More complaints

At least five educators accused Memphis principal of pressuring to pass students

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Here, Kingsbury High School principal Terry Ross is featured in a district video on student-based budgeting.

At least four teachers and a school counselor have accused a Memphis principal of pressuring them to promote or graduate students who were failing, according to Chalkbeat’s review of his personnel file.

The teachers said Kingsbury High School Principal Terry Ross told them individually that they must give seniors last-minute makeup work to ensure they graduate — even if students ignored the makeup work they had already been offered or if the student had missed weeks of school. The complaints all came in May, as graduation neared for about 230 Kingsbury seniors. Three of the four teachers resigned over the issue.

Tamara Bradshaw, the school counselor for 12th grade students, said if Ross deemed that teachers had too many students who were failing, he would threaten to fire or reassign them.

“A diploma from Kingsbury is worth very little,” Bradshaw said in an email to the district’s department for employee discipline. “It has been like that for years. The students have been taught to do very little or nothing at all because Kingsbury teachers will pass you. Trust me, it is not by choice that this is done.”

These and other accusations of misconduct and workplace harassment in the past year make up about half of his 210-page personnel file, which did not include any statements or responses from Ross. Chalkbeat obtained the file through an open records request.

Shelby County Schools suspended Ross with pay last week as a law firm investigates the harassment claims. The accounting firm already tapped to determine if staff at seven Memphis schools improperly changed student transcripts or grades added Kingsbury to its list last month after a former math teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Ross had a hand in changing final exam grades for 17 students to 100s.

The complaints also highlight the shortcomings of corrective measures Shelby County Schools put in place after investigators last year found a “pervasive culture” of tampering with student grades at Trezevant High School.

"The students have been taught to do very little or nothing at all because Kingsbury teachers will pass you."Tamara Bradshaw

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has since restricted who can make any changes to transcripts or report cards. But those measures would not prevent principals from pressuring teachers to change grades or assign a flurry of eleventh-hour makeup work to promote or graduate students who show last-ditch effort. Hopson also ordered monthly reports from principals detailing any grade changes and requiring documentation.

Jinger Griner, who had taught English at Kingsbury for nine years before recently resigning, told Chantay Branch, the district’s director of labor relations, that Ross would not accept her list of seniors who were going to fail her class. She said Ross allowed one student who came to Griner’s class only once during the entire spring semester to complete a week’s worth of makeup work “with the intent that she will walk at graduation.”

“I love Kingsbury and I love the students that we serve; they are diverse, spunky, and talented, but, if there are no standards or expectations, then we are setting them up to fail,” Griner wrote in her email on May 16, five days before graduation. “Many of my students could not keep a minimum wage job with the attendance record that they have at school, but unlike that job, which would not give them a paycheck for truancy, we are offering them a diploma.”

"Many of my students could not keep a minimum wage job with the attendance record that they have at school"Jinger Griner

The accusations against Ross are the latest in a string of complaints of misconduct during the course of his 22-year career in education. When Ross was principal of Getwell Elementary in Memphis in the early 2000s, he was suspended without pay for three days after admitting he violated security procedures for the state’s annual test for student performance. (His personnel file says that he failed to store test materials in a secure manner, and did not report testing improprieties to the central office.)

A retired teacher said last year that students received grades for a fake class that the school said she was teaching months after she left the district, according to local TV station WHBQ, but that complaint was not in his personnel file. And a five-minute segment from TV station WIVB in Buffalo, N.Y., featured teachers who said Ross created an “environment of confrontation and intimidation” at a school he led there just before he took over at Kingsbury High in 2014.

A call to Ross’ cell phone requesting comment was not returned Wednesday. A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district “will not have any further information available until the investigation concludes.” Officials estimated the probe would be completed by the end of this month.

‘We need these kids to graduate’

Students must have a “satisfactory” attendance record to graduate, but specific benchmarks are not listed in district policy. If a student has an unexcused absence, district policy says the student and parent must submit written requests for assignments to make up the work and that “one day of makeup time shall be allowed for each day of unexcused absence.”

But according to several teacher complaints, Ross allowed minimal makeup work in a shorter time frame to count for multiple days of absences. This especially applied to seniors, they said.

Harris, the math teacher, said in her May 10 email to school board members and Hopson that Ross told her “to do whatever it takes to get zeros out” of her online gradebook. Ross encouraged teachers to give makeup assignments during quarterly Saturday sessions known as Zeros Aren’t Permitted, or ZAP, Days. Those sessions are allowed under district policy, but Harris and others said a single Saturday assignment was expected to replace several zeros.

“Many of the students have said they don’t care about missing assignments because they know there will be a ZAP and they will get the zeros replaced,” her email said.

Nikki Wilks, who taught English to sophomores and seniors at Kingsbury, said in a May 15 email to Branch that teachers were expected to use just a few assignments “to cover any and all zeros that a student has in the gradebook.”

Ross would especially pressure her to find “creative” ways to give seniors a passing grade, said Wilks, who transferred to another district school this year. She said she received one phone call from Branch in July to verify a portion of her email, but has not heard any substantial follow up from the district or outside investigators.

“With my sophomores, there was never really a conversation about your failure rates being too high,” she told Chalkbeat. “Then you get these seniors and you’ve got to play cleanup.”

Kingsbury High School carried some of the graduation gains Shelby County Schools has made in recent years. The school had the seventh highest increase of students graduating on time over the past decade, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of graduation rates in Memphis schools. Last school year, about 70 percent of Kingsbury students graduated on time, up from 58 percent in 2008.

That statistic, cited by federal and state education officials when evaluating school quality, is the main reason Griner said Ross pressured teachers.

“We need these kids to graduate because we need to keep our graduation rate up,” Griner recalled Ross as saying during a conversation about some of her students failing. Because Ross did not respond to a request for comment, Chalkbeat was unable to verify this exchange.

De’Mon Nolan, a second-year teacher who taught a creative writing elective, said in an email to the district’s labor relations in May that Ross directed him to “pass all of my students regardless of if they attended school or not.”

“He also told me that my class really does not count, so I should especially pass the seniors,” Nolan wrote in his email to the district. “When I gave him a little push back he is the one who had threatening and unruly comments. I felt that he bullied me so much, I even went home crying one day!”

Nolan told Chalkbeat he estimated about half of his 40 students who were going to fail his class in May ended up graduating without earning the grade.

"I felt that he bullied me so much, I even went home crying one day!"De'Mon Nolan

“Administration staff came to me and said, basically, I need to figure out how I’m going to pass them,” he said. “I was doing everything I could giving them makeup work. They didn’t come to Saturday school.”

The district declined to extend Nolan’s contract for the 2018-19 school year, which he perceived as retaliation. A few weeks prior, Ross had reported Nolan “sleeping at work, not getting to your classes in a timely manner, leaving students unattended and not coming to (teacher coaching) meetings.” Nolan, in an interview with Chalkbeat and in an email to the district, denied those charges and said Tuesday he has yet to hear from district officials or investigators about his claims against Ross.

‘Like a prisoner in my own room’

Ross’ personnel file also shed more light on Harris’ allegations, presented to the school board in June.

Before the alleged grade tampering took place, Harris and Ross had a disagreement over how to handle a senior in danger of not graduating. Harris said she had given the student makeup work, but he didn’t turn it in. Ross pushed for more makeup work, and when she refused, he said “he will get the student a packet and have someone else grade it if I won’t,” she wrote.

Shelby County Schools dismissed Harris’ allegations as “inaccurate” because the grade changes were a mistake, but declined to release full details of the initial investigation until the current one has finished.

Nicholas Tatum, a special education teacher who sometimes taught with Harris, said he meant to input 100s for students for a first semester exam that was taught by the teacher who Harris had replaced midway through the year. He said he accidentally put them in as second semester scores.

Neither Ross’ personnel file nor district officials offered explanations why first semester grades were edited in May or any documentation that those updated scores were correct. Felicia Everson, Ross’ supervisor, cleared Harris to change back the second semester grades a few days after the incident.

Phyllis Kyle, a union representative for Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, represented Harris and another employee during two meetings with Ross. She told district officials in a May 11 email that Ross was “demeaning, unprofessional and not representative of what leadership looks like in Shelby County Schools.”

Several emails in the personnel file show that Harris and Ross’ relationship continued to grow tense to the point she felt “like a prisoner in my own room,” she wrote to Everson.

Momentum

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 public schools in Memphis 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 to pay for extra resources this year — 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, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“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 one 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 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.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

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.