exclusive

New documents show what KIPP told Mike Feinberg leading up to his firing

An initial probe into an allegation of sexual abuse against the co-founder of the KIPP charter school network was “unable to confirm or substantiate” the claim, documents obtained by Chalkbeat show.

Just two months after that preliminary review into Mike Feinberg’s behavior, a new independent investigation was launched into the same allegation and two additional complaints of sexual harassment — a review that concluded in Feinberg’s firing in February.

The letters between KIPP Houston and Feinberg, obtained through a public records request,  shed new light on his high-profile firing, which shocked many in the charter school movement.

KIPP officials have in the past described the outcome of the first probe as inconclusive. One letter, though, said the matter was “closed” and any restrictions placed on Feinberg’s communication with students or school visits during the probe were then lifted (though he had not regularly worked in schools for a number of years). “KIPP and I consider this matter to be officially closed,” the letter concluded. “Mike, thank you for your professionalism and understanding while we investigated this matter.”

A subsequent letter said that “questions remained” after the initial inquiry and described both Feinberg and the alleged victim as “credible.”

Feinberg has denied all three claims made against him, and, through his attorney, Christopher Tritico, declined to comment for this story. In a brief interview with Chalkbeat Monday, Tritico said that the first investigation had “cleared” Feinberg and that his client had no opportunity to respond to the findings of the second investigation.

KIPP officials dispute Tritico’s characterizations of the investigations.

“KIPP terminated Mr. Feinberg earlier this year after an independent, outside investigation found credible evidence of abuse and harassment that was incompatible with KIPP’s values and unwavering commitment to student well-being,” said a spokesperson for the charter network. “At no point was he cleared.”

According to the letters, three allegations were made against Feinberg: one by a minor student in the late ‘90s and two by adult KIPP alumni who were also employees. One of the latter allegations resulted in a financial settlement by KIPP in 2004, according to the letters and KIPP’s public statements. The second investigation, the letter said, could not confirm the allegations but found them credible; that’s consistent with how KIPP has described the matter publicly

Chalkbeat also filed a public records request for the underlying investigations, but, at KIPP’s urging, the Texas attorney general recently ruled that that report is exempt from public disclosure under attorney–client privilege. KIPP has not made public further details about either investigation.

Last week, Chalkbeat reported that Feinberg has since started a new organization to help individuals, including KIPP alumni, create and grow schools.

KIPP sent Feinberg four letters over the course of nearly a year

The earliest letter that Chalkbeat received, dated April 21, 2017, said that an allegation of “sexual impropriety” had been made against Feinberg by a former student and promised “a full and thorough investigation.”

The brief letter also directed Feinberg not to have any contact with current or former KIPP students and not to visit a KIPP Houston school with children present, unless accompanied by someone from the network’s executive team.

The second letter, dated August 28, 2017, stated that the investigation, conducted by KIPP’s attorney, a partner at a Houston law firm, was complete and that the restrictions on Feinberg were lifted.

“Other than what the former student alleges, now almost 20 years after the alleged acts, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing,” wrote KIPP Houston superintendent Sehba Ali.

A 2009 photo of Feinberg (Via MerlinFTP Drop)

But the matter was soon reopened, as a November 6 letter, sent just two months later, shows. Except for the date, this letter is identical to the one opening the first probe — briefly stating the allegations and putting in place restrictions on Feinberg — and does not reference the previous letters or indicate why a new investigation was launched.

The last letter arrived on February 22, 2018, the same day Feinberg’s firing was publicly announced. Signed by KIPP Houston board chair Bill Boyar, the letter provided notice of Feinberg’s dismissal, saying, “Your actions are incompatible with the leadership qualities that are central to KIPP’s mission.”

The letter does not explicitly say why a second investigation was opened, but said that  “questions remained” after the first one.

It noted that the initial investigation was triggered by a KIPP Houston student who said that Feinberg engaged in “inappropriate sexual misconduct” with a family member two decades earlier. (Chalkbeat is withholding the precise relationship between the alleged victim and the student in order to protect their identities.)

The letter also claimed that Feinberg “repeatedly violated KIPP’s technology usage policies,” though it didn’t specify how.

In February, Tritico, Feinberg’s lawyer, told the New York Times that the initial investigation had found the allegations not to be credible. In fact, though, the most recent letter sent to Feinberg said the first investigation concluded that both he and the alleged victim were “credible.” (The second letter, closing that investigation, does not address this question.)

The rest of the final letter is in line with what KIPP has said publicly about Feinberg’s dismissal. The second investigation, the letter said, could not confirm the allegations but found them credible. “The evidence shows that, at a minimum, you put yourself in situations in which your conduct could be misconstrued,” Boyar wrote.

In a statement in February, Feinberg denied the claims that led to his firing. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” he said.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.