Was cheating encouraged by a former elementary school principal? Was the story fabricated by a group of teachers seeking to get the principal out of her office? Or was it two teachers cheating on their own will?
Those were the questions asked at an evidentiary hearing today in Mobile County Circuit Court in a lawsuit filed against Mobile County Public School System by Iesha Williams, the former principal of Holloway Elementary School.
MCPSS launched an investigation into cheating allegations at Holloway Elementary School in April 2012. The findings resulted in the termination of two teachers — Terri Kelly and Renae Pesant — 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).
Now Williams is fighting in court to get her job back.
She filed the lawsuit against the MCPSS saying she was fired for something she didn’t do. During the Oct. 11 evidentiary hearing, it became clear there were not just two sides to this story, but at least three.
A group of teachers at Holloway and the MCPSS maintain Williams told teachers the class had to perform to at least an 80 percent standard … by whatever means necessary.
Another group of teachers and Williams say the principal never encouraged cheating, but only wanted test scores to rise through teaching. Williams also said she never knew anything about Kelly and Pesant allegedly breaking rules, and she didn’t believe the teachers cheated.
Then there is the idea that if Kelly and Pesant did cheat, then they did so on their own, and they were not instructed by Williams.
Judge Charles Graddick ultimately asked MCPSS attorneys and Williams’ attorneys to provide findings of facts and the laws that support their position and the orders each side would propose. The information, which is due to him on Nov. 14, will be considered before Graddick gives a ruling.
The judge noted the two sides appeared to not agree on any facts.
“I would say for (the two sides) to get together to find common facts, but there doesn’t appear to be any. The arguments are 180 degrees,” he said.
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’ score dropped as well.
The sudden drop off in a group of students’ scores is one a major red flag for cheating.
Williams said the students’ outside lives were not taken into account for the drop-offs.
“Some of these students don’t have water, lights or heat. They don’t want to go to school because they’re dirty and kids will make fun of them,” she said.
Aside from test scores dropping off, there were other allegations against Williams.
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.
When asked if she told one teacher they had “to play the game,” Williams said she did say that, but not in a way to imply cheating.
“I meant they should get up from behind their desks, get off their cell phones and teach,” she said.
The group of teachers testifying against Williams painted the principal as someone driven by data. But when Williams took the stand, she picked up her own brush and painted a picture of hew own, claiming the women were a clique who took it upon themselves to “get” her.
They are all good friends,” she said. “When I didn’t hire (Colley) back, they decided to go after me.”
Perhaps the pettiest story of the hearing was one between teacher Venetia Smith and Williams.
During a student Christmas performance, the program was “riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes,” Williams said.
She asked Smith to redo the program, which was treated like Williams “started another World War,” she said.
Smith, however, said Williams was rude.
Both women even admitted in court the matter was “trivial,” but it did show the mentality between the group of teachers and the principal.
Several other teachers testified on behalf of Williams. They said she never mentioned cheating to them and that she was professional.
Williams, Kelly and Pesant are not just facing unemployment from MCPSS. Williams said the Alabama Department of Education is also filing charges to revoke their teaching licenses, which means they wouldn’t be able to teach anywhere in the state.
Calls to the state were not returned before press time. MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek said the system would not be commenting on the matter until after the ruling by Graddick.