Fact check

Principal at Brooklyn charter school has a long résumé—of faking his résumés

He lied and was forced out of a job for it—and then he did it again. Now a city charter school has hired him to be its principal.

Despite being forced out of jobs in education over the last seven years once employers found discrepancies in his résumé, Lewis Thomas III is now in charge of Urban Dove Team Charter School, a transfer school in Bedford-Stuyvesant where he oversees 182 students at risk of not graduating from high school.

The hiring raises questions about how charter schools screen their leaders, since details that undercut Thomas’s story of his background were readily available.

Some of Thomas’s stories first unraveled in 2005, all thanks to a secret handshake. Thomas was principal of the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, a charter school in Ohio. Tim Goler, the head of its board, noticed that Thomas didn’t recognize the handshake for Alpha Phi Alpha—even though Thomas had claimed to be a member of the fraternity.

Goler quickly uncovered a host of false claims on Thomas’s résumé, as detailed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time.

He claimed to have been a senior adviser to Barack Obama as a senator and a consultant to Hillary Rodham Clinton. He said he had served as a deputy chief of staff for Carrie Meek, then a U.S. Representative. He claimed to have a doctoral degree. And he said he was the principal of a school in Washington, D.C. where he was actually a teacher.

Reached on Wednesday, Goler said he was taken aback that Thomas had been hired by another school after such extensive deception.

“He’s a con artist, come on,” Goler said, adding that he asked Thomas to resign quickly after making the discoveries. “People exaggerate their résumé all day. But his stuff was just so blatant, it was almost pathologic.”

Thomas denied having misled anyone when asked about his departure from Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences and his hiring at Urban Dove.

“Was I asked about what happened in Cleveland? No,” he said.

Thomas also denied having been forced out of the Cleveland principalship for résumé discrepancies. He refused to say what other schools he led in the past, though the Urban Dove website says he had “nationally recognized successes” at those schools.

But Urban Dove, where Thomas was hired as principal last summer, isn’t the first place to have taken Thomas in after his chaotic exit from the Cleveland school.

From Feb. 2009 to June 2010, Thomas worked as a program director for Phase 4 Learning Center, a nonprofit that operates alternative education centers in Pennsylvania. The company’s CEO, Terrie Suica-Reed, said that Thomas’s deception while working for her company “was enough that he had to be released from all duties and all association with Phase 4.”

“I would listen to the warning signs,” Suica-Reed said.

In New York City, Thomas served as a “principal-in-residence” for New Visions for Public Schools from March to June 2011. The nonprofit then tapped Thomas to be the principal of its first high school, the New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities.

New Visions spokesman Tim Farrell said that Thomas was a part of the school’s “start-up team” but left before it opened that fall, and would not comment further on his departure.

Between his stints as a principal, Thomas tried to make his mark on the political landscape in his hometown of Philadelphia. In 2008, he ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, though a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Department of State confirmed that he was disqualified for not meeting residency requirements. He made it onto the ballot but lost in 2010.

A biography circulating during his second campaign also caught the eye of some former employers for stretching the truth. A copy archived on a website that collected election information includes his claim to a doctoral degree from Howard University, which the Plain Dealer debunked years earlier.

Suica-Reed said her company sent Thomas a cease-and-desist letter after he claimed to have served in a number of top jobs at Phase 4, including chief operating officer. In a video from that campaign, Thomas called himself the head of a 75-school charter management organization, though Phase 4 said he only one managed one site.

Thomas’s biography on the Urban Dove website omits educational details. It does say that he was “recognized by the White House as one of the top 50 Innovative Principals in the country,” an award Chalkbeat could find no record of.

On Wednesday, Thomas said he earned the award from the White House by writing to the U.S. Department of Education, though he would not say what school he was recognized for leading.

Thomas’s current biography also says he served as a mentor through the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Partnership program, though a spokeswoman for the university’s Graduate School of Education said no program exists by that name.

Thomas took the helm at Urban Dove Team Charter School last summer as the school was preparing for its second year. A transfer school, Urban Dove is designed to serve students who started high school but accumulated so few credits that they are no longer on track to graduate.

The school’s philosophy is to engage students through physical activity, and its unique model—three hours of sports to start the day, and heavy involvement from the students’ coaches—has earned the school lots of positive media attention.

But board members said the school faced challenges with both discipline and academics in its first year, including a brawl that brought eight police officers to the school. A review from the state Department of Education four months after the school opened noted that 17 of the 99 students then enrolled had been suspended more than once.

By last May, an independent assessment of the school obtained by Chalkbeat noted that the staff was extremely committed to the school’s vision, but students were completing “low-level work,” there had been no formal professional development for the teachers, and student behavior remained a challenge.

For help, the school’s board turned to Thomas. At a recent board meeting, members credited him with improving the school’s discipline policy and an increase in students passing classes.

But school founder Jai Nanda and board chair Michael Grandis didn’t respond to requests for comment about Thomas’s qualifications.

At least one board member said he was shocked to hear of the principal’s past. Though he said he wasn’t closely involved in the principal search process, board member Patrick Fagan said he was told that Thomas’s references checked out.

“To me, it was more like, this guy does sound like he knows what he’s doing,” Fagan said. “I’m not making any excuses. I’m at a loss for words.”

Thomas deferred further questions to Grandis. But at least during his 2010 campaign, the principal was a staunch advocate of full transparency.

“It is always important when someone stands up before you, that you know who they are, where they’ve studied, what their experiences have been,” he said.

“It’s always important for each and every one of us to know what’s missing from the pieces of the puzzle.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.