State investigating two Denver schools

State officials on Tuesday opened investigations into possible cheating at two Denver elementary schools, interviewing the principals and staff at Beach Court Elementary and Hallett Fundamental Academy. Principals of the two schools were placed on administrative leave.

Denver Public Schools leaders were releasing limited information about the investigation, including the names of the schools, which have been confirmed by other multiple sources.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said district staff conducted a “very thorough” analysis of 2011 assessment data for schools across the city.

“Where that analysis raised statistical concerns, we shared the information with the state Department of Education and asked the state to lead an examination,” Boasberg said. “I want to stress that the existence of this statistical analysis does not imply wrongdoing nor have we reached any conclusions.”

The Colorado Department of Education, though its legal counsel, the state Attorney General’s office, has hired a New York-based consulting firm to assist in the investigation. DPS is footing the bill. The same firm, Alvarez & Marsal, was hired in March to look into similar concerns in the Washington D.C. public schools.

“We do feel we have a duty to look further where we saw statistically unusual patterns, and that is why we asked the state to look into those cases,” Boasberg said. “Ultimately, the decisions on any potential consequences, if any wrongdoing is discovered, is for the district.”

Parents of students at the two schools were notified of the investigation and a districtwide communication to parents went out Tuesday afternoon.

Sources confirmed the analysis of DPS test results included an examination of erasure marks on student answer sheets. Results showed the two schools far exceeded district averages in the number of wrong answers erased and replaced with correct responses.

As part of their initial analysis, district officials placed testing monitors in a number of schools during the spring administration of the TCAP state exams. Last week, when third-grade reading TCAP results were released, both Beach Court and Hallett posted double-digit declines.

The principals
  • Hallett Principal Charmaine Keeton has more than 30 years experience in education, with 24 years as a classroom teacher. Hallett is her first principalship. She has led the school since 2008-09.
  • Frank Roti has been Beach Court’s principal for a decade, coming from two years as assistant principal at West High School. Before that, he was a classroom teacher and new teacher trainer in Missouri.

Beach Court dropped 40 percentage points on both the English and Spanish-language versions of the exams while Hallett, which did not administer the Spanish-language version, dropped 12 points. Remaining TCAP results will be released in late July.

Beach Court Principal Frank Roti has led the school since 2002 and Charmaine Keeton has been Hallett’s principal since 2008. Both principals were notified Tuesday of the investigation; DPS school board members were briefed Monday afternoon in closed session.

Beach Court has been the recipient of glowing media reports and district praise since 2005, when the high-poverty neighborhood school in Northwest Denver began posting strong increases in reading, writing and math.

In 2009, the district held a press conference at the school to announce DPS’ strong state test results and to applaud the work of Roti and his staff. The school also has received national praise, highlighted at NBC’s Education Nation event in 2010.

Hallett, also a high-poverty school, is a magnet program drawing students from across the district to its back-to-basics curriculum. The school was formerly known as Knight Fundamental Academy and its program was moved into the former Hallett Elementary building in Northeast Denver in 2009.

Both schools have recorded strong gains in test results, particularly Beach Court, which saw its reading proficiency rate rise from 40 percent in 2004 to 85 percent in 2011. Hallett’s reading proficiency hit 63 percent in 2004, dropped to the 50 percent range from 2005 to 2010 and then climbed from 50 percent in 2010 to 66 percent in 2011.

Beach Court is rated on the DPS performance report card as a “blue” or distinguished school, meaning it “exceeds expectations” and ranks as one of the district’s highest-performing schools. Hallett is rated as a “green” school, or one that “meets expectations” set by DPS. Both schools are rated “performance” by the state, its top rating.

It’s unclear whether additional years will be examined as part of the investigation or whether additional schools might become involved.

“This will not be a protracted investigation,” said Jo O’Brien, the state’s assistant commissioner for testing. “The due diligence on the data, initially performed by DPS, which was very thorough and very well done, has been confirmed and added to with the resources of the state’s larger metrics and methodology … We do not expect this to be long at all.”

O’Brien said it’s not unusual for a school or district to call and ask state officials to check out a statistical anomaly in the million-plus state tests administered annually. What is unusual about the data brought forth by DPS, she said, is “a level of severity that caught our eye.”

Tuesday’s action marks the first state-led cheating investigation at a Denver school, but it’s not the first time questions have been raised about gains in DPS.

Last year, USA Today conducted an analysis of reading and math scores in seven states, including Colorado, and found 69 Colorado schools where students moving from one grade to the next posted dramatic growth, or jumps greater than 99 percent of their peers in the state. Of that total, 29 percent were in DPS. Beach Court was on the list for gains made between 2006 and 2007.

But state assessment officials admitted Colorado leaders declined to pay for erasure analysis as part of their testing contract with CTB-McGraw Hill and their own statistical analysis did not flag those schools. DPS administrator Connie Casson said then that district leaders did not conduct systemic analysis of scores, such as what was done by USA Today, for potential cheating. She said they did look into incidents brought to their attention by staff in schools or by district instructional leaders poring over results.

In March, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a national look at cheating and cited DPS among districts with test score results warranting a second look.

“The accuracy of our student progress data is very important,” Boasberg said Tuesday. “Families … use the data to understand how kids are doing, and how much progress they’re making. Teachers use the data to inform their instruction, to know what to focus on, to know how to target their teaching, and therefore it’s very important that we have completely accurate information about how our kids are doing.”

Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Denver, a citizens advisory group to DPS, said the possibility of cheating is “incredibly disappointing and sad for the kids and families of the schools, if true.”

“It suggests that kids have a certain level of knowledge and skills that they don’t have,” Schoales said. “If you’re told in elementary school, you’re a good reader and writer and mathematician and you switch into another school and all of a sudden your scores drop, you could draw all kinds of conclusions that may not be right about why that is. The real reason why is because you don’t know those things in the first place.

“If you’re not self-aware about what you know and can do … then you’re really not in a position to get any better.”

Higher test scores can mean more money in Denver, where a performance-based system known as teacher and principal “ProComp” awards bonuses based on student growth and performance on state exams.

For example, a teacher enrolled in ProComp this year could earn bonuses topping $2,000 each if their students exceed district expectations on state exams or if their school is designated as a “high-growth” school or a “high-performing” school on the district’s annual report card.

Statewide, the full implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the Great Teachers and Leaders Act, in 2014-15 will link student test scores with decisions about teacher and principal pay, retention and dismissal.

Because of those added consequences, as well as the state’s accountability system, which also relies heavily on the exams, O’Brien said the Department of Education this fall will debut enhanced test security policies.

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 [email protected]

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”