By Victor Skinner
OKLAHOMA CITY – Administrators at an Oklahoma City high school forced teachers to falsify enrollment and attendance records so they appeared to satisfy federal grant requirements, according to a teacher who said he recently resigned in protest.
As a result of the allegations, two Oklahoma City high schools will now be investigated for alleged falsification of student records.
Jeff Riles taught Algebra at the high-needs U.S. Grant High School, where he claims school officials awarded students credits for classes they never took and installed a highly questionable attendance policy that forgave chronic tardiness.
Riles, in an interview with EAGnews.org, alleges Grant High School Principal Tamie Sanders convened teachers last fall and laid out the scheme. He said Sanders ordered math teachers to re-teach Algebra I material in Algebra II classes, so students would stand a better chance of passing the Algebra I exam, which is required for graduation. Many students failed the Algebra I exam the year before, Riles said.
At the end the students would be credited for passing both Algebra I and II, even though they were never exposed to Algebra II material, according to Riles.
“The head principal came to us as a faculty, and then specifically as math teachers, and told us we were going to have children enrolled in Algebra 2 classes … but I would not teach them Algebra 2, I would teach them Algebra 1 and remediation,” Riles told EAGnews.org. “So I mentioned, ‘I understand why you would want to do that, but there is still a requirement to have Algebra 2 instruction.’
“I did it in front of the entire math department and her reaction was … ‘I understand some of you have a problem doing what I’m asking you to do and maybe you should be teaching somewhere else.’”
Riles said Sanders also changed procedures for recording attendance to make it appear as though students completed more class time than they actually did. State rules require teachers to mark students absent if they’re more than 15 minutes late, and to record one absence for every six times a student shows up tardy. Sanders instructed teachers to ignore both rules, Riles alleges.
Sanders allegedly told teachers, “If students showed up for any amount of class time they would be counted as attending the class,” according to Riles.
Riles said the organized cheating helped maximize the number of students who graduated in 2012, and resulted in inflated attendance figures. Graduation and attendance rates are both key to securing federal school improvement grants for high-need schools.
At the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, there were hundreds of seniors who were not on track to graduate on time, Riles said. By the end of the year, less than a dozen failed to graduate.
“It’s all tied to requirements for federal school improvement grants,” Riles said. “You have to have a certain percentage of improvement over the years as far as your graduation rate and attendance rate. You have to show continuous improvement to continue to receive the grant money.”
Riles said he approached several school administrators and counselors to voice his concerns, and soon realized his complaints were falling on deaf ears.
“I spoke with two of the four assistant principals. They were both aware of it and I asked them why … they didn’t challenge it and they didn’t have an answer,” Riles said.
He also spoke with teachers in other academic departments who received the same instructions to manipulate school documents to fake student performance gains.
“A similar thing happened in the science department. (Students) were enrolled in one science class, but then they were taught another one,” Riles said.
EAGnews.org recieved a statement from OKCPS Superintendent Karl Springer late Monday afternoon.
“The Oklahoma City Public School District administration just became aware of the allegations from a former US Grant High School teacher; district leaders will conduct an investigation into the allegations,” Springer said in a prepared statement.
Oklahoma state records show U.S. Grant was awarded more than $5 million to implement a school turnaround program for fiscal years 2011-2013. The Tier I School Improvement Grant included signing bonuses for educators, performance pay for student achievement, training stipends, and a $107,000 per year salary for the executive director of school turnaround.
Riles, 51, resigned from U.S. Grant High School two weeks ago because he said he could no longer participate in the cheating.
“I expect it to happen again next year, that’s one of the reasons I resigned. I wrote on the resignation sheet that I left because of the cheating at the school, and the disrespect I received from the administration,” he said. “It seemed to me to be immoral, if not illegal.”
The retired U.S. Air Force soldier, who completed his second year at U.S. Grant and sixth as a public school teacher in 2011-12, said he’s now focused on exposing the cheating, and finding another more honest teaching position.
“My next two steps are to see if I can talk to the vice president of the (OKCPS) board and the assistant principal of the state,” he said.
Part of a larger scandal?
Administrators at Grant High are only the latest in Oklahoma City Public Schools to be accused of tampering with student records.
At another high-needs school, Frederick A. Douglass High School, Principal Brian Staples and his school administrators are at the center of a district investigation regarding attendance records and altered grades.
More than a dozen former teachers, students and parents claim school leaders changed students’ failing grades and altered the attendance policy to improve student attendance numbers, the Oklahoma Gazette reports.
Jacque Pearsall, an attorney representing several school employees who claim to have been fired by Staples for refusing to participate in the cheating scam, joined forces with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to push the issue.
Pearsall, local NAACP Vice Chairman Roosevelt Milton, and numerous teachers, students, parents and taxpayers confronted the school board about the allegations at Douglass for the second time at a meeting earlier this month.
Board members said the district hired an independent investigator to look into the cheating allegations at Douglass, but school officials have declined further comment because “they do not want to jeopardize the integrity of the investigation,” the Gazette reports.
Riles’ allegations, coupled with the investigation at Douglass, begs the question: How widespread is Oklahoma City’s alleged cheating scheme?
Riles said he suspects that officials and teachers at other high-risk schools may also be involved.
“What I’ve heard rumor-wise is that because it’s happening in Grant, other teachers were saying it’s … happening in their schools too,” Riles said.