Teachers accused of cheating still working in schools
Educators often jump to other districts as cases languish in Springfield
Matteson School District 162 Supt. Blondean Davis at a school board meeting in November. She believes educators should be held "to a higher standard." (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune / November 15, 2011)
Contrary to Illinois law, state officials for years didn't investigate or pursue discipline of educators reported for testing misconduct — from excessive coaching to giving students answers to prepping them with actual test questions, a Tribune investigation found. Some may have been allowed to keep teaching even if the state had investigated, but in the meantime, educators were allowed to jump easily to new jobs while the state delayed.
Illinois State Board of Education officials say they were instead focused on higher-priority discipline cases because of limited resources, though lawmakers have given the agency $1.3 million since 2008-09 to pursue educator misconduct. Typically, they addressed violations by throwing out test results and letting local officials discipline educators.
But after the Tribune requested information about cheating incidents related to Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, the state board revealed it is now investigating 33 reports of testing misconduct dating to 2004-05.
Few details were released by the state, but many local districts provided the Tribune with their own investigations of cases now under scrutiny, opening a window into the high-stakes world of testing that has been blamed for cheating episodes.
Within days of learning about possible cheating on state tests in early 2008, Matteson School District 162 Superintendent Blondean Davis launched an investigation, finding that the principal and assistant principal at Park Forest's Illinois School allowed 12 students extra time to answer math questions well after exam day was over, district records show. Both administrators submitted resignations.
"We found that allegations of cheating were founded," Davis reported to the state board in March 2008. But in Springfield, the case lay dormant.
Illinois School Principal Mogda Walker went on to become principal at the now-closed Salem Christian Academy founded by the Rev. James Meeks, chairman of the state Senate Education Committee.
Her assistant principal, James Blaszczyk, got a job teaching middle school in Mannheim School District 83, based in Franklin Park, and has since moved to Schrum Memorial School in Calumet City, where he teaches science.
In Geneva, teacher Suzanne Grinnell kept her certification and went on to jobs in the Oswego, Kaneland and Schaumburg school districts and in Arizona, after she resigned following alleged testing violations in 2005 at Mill Creek Elementary School. Community Unit School District 304 reprimanded her for providing ISAT assistance to two special education students that "went far beyond what is permitted," records show, including "verbal prompting, encouraging students to re-evaluate their responses (and) leading students through a step-by-step analysis of the problem."
In Chicago Public Schools, teacher Tomorrah Howard resigned before a dismissal hearing as the district investigated cheating allegations on state exams at Daley Elementary Academy in March 2010. The district's investigation found that "credible evidence does exist to support the allegation that ... Howard passed a green Post-it note to (a student) containing the answer to math problem No. 74."
Howard denied the accusations, telling the Tribune that a union lawyer advised her to resign so she could walk away with a clean record. She said she's now working at a West Side charter school in CPS.
"How do you fight something like this? It's someone's word against yours. It's scary, so I decided to just walk away from the situation," Howard said.
The Illinois School's Walker told the Tribune she never admitted guilt but understood that she was at the helm and would be held accountable. She said she's now retired and has "put the entire situation behind me."
Likewise, Blaszczyk told the Tribune he has "moved on."
Grinnell said from Arizona, "I did nothing wrong." She said she told the district that she made "generic comments," such as, "Remember what we learned in class." But she disagreed with a "very inflammatory" reprimand letter of March 2005 and said she wrote a rebuttal. The Tribune requested the rebuttal, but the district said it had no such document.
Grinnell questioned why the case would be open after more than 61/2 years.
Revocation not mandatory
The state board said it refocused on 2009 and prior allegations of testing misconduct during its review of the Tribune's Aug. 5 public records request, and "formally opened misconduct investigations on the educators involved," according to a letter to the Illinois attorney general's office. That office is reviewing whether the state board should release more records about cheating.