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.


Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 Memphis schools were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants this year to pay for extra resources — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status. Eight schools taken over by the state have gone off the list.

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be less punitive and more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

You can find the 2018 list here, and a sortable list below.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.

READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.