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.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: