The Mobile County Public School System may have won in a wrongful termination lawsuit against the system, but in doing so, it was affirmed cheating went on and was encouraged in at least one school.
MCPSS launched an investigation into cheating allegations at Holloway Elementary School in April 2012. The findings resulted in placing two teachers — Terri Kelly and Renae Pesant — on administrative leave and placing former principal Iesha Williams on paid administrative leave effective June 24, 2013, and then ultimately firing her.
MCPSS terminated Williams because they allege she encouraged teachers to cheat on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) and the system’s End of the Quarter Tests (EQTs).
Williams contested her termination and on Oct. 10-11 Mobile Circuit Court Judge Charles Graddick heard testimony from teachers and staff about the allegations.
On Nov. 19, Graddick sided with the school board saying Iesha Williams, who was principal at Holloway Elementary School, was justly fired.
“The court concludes that the (School) Board had ample reasons for taking the action that it did concerning the termination of Iesha Williams. While there may have been contradictory evidence presented in both the investigative report of (school resource officer Andy) Gatewood, as well as in the evidence presented to this court, the court believes that the board, as well as its Superintendent and its Executive Manager of Human Resources, acted correctly and conscientiously in making their decisions concerning Ms. Williams. The court believes that the weight of the evidence falls heavily in favor of the board,” Graddick’s order reads.
Gatewood was the person who was in charge of investigating the cheating allegations, which came from an anonymous teacher in the school.
His investigation led him to focus on three people — Kelly, Peasant and Williams. In the report, it was alleged Kelly used nonverbal cues and improperly assisted her students during testing. Also, it was alleged Peasant copied the ARMT and then gave those copies to other fifth grade teachers in the school. Williams allegedly allowed for additional time for testing and told her teachers to use nonverbal cues during testing.
Gatewood wasn’t the only person making those same accusations.
On Oct. 11, MCPSS Executive Manager of Human Resources Bryan Hack provided some of the most damning evidence against Williams. Hack looked at the scores for Holloway students who had left fifth grade and moved to Booker T. Washington Middle School.
“I looked at the special education students’ scores when they went from fifth to sixth grade. There were 18 students who moved to Booker T. Washington in the 2012-2013 school year,” he said. “I would say conservatively that 14 or 15 of those students had a significant drop off in scores.”
Hack also said a “fair number” of typical students’ scores dropped as well.
The sudden drop off in a group of students’ scores is one a major red flag for cheating.
Tedra Morris Colley finished her first year at Holloway in 2013, but was not asked back to teach by Williams. Colley alleged it was because she reported cheating to Williams, and she was being punished.
Colley sent a letter to MCPSS officials stating she was fired because she “wrote a letter accusing teachers of cheating.”
Colley said she saw Pesant making copies of an EQT students were going to take later. She said special education students were making “impossible” scores.
“I had a special education student that was good … well average in math. The student was a very poor reader. When the test scores with Mrs. Kelly came back, the student was scoring 80 percent or even 90 percent on EQTs. That’s just not possible,” she said.
Christine Nasser, MCPSS secondary science supervisor, reported teachers hovering over students, one teacher having a test booklet in his hand while the students were taking the test (which is illegal), Kelly reading portions of the test during the reading section and Williams and Kelly changing students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP).
An IEP is developed for special education students and provides them accommodations that are agreed upon by a group and the student’s parents. It is against federal law to unilaterally change a student’s IEP.
Nasser said this was done on test day by Kelly and Williams. The principal said she and Kelly only printed out the IEPs and didn’t change anything.
Teacher Joi Mullins said Williams told teachers to use non-verbal cues for students. Non-verbal cues are one of the easiest ways for teachers to cheat, but it is also one of the easiest ways for a teacher to be caught red-handed.
For instance, on a multiple choice test a teacher can point to an object or even letters written on a board to provide an answer. The students will have to be in on the scheme, which means one of them could talk. Also, people passing by can observe the teacher’s odd behavior.
Many more teachers alleged Williams allowed teachers to give students extra time on standardized tests, which is illegal.
Williams categorically denied all the allegations saying the only encouragement she gave was for teachers to get up and teach.
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