Grade changing

Coach fired amid Memphis grading scandal will not be reinstated, board says

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat
The Shelby County Schools board reaffirmed its decision to fire Teli White, a former football coach at Trezevant High School.

The lawyer for the coach at the epicenter of a grade inflation scandal told the Shelby County Schools board Wednesday his client is a scapegoat for a problem that goes far beyond one coach and one school. Still, the board reaffirmed its December vote to fire Teli White, the former Trezevant High School football coach.

White’s lawyer, Darrell O’Neal, said his client would appeal to chancery court.

White was suspended in 2016, following an internal review; he was fired in December 2017, after a law firm’s investigation uncovered additional evidence of his involvement. The veteran coach has denied the accusations against him and is appealing his termination.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat
Teli White’s lawyer, Darrell O’Neal, speaks to board members defending the former Trezevant High School football coach.

“If you have a systematic pattern of changing grades and the only people that are being disciplined is a football coach and a secretary, there’s something wrong,” O’Neal said.

He also argued that his client’s suspension was punishment enough for the alleged conduct.

“There is no policy that states you can discipline a teacher twice for the same conduct,” he said. “Mr. White has already been disciplined and should be reinstated.”

The school board voted 7-1 to deny White’s appeal. Board member Mike Kernell voted in White’s favor, and Scott McCormick did not attend the meeting.

The results of an independent investigation into grade changes across seven Memphis high schools are expected in a few weeks. The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman in Memphis is authoring the report.

White has denied requesting changes for football players whose grades had been “drastically and unjustifiably inflated,” according to a district-commissioned report by law firm Butler Snow, which released its findings in December. But evidence on White’s computer suggested otherwise, according to the report, which states:

Coach White had saved to his desktop 10 transcripts of football players from 2012-2015. Three of the transcripts had been altered and given grades inconsistent with the grades on their report cards, and these inconsistencies resulted in higher overall GPAs for the players.

Christopher Campbell, an attorney for the school district, said that whether or not other faculty members are implicated in the scandal is irrelevant so far as White’s case is concerned.

“They want you to consider a wide or broad scale investigation. But that’s not why we’re here, ladies and gentlemen,” Campbell told the board. “We’re here to deal with Teli White.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat
Audience members react to deliberations at an appeal hearing for former Trezevant High School coach Teli White on Wednesday.

White’s players were not the only ones at Trezevant whose grades were changed without proper documentation. In total, 57 non-athlete students’ grades were found to have been changed without merit, Butler Snow reported. As a result, 53 students received diplomas without passing the necessary classes.

Trezevant High School is part of the district’s heralded school improvement program known as the Innovation Zone, or iZone.

Since the scandal surfaced, Shelby County Schools has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript to teachers, a records secretary, and one other person specified by the principal. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is also requiring a monthly report from principals, detailing any changes to grades. Such changes can be legitimate if a student completes a process known as course recovery or makeup assignments.

White is one of at least three employees in Tennessee’s largest district to face termination or demotion following investigations into boosting grades. Shirley Quinn, the records secretary at Trezevant, was fired in October 2016 after admitting to changing grades improperly. And Monekea Smith, who was principal at Hamilton High School, was demoted in January after district officials discovered her login credentials were used to change grades. Students protested that decision. A district spokeswoman said she had no additional information on the status of Smith’s case.

The Tennessee Department of Education in January ordered Shelby County Schools to undergo follow-up audits for the next three years.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Indiana A-F grades

Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Because Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School became an innovation school last year, the state uses a different scale to grade it.

A-F grades for schools across Indiana were released Wednesday, but in the state’s largest district, the grades aren’t necessarily an easy way to compare schools.

An increasing share of Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, last year about 20 percent, are being measured by a different yardstick than others, creating a system where schools with virtually identical results on state tests can receive vastly different letter grades.

The letter grades aim to show how well schools are serving students by measuring both how their students score on state tests and how much their scores improve. But as Chalkbeat reported last year, new schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth. Schools in the innovation network are part of the district, but they are run by outside charter or nonprofit operators.

Of the 11 out 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state, eight were graded based on growth alone. They included a school in its first year of operation and seven innovation schools.

At the same time, traditional neighborhood and magnet schools with growth scores as good as or better than the scores at A-rated innovation schools received Bs, Cs, and even Ds.

Of the 13 innovation schools that received grades for last school year, eight received As, two got Bs, two got Cs, and one got a D. Only Herron High School was graded on the same scale as other schools. (For high schools, grades incorporate other measures including graduation rates.)

The result is a system that most parents don’t understand, said Seretha Edwards, a parent of four children at School 43, a school that received a failing grade from the state but would have gotten a B if it were measured by growth alone.

“I just think it’s kind of deceiving,” she added. “I don’t think it paints a fair picture of the schools.”

Indianapolis Public Schools deputy superintendent for academics Aleesia Johnson said the growth scores show schools are on a good trajectory.

“If you see that kids are making progress in terms of growth, that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to do” to get students to pass tests and show proficiency.

Johnson pointed out that often-changing standardized tests and different A-F grades can cause confusion for families, and those measures don’t provide a complete or timely picture for families who want to assess their schools or choose new ones. “I don’t think it gives a lot of valuable information,” she said.

Advocates have said the growth only model makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

“The concept behind the growth-only model was that we measured newer schools based off of what they are able to do for their students, rather than taking them where they received them,” said Maggie Paino, the director of accountability for the education department. “You’re taking strides to get toward proficiency.”

The situation is even more muddled than usual this year. Schools across the state received two letter grades. One was calculated under a state model that relies largely on test scores, and the other was determined under a plan the state uses to comply with federal standards.

In addition to helping parents choose schools, years of repeated low letter grades from the state can trigger intervention or takeover. But the state has deferred in decisions about intervening in low-rated schools to IPS in recent years.

Back in 2012, the state took over four chronically low-performing Indianapolis schools. Since Superintendent Lewis Ferebee took over, IPS has taken aggressive steps to overhaul struggling schools by “restarting” them as innovation schools with new managers. Other struggling schools have been closed.

School 63, which received its sixth consecutive F from the state, might have faced state intervention in the past. But the school is unlikely to face repercussions because IPS restarted the school by turning it over to an outside manager. The Haughville elementary school is now managed by Matchbook Learning.

Shaina Cavazos and Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.