Denver principal of school in cheating probe got bonuses for stellar scores
The principal at one of two Denver elementary schools being investigated for cheating on standardized tests was paid at least $32,000 in bonuses as a reward for his students’ high achievement.
In his 10 years as principal at Beach Court Elementary in north Denver, Frank Roti has won accolades — and financial reward — across the state and the country for leading disadvantaged students to stellar academic achievement.
Now, the state is investigating whether Beach Court, along with Hallett Fundamental Academy in north Park Hill, altered students’ responses on standardized tests.
Denver Public Schools said Tuesday it had asked the state to investigate testing practices at two schools, later identified by sources as Beach Court and Hallett. The investigation followed the district’s lengthy and intense review of recent standardized tests.
The principals of the two schools under investigation have been placed on administrative leave, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.
Reached at his home Wed-nesday, a clearly distraught Roti said he could not comment on the investigation.
Charmaine Keeton, the principal of Hallett, a magnet school that recently relocated from outside Denver, was eligible for a $6,000 bonus in the 2010-11 school year, based on the school’s test performance. She could not be reached for comment.
DPS offers a number of financial incentives to teachers and principals for top performance in several measures, including scores on state standardized tests.
Beach Court’s high scores netted Roti bonuses of at least $6,000 for the 2008-09 school year and again for the 2009-10 school year. During those years, his salary was around $90,000.
In the 2010-11 school year, Beach Court achieved “distinguished” status, the district’s highest ranking, which qualified Roti for a $10,000 bonus. Also that year, Beach Court was one of three Denver schools to win top honors in the nationwide EPIC program, a distinction that carries with it a $10,000 award to the principal.
The EPIC program, which is operated by a New York-based nonprofit, “identifies urban schools driving the highest student achievement gains … and then awards the school leaders and teachers for sharing the practices that lead to the gains.”
Boasberg said the district’s intense scrutiny of testing practices did not stem from any accusations.
“Last fall, when we saw what was going on in other cities, we said, ‘We’ve got a bit of a duty here to really look.’ We had heard no allegations or rumors,” he said.
The district’s analysis, which Boasberg described as exhaustive, began well before students took TCAP tests this spring.
By the time TCAP tests — known as CSAP until this year — were handed out to students, new security procedures were in place.
Each Denver school still has a designated site assessment leader, often a teacher, who is in charge of distributing and collecting the tests each day over the three-week period they are administered. At the end of each day, that person locks up the test booklets, and no one else in the school is allowed to have access to them, said the site leader of one school, who asked not to be identified. When the testing period is over, the district comes and picks up the tests.
In the past, part of the site leader’s job included making sure test answers were clear, he said.
“You used to be able to go through the book. You could go back and clean up erasures,” to make sure there was no confusion over which answer the student intended, he said. “The district said we couldn’t do that this year.”
The new security procedures also included proctors at “a couple dozen schools,” said Boasberg.
According to district data, 96 percent of Beach Court’s 363 students enrolled as of October lived in households needy enough to qualify for federal assistance to buy lunch. At Hallett, 89 percent of students qualify for lunch assistance. Typically, living in poverty and the stresses that puts on families are considered hurdles to academic achievement.
Nevertheless, over the past five years, test scores at Beach Court had soared. Preliminary third-grade reading scores for the 2011-12 school year, the only scores released by the state so far, show that the number of Beach Court students who were reading at grade level or better dropped to 40 percent from 78 percent in 2010-11.
Nevertheless, several former teachers and educators who have worked with the school said Wednesday they were stunned by the accusations.
Lorraine Diaz, who retired in 2008 after teaching at Beach Court, described the teachers there as “awesome.”
“The teachers had a lot of integrity and worked really hard to get their kids to do their best,” Diaz said.
Karen Duonnolo, a former reading specialist at the school, said struggling kids got a lot of help early — at least until funding for some of the reading programs was cut.