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Denver school in cheating scandal ponders fate; DPS says upheaval not slated

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With the cheating investigation behind them and their beloved principal fired, the question for Beach Court Elementary School’s 363 students, their families and teachers is: What now?

Where does this school, once a showpiece of against-all-odds achievement, go from here? And, what will the fallout from the cheating mean for Denver Public Schools and its national reputation as an innovator?

Van Schoales, executive director of A-Plus Denver, a nonprofit group that works on education issues, doesn’t think the district’s image will suffer now that an investigation confirmed there was deliberate cheating on standardized tests and was likely carried out by administrators.

“I think quite the contrary. I would say that the fact the district moved quickly and did such a thorough job investigating” would set it apart from other districts touched by cheating scandals.

Of more concern than DPS’s national stature, Schoales said, is that with Beach Court knocked off its pedestal, there are no traditional neighborhood schools to serve as models, particularly for how to serve disadvantaged kids.

“Now, how do we know that what the district is doing in literacy or math, where that is working and where it is not working?” Schoales said.

Without Beach Court as an example for reformers to try to replicate, Schoales said, “that sets us back.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg disagrees.

“I’d say we have several models of very effective district-run schools,” he said, including Steck Elementary, which had one of the highest achievement growth rates in the state. “There are a number of very successful district-run and charter schools for us to learn from.”

DPS initiated its own internal analysis of suspicious scores and then took its concerns to the state.

The state Department of Education, along with the attorney general’s office and an outside consultant, announced Wednesday that their investigation found strong evidence that one or two individuals erased wrong answers on numerous Beach Court CSAP tests and replaced them with correct answers.

Longtime Beach Court principal Frank Roti was fired and ordered to return tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses he got for the high test scores that have now been invalidated by the state.

In addition, a few district employees — none of them teachers — got letters “regarding violations of testing procedures,” said district spokesman Michael Vaughn. He would not comment further on the disciplinary action.

In the wake of all that, rumors are rampant among the Beach Court community that teachers are leaving, parents are pulling kids out and the district might slap its “turnaround” ranking on the school, which could bring more upheaval, including forcing all teachers to reapply for their jobs.

The latter, at least, won’t happen, Boasberg said.

“It is absolutely not going to be on turnaround. Beach Court is a very good school. Part of the tragedy of this is that you have a very good school that, through the mistaken acts of one individual, was made to look like the best school in state.”

Between 2006 and 2011, students there, most of whom live in poverty, gained 30 points in reading, 33 points in math and 40 points in writing scores on state CSAP tests.

By the time this year’s standardized tests came along, the district already was suspicious of Beach Court’s past scores. Extra security measures were installed there and across DPS. All scores won’t be known until August, but Beach Court’s preliminary third-grade reading results showed a drop of 38 percentage points from last year.

The school will undoubtedly lose its “distinguished” ranking, the district’s highest.

Next year, the district likely will treat Beach Court as if it were a new school, giving it no designation in the school-performance formula.

Boasberg said there currently are no plans to investigate scores back further than the two years already examined.

What they are going to do is search for a new principal who can lead a school community that’s grieving, stunned and a bit angry.

But Beach Court will survive, Boasberg said.

“We have absolute confidence in Beach Court going forward. We’ll work closely with the community to select a new leader as quickly as possible. And we want to have that leader work with the community and with us to build on the very, very real strength and quality at Beach Court and to help them move beyond this very painful episode.”

That principal, along with parents and teachers, faces the weighty task of assuring kids they did nothing wrong, that it’s not their fault the man they looked up to is gone.

Boasberg said if he could speak to those kids, “I would say, ‘Have great confidence in yourself. We have great confidence in you, and do not let the unfortunate action of one individual in anyway undermine the confidence you have in yourself.’ ”

Perla Guillen is taking that advice to heart.

She’s only 9 but already knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. “Something to do with the science of rockets,” she said Wednesday, sniffing back tears. With or without Mr. Roti, her plan won’t change.

Some kids aren’t so sure the school’s future will be so rosy.

“We’re going to have a mean principal now,” predicted 8-year-old Nathan Armijo. “We miss Mr. Roti. We always will.”

Karen Augé

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  • comment avatar John June 8, 2012

    Turns out the “national reputation as an innovator” was a lie. Simple as that.

  • comment avatar AllAmerican June 8, 2012

    So they still love Frank because he remembered their names? While he lied about the students answers so he could get more money from the State. How about they work on teaching the students better so they can do better on their tests and trying to be honest???

    This school needs to be reformed with honest staff…

  • comment avatar Windbourne June 8, 2012

    Interesting that only the principle was fired. This had to have wide support by the teachers. The good news is that by NOT firing them, the new principle can look for bad teachers and lose them.

  • comment avatar LGM June 8, 2012

    “We’re going to have a mean principal now,” predicted 8-year-old Nathan Armijo. “We miss Mr. Roti. We always will.”

    Apparently no one bothered to explain to young Mr. Armijo that nice Mr. Roti was actually being mean to him and other students by cheating. Thinking that these students are too young to know the truth lets a real “teaching moment” pass them by.

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