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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede