TAPCO principal yanked after wide inquiry finds many abuses

New York City’s top-ranked high school two years ago achieved its lofty score under a veil of academic improprieties that ranged from fudged student records to inflated test scores, according to a lengthy report released today by the Department of Education.

After a sweeping, 17-month investigation into Theatre Arts Production Company School, investigators concluded that the school’s leader, Lynn Passarella, was directly responsible for much of the misconduct.

Substantiating nine of 19 allegations against her, the investigators also concluded that under Passarella’s watch student transcripts were falsified, school funds misused, and non-credited staff were assigned to teach a loosely defined “Wellness” class that replaced physical education requirements.

They also concluded that Passarella had personally marked students present when they had been absent — altering a metric that factors into schools’ progress report grades. TAPCO received the highest score among all city high schools in 2010, insulating the school from criticism and guaranteeing Passarella a hefty bonus even as allegations about improprieties began to pile up.

The Department of Education removed Passarella from TAPCO this morning and will move to fire her. Chancellor Dennis Walcott issued a statement saying that Passarella’s behavior was “dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities.”

Even when the investigators did not formally substantiate allegations, they often concluded that improprieties might well have taken place.

For example, they decided that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Passarella had pressured teachers to inflate or even change students’ Regents exam scores and course grades. But an analysis of Regents exam answer sheets found that nearly 200 answers had been changed, more than 80 percent from incorrect to correct. (Students told GothamSchools last year that their math teacher had instructed them to change incorrect answers on a 2010 exam.) The investigators also found that just 3 percent of course grades were failing, compared to 20 percent of high school course grades issued citywide.

Similarly, they found they could not conclude that many teachers left TAPCO because of Passarella’s behavior. But they found ample evidence that teachers felt intimidated by her and also calculated that teachers left TAPCO twice as often as teachers at other schools.

Investigators interviewed 45 current or former staff members and 11 current or former students in compiling their 110-page report. In one instance, a teacher told investigators that when he expressed doubt that all of his kids would pass the Regents exam, Passarella replied, “Go watch ‘Stand and Deliver.'” She referred to the classic film about a Los Angeles teacher who propelled poor students to success on college-level math classes.

Passarella also put in place a system that ensured that the school’s student attendance rates would never suffer. Whenever attendance dipped below 92 percent on any given day, staff members who tallied the data were required to notify Passarella, who would change the sheets, according to interviews from the report.

“Oh, I saw that student,” Passarella would comment before making the changes, according to a secretary who worked at the school.

TAPCO students interviewed for the probe told investigators that they could not recall taking some of the physical education classes that appeared on their transcripts. The students instead had taken a class called “Wellness,” which appeared as physical education credits on their official transcripts and was little more than a free period.

Teachers credited to teach every other subject but physical education were recruited by Passarella to teach the class and given free reign in creating a curriculum. One teacher cited in the report said he spent an entire period teaching students breathing exercises. One student’s Wellness experience was called “game club” and included playing Connect Four, Uno, Checkers, Chess, and other board games.

The investigation also revealed that Passarella generated deep resentment from her staff. Assistant Principal Demetri Nicolopoulos called her “evil” and “vindictive.”

The investigation began in 2010 after the Department of Education received two anonymous letters, one sent by 10 anonyomous authors.

Teachers at TAPCO were told that Passarella was removed immediately after school ended this afternoon but were not given a reason. Students were given a letter to bring home to their parents. A longtime Bronx administrator, Ron Link, will take over on Monday.

Former and current teachers we spoke to this afternoon who were named on the report all agreed that Passarella should have been removed, but they expressed a range of reactions.

“I think she had a clear overall vision of what she wanted the school to be, but did not know how to implement it in any way,” said one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I’m happy,” said a former teacher who was among the unusually large number of teachers to leave in recent years. “I believe in karma and I think these things happen for a reason.”

A spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators said, “We are reviewing this extremely serious and lengthy report on Principal Passarella; we are prepared to give her full and fair representation; and the burden rests with the Department of Education to prove any allegations brought against her.”

“The scandal at TAPCO – formerly the number one school by the DOE’s own measure – raises serious questions about the credibility of the Progress Reports and the methodology the DOE has used to close dozens of schools,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.