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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.