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.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.