not making the grade

Principal tapped by Bloomberg to turn around John Dewey HS yanked after probe

PHOTO: Tori Brennan
A public hearing at John Dewey High School in 2013.

When Kathleen Elvin took over troubled John Dewey High School in March 2012, she had a mandate to turn it around. And by at least one measure, she pulled off the job in barely two years.

But Dewey’s soaring graduation rates, which increased 13 points under Elvin, were bolstered by an illicit credit recovery program, a city investigation has found. A long-awaited report on the probe, released Wednesday by the city’s Office of Special Investigations, concluded that Elvin supervised the set-up, in which students received credits toward graduation with no instruction from teachers.

It is the first major probe of academic fraud to come to light under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who downplayed the allegations weeks ago after they surfaced in news reports in March. On Wednesday, Fariña said in a statement that the city was acting swiftly in response to the report’s findings, which she called “disturbing.”

“We have begun the process to have Ms. Elvin’s employment terminated, and she will be removed from payroll shortly,” Fariña said in a statement. Officials said principals and superintendents would receive a training session this summer to ensure they were not violating the city’s policies for high school credit accumulation.

Those policies were established in response to growing concerns that “credit recovery” courses were being abused to inflate graduation rates, which factor heavily into evaluations of struggling schools. Those programs allow students to make up failed or incomplete classes without having to repeat entire courses, often through online assignments or packets of worksheets that teachers are supposed to supervise.

Starting with the 2013-14 school year, the city capped the number of credits students could earn through credit-recovery programs and put new restrictions on when students were eligible to make up work, and provided high school principals with clearer guidance about graduation requirements.

But Elvin did not follow the new protocol at John Dewey that year, according to the probe, which began in April 2014 in response to complaints from the school’s teachers. They reported that Elvin and assistant principals pressured teachers to give students credits for courses that they had either failed or did not take, regardless of effort or performance. When teachers refused, administrators changed grades themselves.

Alan Lerner, a social studies teacher, told investigators that two students who failed his Participation in Government class last spring had their grades changed to passing, unbeknownst to him. Another teacher assigned to a “Project Graduation” course, one of the credit recovery programs overseen by Elvin, reported that students who showed up to class and completed the work were automatically given a passing grade.

The report marks the end of a saga that began when the Bloomberg administration tapped John Dewey and 32 other schools for a federally prescribed “turnaround” in 2012 and appointed Elvin to lead the effort. The plans, which required principals to remove half of the school’s teachers, were later blocked through legal action. Elvin stayed on at John Dewey, but clashed with staff members who resented her aggressive tactics for removing teachers.

Martin Haber, a special education teacher who said he was forced into an early retirement last year after more than 20 years at the school, described the tension in dramatic terms.

“This principal created a hostile work environment where teachers were being slaughtered,” said Haber.

But when the city’s graduation rates were released at the end of each year Elvin was there, John Dewey showed improvement. Before she took over, 66 percent of students graduated in four years; last year, 79 percent of students did.

“It didn’t seem possible,” Haber said of the growth.

Fariña’s decision to bring termination charges against Elvin is harsher than the Bloomberg administration’s treatment of Janet Saraceno, the principal of Lehman High School who investigators found guilty of similar kinds of academic malpractice in 2011. Saraceno resigned voluntarily and took an administrative position with the department coaching principals and teachers.

Representatives for the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents Elvin, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Norm Scott, an activist with the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a caucus of the city teachers union that waged a public campaign to remove Elvin, said the city’s actions were long overdue. He said Fariña — who has said for months that she was awaiting the results of the investigation — was informed about problems at John Dewey by teachers there in her first months on the job.

“A year too late,” Scott said. “Kids and teachers have suffered enormously.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”