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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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