Despite many complaints, crackdown on cheating at Cayuga came slowly

Evelyn Cortez , Cayuga Elementary School principal, has been accused of directing flagrant abuses.
Evelyn Cortez , Cayuga Elementary School principal, has been accused of directing flagrant abuses.
Posted: May 12, 2014

Cheating at Cayuga Elementary was no secret.

Staff and parents at the Hunting Park school had alleged for years that principal Evelyn Cortez had ordered testing improprieties - from instructing students to confirm answers with their teachers before entering them in exam books to changing answers herself, according to a grand jury report.

Multiple reports of cheating were made to the Philadelphia School District over several years before officials took it seriously, staff said. And as years passed with no action, Cortez flaunted that she had suffered no consequences.

She once pointed out to a teacher that "all of these teachers who had reported her were no longer at the school while Cortez still was, which demonstrated that God was on Principal Cortez's side," according to the grand jury report.

Cortez denies any wrongdoing.

The tide turned last week, when Cortez and teachers Jennifer Hughes, Lorraine Vicente, Rita Wyszynski, and Ary Sloane, who left to become principal of another city public school, were arrested and charged with felony conspiracy, tampering with public records, forgery, and related crimes. Those were the first charges brought in an investigation expected to bring more arrests.

But it happened years after the allegations about Cortez and Cayuga were first made.

Teachers first detailed the cheating to The Inquirer in 2012, and allegations were made to authorities years before then but were deemed unfounded. For most of the time the alleged cheating occurred, Arlene C. Ackerman, who took over the district in May 2008, was superintendent.

In 2007-08, teachers Angelee Rivera and Katty Fernandez wrote individual letters detailing cheating they had witnessed, according to the grand jury presentment released Thursday. They gave their letters to Cayuga's Philadelphia Federation of Teachers representative with assurances that Cortez would not see the letters, and that they would reach district officials.

But Cortez found out about Rivera and Fernandez's letters and began to exact revenge, according to court documents - they received heightened classroom monitoring and worsening evaluations. Both left at the end of that school year.

Cortez forced other teachers out, too, and punished those who refused to cheat by moving them from grade to grade and intimidating them, the teachers told the grand jury and The Inquirer.

Tips about cheating were also passed along to the district in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, Cayuga teachers told The Inquirer. They were handled in the same way, the teachers said: Officials from district headquarters would go to the school to check test protocol.

But the central office staffers always notified Cortez when they were on the way.

And "nobody interviewed us, interviewed people in the building," one teacher said. "Nobody asked us what we saw."

Changes came slowly. In 2011, The Inquirer detailed cheating at Roosevelt Middle School and the Public School Notebook website unearthed a forensic analysis of 2009 state exams that revealed likely cheating in many city schools.

The state ordered reviews of the tests dating to 2009, and ultimately 53 city schools - one of every five - was tagged for possible cheating. Some schools were investigated by the state, and some by the district. Investigations at some schools have not yet begun.

The timetable was frustrating to many. After The Inquirer detailed Cayuga teachers' accounts, some of them met with State Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.), who was asking for answers on possible city cheating.

McGeehan still remembers the meeting, which felt a little like something out of the Watergate scandal, he said in an interview Thursday.

At their insistence, he met the teachers in an anonymous hotel coffee shop outside Philadelphia.

"I felt like I was meeting with Deep Throat," McGeehan said. "They were intimidated. Their former complaints had fallen on deaf ears. These teachers were threatened, were intimidated, were threatened with their seniority and their pensions and their jobs."

McGeehan said he helped the teachers, whom he praised as heroes, connect with state investigators. McGeehan also singled out former state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis for taking seriously the Cayuga cheating story and others around the city and state.

It appeared Cortez - who according to teachers' accounts perpetrated cheating in ways big and small, from encouraging teachers to read up on test questions and drill their students on the material beforehand to actually erasing answers - knew she was running afoul of the rules.

The principal told teacher Barbara Dolt she needed to do "whatever was needed to get the PSSA scores up," according to the grand jury report.

When Dolt asked her what she meant, Cortez "laughed and stated that she couldn't tell her because, according to Dolt, 'my office might be bugged.' "

That was in 2007. In 2011, Cortez called Dolt at home and instructed her to make sure all student answers were correct. If a student answered a question incorrectly, Cortez said, Dolt was to have the student fix it.

During that call, "Cortez assured Dolt that nobody [apparently referring to assessment monitors from the school district] would be coming to Cayuga, and even if they did, Cortez assured Dolt that she would alert her before anyone got to her classroom," the court document said.

Wanda Vangas, a noontime aide, told the grand jury that in 2011, Cortez was also caught on school surveillance video retrieving test booklets and taking them into her office in the early morning before anyone else was at school. Vangas was ordered to review the video, and when Cortez learned what it contained, she ordered Vangas to destroy it.

In 2012, a district official told The Inquirer the Cayuga allegations were not new.

"We know allegations against the school in the past were false," Daniel Piotrowski, then head of accountability and assessment, said at the time. He no longer works for the district.

Even after state officials began their investigation at Cayuga and 52 other city schools in 2012, Cortez, according to court records, was still trying to direct misdeeds.

She told Dolt "to tell investigators that the PSSA tests were stored in a secure location in Room 308 of the school; in fact, the tests were stored in Cortez's office," the grand jury report said. Cortez also instructed Dolt to say that there were so many erasure marks on her students' tests because the pupils were prone to erasing.

Dolt told investigators her students hardly erased at all.

Jessica Diaz, a lawyer in the school system's Office of General Counsel, said that before 2012, data analysts from the district's assessment and accountability office investigated cheating claims. The person investigating would notify a principal that a report had been made, say when he or she would investigate, and list every person he or she intended to interview. Principals would often receive the actual complaint.

That changed after the state launched its probe in 2012. The General Counsel Office took over investigating cheating claims and discontinued the process of alerting those accused of cheating to the nature of the claims against them and that it intended interview subjects.

"Given the gravity and the seriousness of the investigations, once we saw the data, we made the recommendation immediately, and it was accepted," Diaz said of the switch to lawyer-driven investigations.

Diaz declined to say how many cheating complaints had been made about Cayuga.

State Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, in an interview Friday, said the charges against Cortez and the four others were very serious.

But so was the alleged cheating, Kane said.

"It wasn't just one time," she said. "It was systematic. They were bringing kids in, making them cheat, teaching them to cheat. They were punishing good teachers who refused to cheat. And that's just intolerable."


kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146 @newskag www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|