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.”