Trezevant probe

Grade changes pervasive in Memphis high schools, analysis shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trezevant High School serves the Frayser community under Shelby County Schools in Memphis. A former principal's allegations of grade tampering led to several internal and external investigations.

A four-year analysis of final grades across Memphis high schools found that Trezevant High is not alone in frequent instances of changed transcripts.

In fact, Trezevant had Shelby County Schools’ second highest number of transcript changes from “failing” to “passing,” according to a North Carolina accounting firm that conducted a district-wide review in the wake of allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant.

Kirby High School logged the most changes — 582 — between July 2012 and October 2016, the period covered by the analysis. Trezevant had 461. They were followed by Raleigh-Egypt with 429, Bolton with 314, and Power Center Academy with 308. The average number of grade changes across all of the district’s high schools was 53.

The analysis from the firm of Dixon Hughes Goodman was included within two massive reports released Tuesday evening in conjunction with a presentation to the school board.

While changes to transcripts don’t necessarily mean that grades were tampered with, the analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told reporters later that his administration will work with the school board to determine how to proceed with a deeper probe. Both he and the board expressed deep regret to students and families impacted by the scandal.

“Our hope is that, moving forward, employees understand the importance of safeguarding all student records and that they will adhere to the processes put in place to avoid a situation like this from happening again,” said a statement from the board.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The reports were released more than a year after then-Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin contacted district leaders with concerns about possible grade tampering at his school. He later released a fiery resignation letter alleging a cover-up by district leadership of “corrupt, illegal and unethical activities.” The charge was denied by Hopson but prompted the launch of several external investigations, one of which found no evidence of a cover-up.

One of those probes focused specifically on Trezevant and found a pervasive culture of changing grades so that more students could pass courses to increase the school’s graduation rate. Mackin’s letter had focused on student athletes on the school’s championship football team, but investigators said the problem went further than that.

“The majority of individuals whose grades were changed were non-athletes. This was not just an athletic scandal,” said Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney hired to look into the matter.

In all, at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas, according to Stanton’s report.

After Stanton’s presentation, the school board voted unanimously to fire former football coach Teli White, who has been suspended since June pending the investigation’s outcome. But board members left the door open to other possible dismissals later.

“We know there were people who were in that building for quite some time …,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “I think it’s worth looking into because those people may be in other positions in authority.”

Stanton recommended that the district create an alert system when transcripts are changed digitally and a uniform policy on grade minimums that contributed to students being “unduly advanced” to the next grade. He also urged the district to require monthly reports from principals explaining any transcript changes and to regularly audit such changes.

District leaders report that, this year, they already have conducted special trainings of school personnel with access to grades and invested in new software and personnel to oversee the data.

Board members were frustrated and even angry about the results of the probes, especially after Hopson assured them in June that possible grade-changing issues were isolated to Trezevant based on the evidence at that time.

“We have to all know and understand that we have royally messed over some of these children in this district, especially when we pass them and gave them a diploma when we knew — we knew — they were not eligible to graduate. So, I hope that this report is a lesson to us all,” said Stephanie Love, whose district includes Trezevant High.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Before becoming principal of Trezevant High School in 2016, Ronnie Mackin was principal at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, both in Memphis.

Lawyers hired to investigate Mackin’s subsequent allegations — including that he was being targeted for dismissal because of alleged financial fraud at Trezevant — found no basis for that claim.

Reached by Chalkbeat later Tuesday night, Mackin did not immediately comment on the findings.

Dixon Hughes Goodman was hired to review four years worth of student transcripts from all high schools in Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district. The company scanned every transcript in the district’s database to flag schools with high instances of grade changes for further investigation. The review took months longer than originally targeted.

You can find the full report by Stanton’s group, including the analysis by Dixon Hughes Goodman, here. Other reports related to the investigations are available on the district’s website.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.