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SRC to vote on terminating three principals related to cheating investigation

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Updated, 3:40 p.m.

The School Reform Commission is hearing a presentation on testing integrity at its meeting tonight — likely the result of its long-awaited investigation into PSSA test cheating in dozens of city schools.

And in a personnel resolution coming to an SRC vote, three principals are up for termination, effective Friday: Michelle Burns, Deidre Bennett, and Marla Travis-Curtis. All three worked at schools under investigation for cheating on the PSSA exam.

Burns, now principal of Kensington Urban Education High School, was principal of Tilden Middle School when the alleged cheating took place. Bennett, principal of Cassidy, was on the staff at Huey Elementary. Travis-Curtis has been the principal of Lamberton Elementary School.

Sources said that these terminations are related to the investigation, which the state Department of Education initiated after the Notebook drew attention to a forensic analysis of PSSA test results in 2009 that showed a high likelihood of cheating in many schools statewide — based primarily on statistically improbable wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets.

Tilden, Huey, and Lamberton were all so-called Tier 2 schools, where the District conducted its own investigation into evidence of widespread adult cheating. The state Department of Education investigated another set of schools labeled Tier 1. There are also 22 Tier 3 schools flagged for evidence of widespread cheating but not assigned to either the District or state for investigation.

At Huey, proficiency rates on the PSSA dropped 43 points in math and 34 points in reading in 2012 after new security measures were put in place by the state and District. At Lamberton, scores dropped 31 points in both math and reading. At Tilden, scores dropped 28 points in both math and reading in 2011, the year after Burns left Tilden and was reassigned to Kensington Urban Education Academy.

Sources have said that scores of Philadelphia educators may have sanctions placed against them as a result of the cheating investigation, which started more than two years ago, although not all of them as severe as termination.

Also on tonight’s agenda is the proposed charter renewal of Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter High School, which has also been investigated as part of the statewide cheating scandal. SRC action on the charter’s renewal was postponed last month, when District officials said that they wanted to make public information about cheating at District schools before attaching conditions about testing integrity to a charter school’s renewal resolution.

Superintendent William Hite, General Counsel Michael Davis and Chief Talent Officer Naomi Wyatt will be delivering the presentation to the SRC on testing integrity at the 5:30 p.m. meeting.

Determining appropriate sanctions against educators is the major reason why the District has taken so long to release the results of its investigation, according to numerous sources close to the probe. The District can take action and also recommend that the state suspend or revoke an educator’s credentials.

In the spring, two district administrators surrendered one or more of their licenses as a result of the state’s investigation into Tier 1 schools. And an assistant principal at PE&T High School also lost his position and had his administrative licenses temporarily suspended. In the summer, a teacher had his license suspended for three months.

Robert McGrogan, president of the bargaining unit that represents principals and assistant principals, said that there will likely be further actions taken against educators.

While "under no circumstances do we condone cheating for any reason," McGrogan also said that there may be cases where blame may have been fixed incorrectly. In those cases, he said, the union may get involved on behalf of the educator.

Councilman Curtis Jones is on the speaker’s list for the 5:30 p.m meeting on the subject of "the Lamberton principal," Travis-Curtis. He issued a statement saying that he had been asked, but did not intend, to speak.

He said that he knows Travis-Curtis personally and that "she has a stellar reputation among community members in Overbrook Park and is highly regarded as an educator." Lamberton is in his district.

“I take these allegations of cheating at Lamberton very seriously and I do not condone cheating in any form," his statement said. "But I could not testify on her behalf without knowing the process and results of the investigation. I can’t make a full decision on half information. However, I fully support her taking whatever justifiable recourse to challenge the School District’s decision."

He added that the cheating scandal "reflects the larger issue of tying performance standards to test scores in our schools, which create a pressurized atmosphere where cheating can take root."

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