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Girl, mom and teacher claim CSAP cheating, other abuses at Cesar Chavez

Eleven-year-old "Sara" was one of the brightest kids in her fifth-grade class at Pueblo's Cesar Chavez Academy. But she says that didn't prevent teachers from helping her to cheat on her Colorado Student Assessment Program test this year.

"After we finished taking the test, [a teacher] would look in our book to make sure we answered every question," says Sara, whose mother asked that her real name not be used. "On some questions, she would say, 'Look at this answer again and check it and make sure and fix it.'"

Sara attended one of five fifth-grade classes at the K-through-8 academy, which has a sister school in the Springs. (Another second Springs school is slated to close.) She says after the reading and writing CSAP exam, teachers from other classes entered her classroom and begin divvying up the kids. Sara and a few classmates were moved from their homeroom to another classroom, where kids from other fifth-grade classes were waiting. A total of about 12 kids were there. All were instructed to cheat.

That, after the children already had been improperly given extra time to complete the test. And after Sara had noticed that she recognized many of its questions.

"They looked like the questions we were doing in CSAP prep," she says. "They were basically the same questions except they had a few different words or names."

Teachers are not allowed access to the CSAP before it is administered.

Sara and her mom sat down with Robert Vise, Pueblo City Schools executive director of assessment & technology, on June 18 to share their story. After years of rumors and anonymous phone calls describing virtually identical scenarios to the one Sara described, Vise finally had his first on-the-record student account.

"It is sad to hear that such a practice has occurred and it invalidates the whole purpose of Colorado's testing program," Vise stated in a later e-mail to the Independent. "It does raise the question as to what extent such practices continue to occur at CCA in light of other documented instances dating back to 2005."

If the story is found to be true, it could render at least some student test scores invalid, and affect CCA's Adequate Yearly Progress and School Accountability Report, which sometimes results in a school being put on an academic watchlist. There could be other consequences as well. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, a school principal and assistant principal accused of changing children's answers on a Georgia state exam were arrested and charged with falsifying a state document, a felony in that state that carries a potential two- to 10-year prison term.

Sara's mom says she's glad to share her story. She put Sara in Cesar Chavez hoping to put her smart kid on the fast track to college. Instead, the mother says, Sara complained all year that her fifth-grade classes covered material she had learned in third grade at a traditional Pueblo public school.

Sara's mom says Cesar Chavez founder and CEO Lawrence Hernandez never returned her repeated phone calls. And when she asked to speak to someone above Hernandez, she says, the staff didn't tell her she could talk to someone from the Cesar Chavez school board that oversees Hernandez, or someone from District 60, which oversees the board. Instead, Sara's mom says, staff told her, "This is a charter school. There's nobody above him."

Hernandez still hasn't returned phone messages left for him weeks ago by the Indy at several locations.

Not the only accusation

Sara isn't the only one accusing Cesar Chavez schools, once lauded for academic excellence, of systemized cheating.

District 60 confirms that "Joe" was a teacher at Cesar Chavez Academy for two years. During that time, he says, he was working toward a teaching license through National Educational Training Services, a company owned by Hernandez. Participating in the program cost $1,000-plus a year, which was deducted from Joe's paychecks. But Joe never attended any classes, nor was he mentored in the classroom. He was expected to learn on the job, and told he'd receive a license after two years.

Joe, who told his story to the Indy and District 60, says many "teachers" were on a similar plan. (Joe, by the way, never received his license. He says he hasn't even been able to get a copy of his file showing he participated in the program, despite paying $2,000.)

While at CCA, Joe says, he was asked to assist children in cheating on the CSAP. Administrators, he says, told him it was OK to tell a child to re-check an answer, or to take children into another room and give them more time.

Teachers were also instructed to change student records before the CSAP, to indicate that they had routinely given students special accommodations that were never actually afforded to them, a practice designed to "cover our ass." With falsified records, Joe explains, any child could qualify for special accommodations on the CSAP — accommodations usually only provided to children with established disabilities.

Systematic CSAP cheating by Chavez students in Pueblo has long been alleged, but never proven. Anonymous accounts from parents and inconsistencies in tests were documented in 2005 at Cesar Chavez Academy. In 2008, all fourth- and fifth-graders received some special accommodation on their CSAP ("Leader or cheater?" News, June 4) .

CCA is among a group of schools in Pueblo and Colorado Springs (a Denver school opens this fall) that are part of the Cesar Chavez School Network. The network has been criticized for its financial practices and hefty administrative salaries. Earlier this month, Hernandez handed out more than $250,000 in bonuses, with $68,455.14 — more than 27 percent — going to himself, his wife and chief financial officer Jason Guerrero, despite Hernandez previously saying publicly that no Chavez staff would receive bonuses this year.

The Denver-based Charter School Institute, which holds the charter to several of the schools and the network, is conducting an investigation of Cesar Chavez.

Other problems

In the end, it wasn't CSAP cheating or lack of academic rigor that led Sara's mom to take her daughter out of CCA. She had a better reason.

According to mother and daughter, staff and teachers put Sara's life at risk repeatedly when they denied her treatment for a severe allergic reaction.

Sara's mom says school officials were fully aware of Sara's serious allergies — Sara is covered under the federal Section 504 law that protects kids with disabilities or debilitating conditions. But they still put her in direct contact with peanuts — three days in a row. On the first day, Sara says, she rushed to the office in search of an EpiPen (a lifesaving prescription drug), wheezing with her face red and swelling.

"After lunch I went to the teacher and I said, 'I'm having trouble breathing,'" the child remembers. "And she said, 'OK, go to the office.' So, me and my friend went to the office and they were like, 'No, you can't come in because you don't have a hall pass.' And we kept saying, 'But I'm having trouble breathing,' and she said, 'No, go get a hall pass.'"

Panicked, Sara made two more attempts to get into the office. Once she was accompanied by a teacher. Another time she had her teacher call the office. But the office, apparently, told her no hall pass, no EpiPen.

Sara's outraged parents eventually picked her up. But even after they talked to administration about the situation, school staff put the child in direct contact with peanuts the next two days.

Furious, Sara's mom confronted the elementary school principal, Jodene Muniz, and pulled Sara out of the academy altogether.

"Don't call it slipping through the cracks," Sara's mom says. "Because there's not a crack big enough to call this a slip through the cracks. This was a multisystem failure. A repeated multisystem failure."

Sara's mom could choose to ask for an investigation of the incident through the U.S. Department of Education.

stanley@csindy.com

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