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

Editor’s note: Gateway University Charter School was ordered to shut down a year after a Chalkbeat investigation into the Memphis high school found the administration falsified grades, improperly employed uncertified teachers, and awarded credits for a geometry class that did not exist. Find other articles in this series here

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. 

The Bartlett storefront Gateway University High School used for the 2017-18 school year. (Jacinthia Jones/Chalkbeat)

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.