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/Chalkbeat
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.

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.