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.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

Yeshiva probe

As Yeshiva probe heats up, state issues guidance for reviewing nonpublic schools

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
A school bus sits outside an all girls Jewish school in Williamsburg.

The state education department released long-awaited guidance Tuesday on the process that local authorities must follow to determine whether nonpublic and religious schools, including yeshivas, are meeting standards equivalent to those governing New York’s public schools.

The guidance arrives in New York City on the heels of a long-running probe into whether city yeshivas are providing an adequate secular education. The state direction also comes after the recent firing of former city investigator Mark Peters, whose office was scrutinizing City Hall’s involvement in the yeshiva investigation.

Will Mantell, spokesman for the city education department, said its officials will “work aggressively to implement” the state’s instructions.

Under the guidelines, local school districts must perform a review of each religious and independent school within their boundaries. But Tuesday’s guidance also folds in an amendment lawmakers passed this spring that largely applies to yeshivas: after an initial review by the local school district, the state education commissioner makes the final determination over schools that are nonprofit corporations, have a bilingual program, and operate during a certain time frame.

The new guidance comes after a three-year city Department of Education probe that found troubling lapses in secular education at the city’s yeshivas and asked for direction from the state, which recently granted oversight of the schools to the state education commissioner. Controversy heated up again last week as city education officials admitted they still haven’t visited many of the schools, whose students often come from the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, which is seen as a powerful voting bloc.

And last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio fired Peters, who quickly warned that de Blasio’s decision could reflect an effort to quash his office’s yeshiva probe. At a press conference on Monday, de Blasio denied that City Hall tried to interfere in any of Peters’ investigations.

The guidance, which stresses that oversight of nonpublic schools be “a collaborative effort,” sets out the procedure the city should follow and provides for a new round of training for investigators and a timeline of three years, up to December 2021, that districts can have to complete their reviews. Thereafter, districts will revisit the reviews every five years and maintain an open dialogue with nonpublic school leaders.

A preliminary city probe found that in many yeshivas instruction in English and math lasted only 90 minutes, didn’t take place every day, and was sometimes voluntary. Lessons in math didn’t go beyond basic division and fractions, science instruction was almost nonexistent, and teaching often occurred in languages other than English.

Naftuli Moster, the founder and executive director of Young Advocates For Fair Education, or YAFFED, an advocacy group that has pushed for more oversight of religious schools, thinks this timeline could stymie needed change. He notes that the city’s earlier review “may now have to be revisited in light of the new guidelines, dragging this investigation on for even longer while students in ultra-Orthodox schools continue to be deprived of a substantially equivalent education,” he said.We don’t believe that the yeshivas that have been stonewalling should be rewarded with even more time.”

In addition to core coursework, schools must abide by other requirements, including conducting “fire and emergency drills” and meeting “immunization requirements for their grades.” (A few Orthodox Jewish communities, which sometimes have low vaccination rates, have recently suffered outbreaks of measles in New York and New Jersey.)

New York City officials have reviewed many yeshivas already, and Elia said the city “should take the guidance that we have provided” and apply it to what they’ve found.

“The State has given the DOE clear authority to visit and evaluate all non-public schools, and we immediately requested the earliest possible staff training on the new guidance and will begin visits, evaluations, and recommendations and findings of substantial equivalency as soon as we’ve completed the training,” Mantell said.

The department will give priority to the “the six schools that have denied us access” and move “forward with the 24 schools that are part of our inquiry, which may include additional visits or gathering additional documents,” he said.

The state’s actions come as the number of students attending Jewish day schools and yeshivas in grades K-12 is growing rapidly, reaching a record 110,000, nearly rivaling the size of the city’s charter sector, which serves roughly 114,000 students. (Approximately 148,000 students attend parochial or independent day schools in the city.)

When asked about certain yeshivas denying the city access, Elia said, “If someone does not allow anyone in from the local school district to review and look at what’s happening there, there obviously would be consequences.”

The first remedy would be compelling schools to comply. But continued non-compliance could mean a loss of funding for certain services, like textbook and transportation, which Elia said is a rare occurrence. Parents at the schools would be notified, usually within six weeks to two months, that their children must be transferred to an appropriate school. If those students stay at the school past the established deadline, they could be marked as truant.

Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.