, denies charges.

Update: According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Duncan’s court date has been reset for 2 p.m. Jan. 26, according to a spokesman with the North Magistrate Court of Fulton County. Duncan, a principal at Chattahoochee High School since 2004, was charged with simple battery after allegedly slamming a 13-year-old middle school student against a wall at the high school during a non-school function on Sept. 25.



Elementary madness: The Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test

In recognition of the latest news in the Atlanta cheating scandal, I’m posting this excerpt from Chain Gang Elementary, which has its own testing … issues. This section occurs in the middle of the story.

From Chapter Seventeen:

Due to federal mandate, learning was put on hold in February. The Better Schools initiative—or BS, as teachers called it—required high-stakes, curriculum-based testing. For reasons known only to bureaucrats, the state examined students on their cumulative grade-level learning with three months still to go in the school year. The state’s Department of Education had adopted the unfortunately but aptly named Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test to measure progress. Its acronym was never used, for obvious reasons. County educators referred to it as DESI (Don’t Even Say It), and some irreverent teachers called it DUMP.

Though often ridiculed, the test was no laughing matter. Pride, money, stars, and housing prices rode on the results. Teachers in schools with improved test scores received bonuses; schools with declining scores faced sanctions. In the past, Malliford Elementary had nothing to fear. But now the influx of underachievers from Chantilly Arms threatened to lower scores and put the school on the state’s Needs Improvement list (often called the SHIT list, for obvious reasons). This would be an unmitigated disaster, but it could get even worse. After a school languished for three years on the Needs Improvement list, its teachers were taken out behind the trailers and shot. At least that’s how Mrs. Leland explained it to PTO President Richard Gray.

With its status as a good school on the line, the stakes were terribly high. Since December, Mrs. Baines, Malliford’s vice principal, did little besides what she called “testprep.” No one took DESI more seriously than reigning Teacher of the Year Sarah Vandenburg, who gave her second-graders practice exams the first day of school and tested them weekly thereafter—and let them watch TV, until she got caught.

Despite the newly challenging demographics, Malliford Principal Estelle Rutherford demanded that test scores rise. She also suggested heads would roll if they didn’t. She’d already picked heads, having established scapegoats like Avon Little by filling their rooms with Underintellachievers.

Thus motivated by the principal’s shrill cheerleading, teachers masked their desperation with pasted-on smiles as testing week drew near. They tried to create a festive air in their classrooms, handing out balloons, promising parties for high-scoring classes, and sending brightly-colored notes home to parents with tips on “how to get your students on the winning team.” Miz R’s “Secret Formula for Success” called for an 8:00 p.m. bedtime and a hearty breakfast on testing days. She also suggested kids watch TV to relax.

Richard considered this last idea a terrible one, and he would have said something to the principal had they been on speaking terms. Instead, he editorialized against it in February’s Duck Call, urging kids to read a book instead, and quoted Stan to piss off the principal even more. Unfortunately, Richard no longer knew how many newsletters actually made it home to parents, since some other teachers now followed Mrs. Vandenburg’s lead and threw them away.

Though appalled at the school’s excessive zeal, Richard did hope Malliford would gain a top-ten ranking on his watch. A home in a five-star school district was worth $30,000 more than one in a four-star zone, according to Barbara. If he was ever going to get out of town, he wanted cash from the deal. This made him one of many “whores for scores,” as Rita so indelicately put it.

* * *

Miz Rutherford devoutly believed a diet of grapes and bottled water for test-takers would help her win that elusive fifth star. She’d been preaching this message for months and needed the PTO’s help to get the word out to parents of test takers.

“It’s scientific,” she’d previously explained to the PTO board. “Grapes assist the brain in the hydration process, which speeds up decision making, as anyone familiar with brain-based learning models understands.” She’d finished off with an imperious glare at Candace and Cindi Lou.

“So kids still get wrong answers, just quicker,” Richard quipped from the podium.

“You’re missing the point,” she said.

Then again, he’d missed every point she’d jabbed at him. Richard turned to the Drug Awareness chairperson and said, “This grape thing explains why people who drink a lot of wine think they’re smart.”

This prompted titters, but the overall mood was sober and serious. Some board members worried about allergic reactions and frequent bathroom breaks brought on by this brain-hosing. However, most believed in trying anything that might improve test scores, so they ignored warnings about poop and pee on first-grade floors from Candace, who glared back at the principal as she spoke.

A motion calling for the PTO “to make necessary arrangements to assure an ample supply of grapes during testing” was quashed by Bessie Harper, mother of all room mothers, when she said the magic words every president longs to hear: “Don’t bother. I’ll take care of it.”

Bessie’s first e-mail to room mothers called for green grapes and half-liter bottles of water. After Mrs. Baines yelped “Wrong grapes! Wrong grapes!” in the hall to Richard, e-mail corrections went out calling for red grapes. A parent wanted to know if purple grapes were acceptable. More checking, another e-mail: “Due to lack of research on purple or black grapes, those varieties should not be used. Parents should send red grapes, seedless of course.”

Richard referred to these in his e-mails as The Grapes of Math.

A question arose: What brand of water was best? Another flurry of e-mails: Miz Rutherford declared Hydrate the brand of choice. Its parent company happened to back The Mentoring Initiative and planned to install soft-drink machines in the school. Richard tried to start a rumor that top schools used Perrier, but his pernicious claim never took hold.

“What if scores go down?” Bessie asked him during the second round of e-mails.

“Then we sell the information to Hydrate’s competitors,” Richard replied. “As a fund-raiser.”

* * *

On February 12, parents and teachers held their collective breath as students began taking DESIs with all the earnest zealousness of a “Duck and Cover” air raid drill. With rankings on the line, every other school and student in the state was their enemy, while sharpened pencils and childish wits were their only friends. One way or another, they would fulfill the BS mandate.

What kind of test-takers were these Mallifordians? Would the world bow down before them, or would they be Underintellachievers, road kill on the superhighway to tomorrow?

Deep in the bowels of Malliford, someone already had an idea how it would turn out.

Come, let us test now, said the spider to the flies.

To purchase Chain Gang Elementary, click here for options.  For Grant’s Darwin-Awardish take on education, check out the Chain Gang Blog, and for news about the book, visit Chain Gang Elementary’s facebook page.


Another PTA theft case: They are so not going to Disney World

ATLANTA – Former Westlake High School PTA President Kimberly Wright is back in the news. In May, parents accused her of collecting more than $25,000 from families for a senior class trip to Disney World, then cancelling the trip—without giving refunds. She’s been arrested and charged with theft; Wright claims she intends to repay everyone, but so far she’s only given money back to 7 out of 53 families.  A Fulton County magistrate delayed her preliminary hearing on the charges to November 30. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV have more.

By the way, this news comes on the heels of the arrest of Cobb County parent Janis Riley Allen, who allegedly used her position as booster club treasurer at Osborne High School to skim off $10,000 in concession-stand sales. To see post on this, click here.