Sunday, July 08, 2007

Oakland High School Under Fire for Cheating

University Preparatory Charter High School in East Oakland touts itself as a high-end academy where students attract recruiters from the country’s best universities.
Pictures of young scholars in caps and gowns can be seen on its Web site above the names of colleges that accepted them, like Dartmouth, Yale, Stanford and San Jose State.
But that wonderful image is a false one, because now it’s been revealed that somebody at this inner-city public school is cheating big-time.
The state Department of Education has just concluded for the second year in a row that one or more adults interfered with state-required testing at the school. This spring, state investigators seized copies of 2005 tests being illegally used to prepare students for the 2007 exams.
This is a travesty. These teachers are not doing this for the good of the students. They’re doing it for themselves and the institution, so that they can continue to spew false statistics about the success of the school and get much-needed revenue. In fact, they are hurting these kids. The place should be closed down or at the very least, lose its accreditation. But, that really isn’t a good solution either, because once again it would hurt the students, who are really the victims here.
I attended St. Michael’s Prep in Silverado, California in the late ‘70’s, a small Catholic high school with a total enrollment of 60 students. It was extremely tough academically and still is. The school has always prided itself on producing students who go on to big-name colleges and succeed in life. If they were ever caught doing something like this it would be the total demise of the institution.
Academic integrity is the most important thing a school has. Doing anything to undermine this integrity is unforgivable, in my opinion. It’s like a casino stacking the deck or a legal system with corrupt judges. It’s like having a president who hands out pardons to criminals like they’re cookies. How can University Preparatory Charter High School EVER be trusted again?
State rules require that test booklets be turned in at the conclusion of testing each year because many exam questions remain the same. At Uprep, someone photocopied the 2005 test books and kept them.
"That's a fairly significant security breach," said Deb Sigman, testing director for the state Department of Education. "California statute specifically prohibits any preparation that is specific to this test."
Last year, investigators found that someone changed hundreds of test answers from wrong to right before they were sent to the state.
In a rare move clamping down on a charter school's autonomy, the state is ordering the Oakland school district to take over Uprep's testing, Sigman said.
Now, eight former teachers assert in a 27-page report to state and local education officials that a culture of cheating exists at the school. And they say it's done at the top level.
The teachers claim:
-- Students' grades are frequently falsified.
-- Course titles don't always match the easier content tested.
-- Low-scoring students are barred from taking state-required exams in an attempt to keep them from lowering the school's scores.
-- Discipline is arbitrary and intimidating.
Just as stunning is the teachers' assertion of who is responsible for the alleged misconduct: the director, Isaac Haqq, Uprep's founder and most fervent cheerleader.
Haqq denies doing anything wrong.
"We're not trying to cheat," Haqq said. "We never have. It's easy to blame us."
He dismissed the teachers' report as the work of disgruntled former employees, some of whom he fired.
More than 470 students attend the school that Haqq, a former Pasadena city councilman, founded in 2001 inside the tattered Eastmont Mall on Bancroft Avenue in East Oakland. Haqq calls his school -- where classes are taught on an 11-month-long annual schedule -- "the front line of the civil rights movement" and sees it as an academic rescue mission for some of the Bay Area's most troubled teens.
In June, 100 Uprep seniors walked the graduation stage. The number of graduates was far lower than the 365 seniors the school claimed last fall. Even so, 40 of those graduates -- most from the low-income neighborhoods near the school -- are headed to college in the fall.
"It's kick-ass what I'm doing!" Haqq said.
But doubts are surfacing, and the Oakland Unified School District is investigating the teachers' allegations.
"We take this very seriously as the charter's authorizer," said Kirsten Vital, chief of community accountability for the Oakland schools, which has the power to close the autonomous public school but not to fire anyone.
Meanwhile, Uprep teachers aren't the only ones complaining. A counselor from Oakland's Skyline High claimed that some of Skyline's worst students suddenly became high-scoring scholars after they transferred to Uprep.
"It's appalling," said counselor Helen Wolfe-Visnick. "I don't know what they're doing over there."
She told of one Skyline senior who for years earned D's and F's. Last fall, he transferred to Uprep, where he not only earned A's and B's, but took 16 classes in a single semester -- including three English and three science classes.
He returned to Skyline this spring, and the D's and F's also returned, except for B's in two art classes. And he graduated, said Wolfe-Visnick, because she was obligated to count the suspicious Uprep grades.
"It's terrible!" she said. "It's so unethical. It's almost like we're just as guilty as Uprep is for accepting this."
Her experience bolsters one of the Uprep teachers' most serious allegations: that someone is falsifying grades.
In the report, former English teacher Kateri Dodds told of a sophomore who had "several of his failing grades changed to C's the first semester. He showed me his report card and told me the grades he should have gotten, according to his most recent progress reports: F's."
Dodds quit in May.
Kathleen Tarr, who also left in May when Haqq turned her government and economics course into an SAT prep class, wrote: "Isaac told me several times that he inflates students' grades if it means getting them into a good college." (Tarr has also filed a claim with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to force Haqq to release her final paycheck of $500.)
"That's simply not true," Haqq said of pumping up grades. "The exact opposite happens here. I'll call up a school -- Pomona -- and say don't take this kid. He's not ready."
Yet reports of altered grades go back years at Uprep.
"I was aware that Isaac was willing to bend the rules if he thought it would help the students -- and I was aware that I didn't object to that or care," said Sang Pahk, who taught math at the school in 2002 and 2003 before leaving to further his education.
"He had an attitude, and I kind of shared it, of not so much caring about what the rules were, but that if there was something you could do to make the school more successful, you should," Pahk said.
"It wouldn't surprise me to hear that he was cheating. I do believe his heart was in the right place."
Asked if he had direct knowledge of anyone changing grades at Uprep, Pahk responded: "I'm trying really hard not to answer that."
The teachers who filed the report also said Haqq bullies and humiliates students and teachers alike, yelling at them and seizing control of classes in mid-lesson.
In the report, Dodds wrote that Haqq forced her to give a thumbs-up or -down on expelling a ninth-grade boy in front of his class when the kid was out of the room.
Science teacher Lance Olsen, who was fired this year, wrote that he saw Haqq order a freshman girl to stay alone in a darkened room. When Haqq returned and saw that she had turned on the light, "he said, 'You're in the dungeon. I don't want to waste my electricity on you,' " Olsen reported.
Chris Rozeville, still a math teacher at Uprep, said Haqq "physically manhandled" an 11th-grade boy he was reprimanding for proceeding too quickly on a test. "Isaac grabbed (the student) by his backpack he was wearing and tugged back on it, forcing (him) backwards. (The student) lost his cool and pushed Isaac back."
Haqq emphatically denies the accusations. He said he did not yank the 11th-grader. "He got up voluntarily and came out," said Haqq, adding, "I don't publicly humiliate anyone. My primary concern is protecting kids."
Nor did he leave a student in a darkened room, Haqq said. But he conceded that he may have asked a teacher to give a thumbs-up or -down on expelling the other student. "I'm not going to say I didn't do that," he said.
Teachers also have extensive complaints, from random firings to the withholding of paychecks.
"He was the worst employer I've ever had," said former English teacher Vanita Sharma, who was not among the teachers who signed the report. Sharma said she learned she'd been fired when her health coverage was canceled in spring 2006.
Of the 15 teachers whose photos and academic credentials are currently used to promote the school on its Web site, 10 have quit or been fired. Another dozen have also left or been forced out, and two former employees have taken Haqq to court.
One of those suing Haqq is Mike Schwartz, hired last year as Uprep's testing coordinator. In May, The Chronicle reported that in 2006, someone at Uprep erased wrong answers on hundreds of ninth-grade math and English tests and wrote in the right answers.
In interviews, Haqq blamed the fudged answers on Schwartz. Haqq said he wanted Uprep's school ranking on the state's Academic Performance Index to rise above 700 points for the first time. It had hovered in the mid- to high 600s on the 1,000-point scale. And though 800 is considered excellent, the 700 mark held appeal.
"I gave the guy a bonus opportunity of $500 for every point above 700," Haqq said. "It was a stupid thing to do. I see that now. There's only one person I know with the motivation (to cheat) -- someone who'd get $500 a point."
Haqq said Schwartz sent the box of students' answer sheets to the state after the deadline, and so had time to tackle the erasure job.
"How can you forget the most important box, O Great Testing Coordinator? No bonus for you!" Haqq said. "The guy changed the scores. I didn't see him do that. But circumstantial evidence is evidence."
Schwartz vigorously denied cheating. He acknowledged being 12 days late in sending the answer sheets, but said he mistakenly thought they should be sent with other testing materials due at the later date. He said he set everything out for pickup together -- including the box of answer sheets -- and was then shocked to see the same box outside of Haqq's office six weeks later.
"I think he did it," Schwartz said of the erased and corrected answers. "This fabric of lies and misrepresentations to try to pin it on me leaves me no doubt."
Schwartz is suing Haqq in Alameda Superior Court for breach of contract.
Haqq is also fending off a wrongful termination suit from Mary Kenefick, who ran Uprep's independent study program from 2002 to 2006.
Kenefick and other teachers accuse Haqq of ignoring the academic needs of all but the most promising students. They say he relies on the low-scorers to attract thousands of dollars per student in state tax money -- but bars many of them from taking state exams and potentially lowering the school's scores.
Sometimes this is done by suspending students just before testing, or telling some to take a few days off, several former teachers told The Chronicle. But mainly, they said, Haqq lumps hundreds of independent-study students into the 12th grade, where no testing is required.
"He told us directly to designate the kids as seniors," Kenefick said. "Did I know it was unethical? Sure. Did I understand the reasons why? Yes. He wanted the scores to come from kids who reflected the school's mission. The independent-study side was the cash cow."
Uprep received $6,473 for each student this year, about $3 million in public funds.
Records also show that Uprep has an unusually high number of seniors -- 300 of the school's 475 students are listed as being in 12th grade. That would suggest a similar number of 11th-graders last year, but there were only 125 juniors in 2006.
Haqq said he properly places the independent-study students in the 12th grade.
"A lot of these kids are 18, 19 years old," he said. "I'm not afraid to test anybody! Why would I be?"
Haqq fired another teacher, Bob Martel, after Martel alerted state officials in April that teachers had been given the illicit 2005 exams to use as practice tests.
"They didn't get it from me," Haqq said.
"Isaac totally was the one who gave them to us," Martel countered.
Martel also told the state that Haqq wanted him to administer the state's geometry test in his pre-calculus class, and the algebra 1 test in his algebra 2 class in an apparent attempt to raise scores.
Administering easier tests than the course requires is against state regulations. Other teachers reported a similar experience, and said they thought Haqq hoped to boost scores this way.
"He most definitely ordered us to give the wrong test," said math teacher Hanna Choat, who quit by mutual agreement with Haqq this spring. Before leaving, she compared students' 2006 testing records against their courses and said she found a consistent pattern of lower-level tests in higher-level classes.
Haqq shrugged. "I mean, you know, what's in a name?" he said. "I'm not purposefully asking for a lower-level test to increase my scores. You can put nuclear physics on a transcript and have a 400 on the SAT, and you ain't getting into Dartmouth. That's not gonna help my kids."
Some of those kids see the good -- the very good -- in Haqq.
"He will do absolutely anything, and I mean anything, to make sure we get into college," said graduate David Scorttino, who just completed his freshman year at Oberlin College in Ohio.
"I had a crazy family experience. Mom wasn't all too there. Mr. Isaac was willing to let me live in his house, rent free," said Scorttino, referring to Haqq by his school nickname.
Though Scorttino moved in with friends instead, he is grateful to Haqq. "He wants the best out of everybody, and expects the best. I'm pretty sure I got into Oberlin because of Uprep."
(Portions of this article were taken from and the SF Chronicle)

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