Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fake document allegations arise in HISD

By ERICKA MELLON | Houston Chronicle
April 8, 2010

The Houston school district is investigating whether employees fabricated documents in a complex scheme to fraudulently report dozens of students who dropped out as transfers to other campuses, Superintendent Terry Grier confirmed today.

The investigation centers on Kashmere High School this academic year and its feeder campus, Key Middle School, last year. Several of the Key employees followed their principal, Mable Caleb, when she was promoted to Kashmere this year.

Grier said early results of the investigation do not implicate Caleb, who is on leave following a related probe that accuses her of overseeing financial fraud, cheating on state tests and nepotism at Key. Grier declined to name the two employees suspected of running the dropout scam.

A school's dropout or graduation rate can affect its state and federal academic ratings, not to mention its public image. The Houston Independent School District came under national scrutiny in 2003 when a state investigation found it had miscounted thousands of dropouts. A computer specialist at Sharpstown High School was indicted on a document tampering charge, but the case was later dismissed.

Preliminary evidence in the current episode shows that employees created fake letters from other school districts claiming to have enrolled Kashmere and Key students who had dropped out, according to Grier.

“Because of the complaints, we're going in and looking at the records of every student who was listed as a transfer out to verify whether or not the transfer actually occurred or whether it was a student who dropped out of school and who had a false transfer request letter put in their file,” Grier said.

The Texas Education Agency, which already is investigating alleged cheating at Key last school year, is expected to expand its probe.

“We don't have any official information yet, but it's illegal to falsify governmental records,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman. “It calls into question their accountability rating and their accreditation ratings if this is true.”

Key Middle School earned the state's “recognized” rating — the second-best label — last year. It reported that three students, out of 545, dropped out in the 2007-08 school year, the most recent year available. Key's annual dropout rate of 0.6 percent is slightly worse than HISD's overall middle school dropout rate of 0.5 percent.

Kashmere High School earned the state's “academically unacceptable” rating in 2009 because of its low graduation rate before Caleb's arrival. The school reported that 61 percent of the Class of 2008 had graduated or was continuing high school. That meant 58 students, or 39 percent, dropped out, according to the data reported to the TEA.

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