investigation ongoing

Former staffers allege grades falsified, other misconduct at Memphis charter high school; district is investigating

Three people who worked at a Memphis charter high school are alleging that the administration falsified grades, improperly employed uncertified teachers, gave credits for a class that did not exist, and pulled students out of class to clean the building.

Marquez Elem, the school’s director of operations until he was terminated this month, and two former teachers made the claims against Gateway University High School in interviews with Chalkbeat. The teachers asked not to be named because they did not want to be associated with the school, and both said they were not returning to Gateway because their contracts as long-term substitutes were not renewed.

Chalkbeat contacted Sosepriala Dede, the leader of the year-old, 100-student charter school, with a list of questions detailing the allegations. Dede’s response, sent through a public relations firm, described school efforts to ensure proper grading and stated that Gateway employed “qualified” teachers this past school year, but did not directly address all of the claims. 

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The Bartlett storefront Gateway University High School used for the 2017-18 school year.

Shelby County Schools officials told Chalkbeat last week that it “recognizes the seriousness” of the allegations against the school, and vowed to investigate. The district oversees 48 charter schools, which receive public money but are independently operated.

“Any time we have a complaint, we do a full investigation to get to a resolution,” said Daphne Robinson, director of charter schools for the district. “We’re treating this as we would any of our schools.”

The district’s scrutiny of Gateway was made public Tuesday during a regularly scheduled school board meeting. District Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said that “an ex-employee made allegations, and we are in the process of investigating.” He offered no additional details.

Elem, the former director of operations, told Chalkbeat that following his termination he met with district officials about the claims.

Asked for a response to the specific allegations against Gateway, Dede, the school’s founder and leader, responded via the public relations firm with written answers.   

Regarding the allegations of improper grade changes, he said he works “closely with our teachers and staff to make sure all grades earned by students at Gateway University are a direct reflection of their academic performance in the classroom.” Of the claims that students were asked to clean the school building, Dede said building engineers and janitors were primarily responsible for the building’s upkeep, though students were occasionally asked to help.

Dede reports to the five-person Gateway University board. Chalkbeat sent emails to all the board members requesting comment about the former teachers’ allegations and the district’s announced investigation, but did not receive responses.  

Elem, who said he served in an assistant principal capacity because Gateway was understaffed, said he was fired on June 13. He did not want to disclose why, for fear of hampering future job searches, but denies doing anything wrong.

After being terminated, Elem said he later received a letter from Dede’s lawyer, asking him to stop talking to Gateway teachers and parents, and alleging that he had sent “disparaging or untruthful communications.” Elem said he never communicated untruthfully.

Before joining Gateway, Elem worked as a Chicago Public Schools administrator, as managing director for the City of Chicago, and as a campus manager for Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network [now called Acero].

Shelby County Schools officials said they visited Gateway University once during its first year as part of a routine check, and that there were no red flags.  

‘He told me to go back in and change the grades’

Elem said he was asked by Dede to change student grades on multiple occasions without a teacher’s knowledge or against their wishes. Elem said that he did not change grades himself but did ask teachers to do so.

One former teacher who asked not to be named said: “When I finished up my grades, I called Mr. Dede and said that kids were failing. He told me to go back in and change the grades. [I changed] all my grades so kids were passing.”

This comes as Shelby County Schools faces multiple allegations of grade changing in its high schools. The results of a deeper probe of seven high schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month.

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management with Shelby County Schools, said charter schools are included in a future district audit of grade and transcript changes, but are not among the seven high schools at the center of the probe. Investigators initially flagged a charter school under Gestalt Community Schools for closer examination.

Dede said he has “implemented internal checks and balances to insure the integrity of our school’s grading system,” but did not directly answer whether he had ever asked a teacher to change a grade for a student or changed a grade without a teacher’s knowledge.

Allegations of uncertified teachers, wasted instructional time

Elem said the school also struggled to retain certified or licensed teachers, meaning teachers that are approved by the state, hold a bachelor’s degree, and have completed an approved Tennessee teacher preparation program.

The school had to rely on long-term substitutes, some of which did not have teaching licenses, Elem and sources said. According to state law, a substitute teacher who is teaching for more than 20 consecutive days must be licensed.

“There were only three certified staff in the building,” said Elem, who added that the school had about nine full-time staff in total. “At least four more needed licenses [to do their jobs legally] and did not have them. There were six different English teachers over the course of the year, and only one was certified. Eventually, we had a long-term sub teaching English.”

Elem provided Chalkbeat with a staff list for Gateway, and according to the state’s database of educator licenses, three of the provided names were not identified as having a license. Elem also does not have a license.

Gateway also struggled to retain a World History teacher and eventually hired an uncertified long-term substitute for that class, according to Elem and the teachers who spoke to Chalkbeat. They claim the World History sub worked seven months, and a substitute for English worked three months.

The state’s database of educator licenses confirmed that the World History sub identified by Elem and one former teacher did not have a teaching license.

Filling vacancies with long-term substitutes has been a problem for several schools in Memphis. Shelby County Schools examined its own use of long-term substitutes after an article by The Commercial Appeal reported that a substitute teacher taught a chemistry class for much of the year at one high school, and that no students in that class passed the state’s end-of-the-year test.

Dede did not specifically address a question of whether he employed long-term, uncertified subs for more than 20 consecutive days.

“When necessary, we have brought in talented short-term and long-term substitute teachers (certified and uncertified) to support our school program,” Dede said in the statement. “Our teachers have decades of combined experience that make them more than qualified to teach at Gateway University.”

The two former teachers who spoke with Chalkbeat, in addition to Elem, said students were occasionally pulled out of class to help clean bathrooms, hallways, and classrooms. Elem attributed some students’ poor grades to their being pulled from classes, and asked to clean other classrooms.

Asked to comment on allegations made by former Gateway employees that the school didn’t employ a janitorial staff, Dede said: “Gateway University’s state-of-the-art facility is maintained by building engineering experts and janitorial service providers to ensure the cleanliness of our school building. It’s also not uncommon for our students to assist in cleaning their classrooms, along with their teachers. We are a small, tight-knit school, and this affords us the opportunity to do things in a unique yet efficient way.”

Dede did not respond to questions asking him to specify the name of the janitorial service or when the service was hired.

The school will be in a new location in the fall. After spending its first year at a storefront building in Bartlett, a suburb of Memphis, the school secured a lease within district limits, as is required, before the district board was set to vote on whether to shutter the school. A new state law prohibits charter schools from operating outside of the authorizing district’s limits. The new location is at Holy Nation Church of Memphis at 3333 Old Brownsville Road.

A geometry course that did not exist

Seven Gateway students were enrolled in a geometry class that was not offered, Elem said.

Elem said the school never had a geometry teacher, so the students enrolled in a general freshman math class called geometry “received credit for a class that didn’t exist.”

Dede said that the school, which is marketed as one focused on computer science and information technology, offers a “rigorous freshman curriculum, including opportunities for freshmen to take English I, World History & Geography, Algebra I, Geometry, Biology I, Computer Science Foundations and Academic Seminar.”

“Our math teacher is qualified to teach an array of mathematical classes, one of which is Geometry,” he said in a statement when asked if Gateway had a geometry class. “Geometry is listed on our curriculum, and students earn credit based on academic performance.”

Before launching Gateway, Dede was part of the Tennessee Charter School Center’s fellowship to train leaders of new schools. He is also is a former charter network leader for Gestalt Community Schools and a former principal at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which was operated by Gestalt at the time.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.