Atlanta Students Possibly Affected By Cheating Scandal Prepare To Graduate

Willie Usher Jr. and Nikaya Winfrey participated in the Target 2021 program at different APS high schools. They both plan to attend college in the fall.

Martha Dalton / WABE

It’s been six years since almost a dozen former Atlanta teachers were found guilty of racketeering in a 2009 test cheating scandal and hauled off to prison. Now some students in the youngest class who were possibly affected by the cheating scandal are set to graduate from high school.

Looking Back

On a recent rainy day, graduating seniors stopped by Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School to pick up a boxed lunch, say goodbye to their teachers, and pick up a trunk full of college supplies as a parting gift. Before the rain set in, some had the chance to walk down a makeshift red carpet in front of the school to have their picture taken. The group included at least two members of a program called Target 2021: Willie Usher Jr., a senior at D.M. Therrell High School, and Nikaya Winfrey, a senior at Washington.

“All you need is like one good person on your side, some[one] that can push you through.”
– Nikaya Winfrey, graduating senior, Booker T. Washington High School

APS launched Target 2021 in 2016. As the name suggests, the goal was to ensure the 3075 students the district identified as having been in classrooms possibly affected by the scandal would graduate from high school by this year, 2021. APS partnered with organizations like Communities in Schools and University Instructors, Inc. to provide resources like tutoring, counseling, and even financial help for students and their families.

“It wasn’t just the student, it was also the parents because what impacts them at home impacts them at school,” says Deeana Rogers, a remediation and support coordinator with the program. “[Our partners] were able to provide emergency supports for our families if they needed rental assistance, etcetera — anything to remove the barrier so that our students can stay in school and learn.”

APS has also teamed up with researchers at Georgia State University to measure Target 2021’s effectiveness. About 90% of the program’s students have graduated. Rogers says about nine of them need more time to finish school and will continue in the program next year.

“We’re still committed to providing them support until they graduate,” she says.

‘It’s Been A Huge Help’

Jessica Johnson is a support coach at Booker T. Washington High School. (Bita Honarvar/For WABE)

Willie and Nikaya don’t remember much about the cheating scandal. They were only in first grade when teachers at dozens of schools were accused of changing answers on state tests. APS isn’t sure the two students were directly impacted, only that they were in one of the classrooms where cheating took place.

Willie says he hasn’t needed much academic help over the years, but he liked the mentors he met through the program, who encouraged him to study medicine.

“It was a tremendous help,” he says. “It wasn’t that I needed them in my ear, but it was always the extra help in my corner.”

Nikaya though credits the program for helping her get through high school. She’s also been taking courses at Atlanta Technical College.

“I’ve been through homelessness, dropping out of school at one point, so it’s just been a huge help,” she says. “I can’t express…the love for these people that helped me.”

Nikaya became homeless in 2017 after her grandmother, who’d been taking care of her, passed away. She briefly dropped out of school. Then, her aunt stepped in, re-enrolled her, and made sure she was part of the Target 2021 program.

“All you need is one good person on your side, some[one] that can push you through,” Nikaya says.

She has more than one person on her side, though. She also has Jessica Johnson, her support coach.

“She’s helped me through literally everything,” she says. “Other than her, my aunt. I feel like I wouldn’t be here today without her and my uncle, who’s my aunt’s husband, he’s also helped me through everything. Gosh, just those three people are the reason I’m here.”

Johnson gets choked up listening to Nikaya talk.

“These are my babies,” Johnson says. “Their families are my families. I’m just extremely proud. The sky is the limit for all these babies that are graduating in 2021.”

In addition to surviving the cheating scandal, Willie and Nikaya spent most of their senior year online due to the pandemic. They say it was a tough adjustment academically and socially.

“It was hard,” Nikaya says. “But I can’t do anything but get through it and pray about it.”

Moving On

Now, both students are not only graduating on time but have plans for next year. Willie’s headed to Clemson University in South Carolina. He’s excited, even though he originally had his heart set on going somewhere else.

“I want[ed] to go to Morehouse,” he says. “But then I applied and they put me on a waitlist, and it’s been forever.”

Willie says he was so focused on Morehouse he’d forgotten he’d also applied to Clemson.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to just check to see if I got accepted,’” he says. “They accepted me and I was like, ‘Hey, that’s a great opportunity. I’m going to go.’”

Willie says he’s now committed to being a Clemson Tiger. Nikaya will be a sophomore next year, due to the college credits she’s earned already. She plans to transfer from Atlanta Tech to Clayton State University’s dental hygienist program.

“I’m very proud of myself because at first, I obviously felt I couldn’t do it and with everybody’s help they pushed me and let me know that it’s something I can do and I can accomplish my dreams if I put my mind to it,” she says.

Willie and Nikaya will graduate next week, with family, teachers, and mentors cheering them on.

A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.

Background On The Atlanta Cheating Scandal And Trial

Former APS SRT Director Tamara Cotman is led to a holding cell after a jury convicted her during the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial in 2015. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

Oct. 2009: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an analysis that showed statistically improbable testing gains at a dozen Atlanta schools.

Aug. 2010: Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered an investigation of 58 Atlanta schools, after determining a district-led investigation was insufficient. Perdue appointed two special investigators to lead the probe. Their report alleges 80 APS teachers admitted to cheating on state tests.

July 2011: Then-APS Superintendent Beverly Hall retires. Former University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll Davis steps in as interim superintendent.

March 2013: Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announces a grand jury has indicted 35 former Atlanta educators for racketeering. They’re accused of trying to earn bonuses from tests that had a high number of wrong-to-right erasures. Several agree to plea deals.

Sept. 2014: The criminal trial of 12 former APS educators—who didn’t take plea agreements—begins.

April 2015: A jury finds 11 of the 12 defendants guilty under Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. They were immediately handcuffed and taken to prison.

Sept. 2016: Judge Jerry Baxter sentenced eight of the defendants. Two more took plea deals. One was pregnant and sentenced later.