Trezevant probe

Grade changes pervasive in Memphis high schools, analysis shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trezevant High School serves the Frayser community under Shelby County Schools in Memphis. A former principal's allegations of grade tampering led to several internal and external investigations.

A four-year analysis of final grades across Memphis high schools found that Trezevant High is not alone in frequent instances of changed transcripts.

In fact, Trezevant had Shelby County Schools’ second highest number of transcript changes from “failing” to “passing,” according to a North Carolina accounting firm that conducted a district-wide review in the wake of allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant.

Kirby High School logged the most changes — 582 — between July 2012 and October 2016, the period covered by the analysis. Trezevant had 461. They were followed by Raleigh-Egypt with 429, Bolton with 314, and Power Center Academy with 308. The average number of grade changes across all of the district’s high schools was 53.

The analysis from the firm of Dixon Hughes Goodman was included within two massive reports released Tuesday evening in conjunction with a presentation to the school board.

While changes to transcripts don’t necessarily mean that grades were tampered with, the analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told reporters later that his administration will work with the school board to determine how to proceed with a deeper probe. Both he and the board expressed deep regret to students and families impacted by the scandal.

“Our hope is that, moving forward, employees understand the importance of safeguarding all student records and that they will adhere to the processes put in place to avoid a situation like this from happening again,” said a statement from the board.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The reports were released more than a year after then-Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin contacted district leaders with concerns about possible grade tampering at his school. He later released a fiery resignation letter alleging a cover-up by district leadership of “corrupt, illegal and unethical activities.” The charge was denied by Hopson but prompted the launch of several external investigations, one of which found no evidence of a cover-up.

One of those probes focused specifically on Trezevant and found a pervasive culture of changing grades so that more students could pass courses to increase the school’s graduation rate. Mackin’s letter had focused on student athletes on the school’s championship football team, but investigators said the problem went further than that.

“The majority of individuals whose grades were changed were non-athletes. This was not just an athletic scandal,” said Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney hired to look into the matter.

In all, at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas, according to Stanton’s report.

After Stanton’s presentation, the school board voted unanimously to fire former football coach Teli White, who has been suspended since June pending the investigation’s outcome. But board members left the door open to other possible dismissals later.

“We know there were people who were in that building for quite some time …,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “I think it’s worth looking into because those people may be in other positions in authority.”

Stanton recommended that the district create an alert system when transcripts are changed digitally and a uniform policy on grade minimums that contributed to students being “unduly advanced” to the next grade. He also urged the district to require monthly reports from principals explaining any transcript changes and to regularly audit such changes.

District leaders report that, this year, they already have conducted special trainings of school personnel with access to grades and invested in new software and personnel to oversee the data.

Board members were frustrated and even angry about the results of the probes, especially after Hopson assured them in June that possible grade-changing issues were isolated to Trezevant based on the evidence at that time.

“We have to all know and understand that we have royally messed over some of these children in this district, especially when we pass them and gave them a diploma when we knew — we knew — they were not eligible to graduate. So, I hope that this report is a lesson to us all,” said Stephanie Love, whose district includes Trezevant High.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Before becoming principal of Trezevant High School in 2016, Ronnie Mackin was principal at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, both in Memphis.

Lawyers hired to investigate Mackin’s subsequent allegations — including that he was being targeted for dismissal because of alleged financial fraud at Trezevant — found no basis for that claim.

Reached by Chalkbeat later Tuesday night, Mackin did not immediately comment on the findings.

Dixon Hughes Goodman was hired to review four years worth of student transcripts from all high schools in Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district. The company scanned every transcript in the district’s database to flag schools with high instances of grade changes for further investigation. The review took months longer than originally targeted.

You can find the full report by Stanton’s group, including the analysis by Dixon Hughes Goodman, here. Other reports related to the investigations are available on the district’s website.

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

vote of confidence

Despite emerging grading scandal, Hopson gets longer contract — and a raise

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks at a back-to-school press conference for Shelby County Schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Amid a widening investigation stemming from allegations of grade-fixing at one Memphis high school, the school board made it clear Wednesday that it wants Dorsey Hopson at the helm.

The board voted to keep Hopson as superintendent until at least 2020, and to increase his annual pay from $269,000 to $285,000. That puts Hopson on par with Shawn Joseph, director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee’s second largest district behind Shelby County Schools.

The 8-0 vote came with one abstention from Chris Caldwell, who was chairman of the board in June when members voted to extend Hopson’s contract. (A technicality required the board to revisit the matter this week.)

“I cannot support the motion, either the dollar amount or the length,” Caldwell said. “We are in the middle of investigating a grading scandal…. This is far from over. So I think it’s premature to extend a contract to 2020. I think one year is all that I’m willing to agree to.”

But other board members said Hopson deserves more time because his performance has brought the district far more good than bad. His contract also requires a raise, they said, to correspond with hikes in teacher salaries the last two years.

“I know it’s not perfect. We’ve got a lot of balls in the air. It’s tough,” said board member Billy Orgel, adding that Hopson is doing “great work.”

The board’s vote of confidence came only hours after the superintendent spoke about the widening investigation into the high rate of grade changing at seven high schools including Trezevant High, where investigators found evidence of falsified grades and two employees have been fired.

Asked how much responsibility he bears as the district’s leader, Hopson told reporters that the buck stops with him.

“At the end of the day, as a superintendent, I’m really responsible and accountable for everything,” he said. “From my standpoint, I’ve tried my best to conduct myself in an ethical and transparent way. I think, if you look at my record, that’s what I’ve demonstrated. Having said that, when you’re in charge of an organization and something happens in an organization, you can’t shirk responsibility. Moving forward, what I’m even more responsible for is cleaning it up.”

Hopson has been in contact with the State Department of Education since September of 2016 when Trezevant’s new principal reported finding inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts. He ordered an internal review and, after the principal submitted a fiery resignation letter in June alleging a district cover-up, launched an external review by several investigators and a North Carolina accounting firm.

A technicality forced the board to revisit Hopson’s contract this week. In June, the body approved a contract that amounted to a six-year term — two years longer than allowed under a state rule, according to Herman Morris, the school board’s attorney.