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This Baltimore high school’s administrators schemed to inflate enrollment, change grades, report finds

A two-year Baltimore City school system investigation has found that administrators at one city high school schemed to inflate enrollment, pressured teachers to change grades and scheduled students into classes that didn’t exist.

The report is a devastating account of how the former principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts and three other administrators fabricated courses and approved students for graduation when they had failed to legitimately pass classes. While the report does not determine a motive, principals’ evaluations are based on graduation and attendance rates.

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As a result of the scheme, at least 15 students improperly earned passing grades from the West Baltimore school — including some who may have earned enough credits for graduation based on those improper grades. The city school system is now discussing with the Maryland State Department of Education whether it will have to reimburse the state for money it received to educate students who didn’t actually attend classes.

“It is crushing. It is disgusting ... It is the antithesis of what we stand for,” said city school system CEO Sonja Santelises. “The fact that people think so little of our children and our educators that they take shortcuts that ultimately undermine not only the public’s confidence in our schools, but mostly that shortcuts the confidence” students have in themselves.

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Santelises said when students are told to sign up for classes that aren’t held or their grades are changed it signals to them that the school doesn’t believe they are capable of completing the work, and that is particularly harmful to students.

An investigative unit within the city school system conducted the examination from September 2019 to today, Santelises said, uncovering more problems than they expected. Every student’s transcript was reviewed, 30 staff members were interviewed and dozens of documents and emails were collected.

The report notes that a review by the Maryland Office of Inspector General for Education is ongoing. The state education department did not respond Thursday afternoon to answer questions about the investigation.

Baltimore school officials first thought something was amiss in the summer of 2019 when the central office in charge of certifying graduation for students began to spot problems. At the same time, Santelises said, the principal’s supervisor grew suspicious during a routine review of documents. She noted that the principal was supposed to be teaching a yearbook class, but she visited the building often enough to know the principal wasn’t teaching any classes. The principal’s supervisor also had never seen a yearbook class on the schedule.

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It was later discovered about 10 students were enrolled and recorded as attending the yearbook class, but there were no records of the class meeting and no one could verify that it was held. In addition, the class was the only one some students were signed up for that year.

The principal and an assistant principal were put on administrative leave in September 2019 after those initial discoveries. The school system then found other issues that warranted a more extensive investigation that began in the spring of 2020, Santelises said.

The school system identified them the principal as Tracy Hicks and assistant principal as Joy Kwesiga.

Efforts to reach Hicks and Kwesiga by phone, email and social media were unsuccessful.

The report implicated four Augusta Fells Savage administrators in the scheme. The school system has not named the other two administrators. Three no longer work for the school system and the fourth is awaiting “administrative proceedings.”

A representative of the city’s school administrators union, which represented them and the others involved, said it is not involved in their defense.

Anthony Keig, the guardian of an Augusta Fells Savage student, called the news “a travesty.” It’s caused him to lose confidence in the school system, and to wonder whether his son is receiving a quality education, he said. All of the officials involved should resign, he added.

“He comes home with a good grade; it’s like: Is this legitimate, or not? I trust him. I just don’t trust the school,” Keig said.

But the West Baltimore resident said it felt unsurprising for a city where corruption scandals are frequent.

“It’s just more of the same,” he said. “We’ve had continuous scandalous mayors.”

Joseph Powers, father of a 14-year-old who just started at the school, said the news felt familiar, given previous grade-changing schemes in the city. He feels the city has a tendency to push students through, even when “they’re not really ready.”

“They’ve always done that,” he said.

The report had three key findings:

— Over the three-year period, about 100 students remained on the rolls but didn’t attend the school. School staff corrected the enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year, but about 70 instances remain when “suspicious actions” by staff resulted in the school getting funding for 52 students that “could not be documented or validated.”

Funding for schools is based on a per-pupil model, so when the enrollment is inflated more money is dispersed to the school than should be. The report notes that the Maryland State Department of Education audited city enrollment in 2017 and 2019, including records at Augusta Fells Savage, and found no problems.

— Administrators pressured staff and teachers to change student grades. In some instances, teachers were ordered to grade exams on a curve to ensure students passed, or recalculate grades based on makeup work that students turned in late.

— The school operated evening and summer courses designed to allow students to make up credits, but the courses didn’t meet standards. In some cases, unqualified teachers were assigned to teach the classes, and in other cases staff were named as teacher of record for a class they never taught. Some students were given work packets to complete to earn credit rather than attend class. Central office staff caught the problems in some instances and declined to give the student a course credit.

Many of the allegations detailed by the investigation were first reported by Fox45 News.

School system officials said they have taken steps they hope will prevent similar problems at other schools. In the spring of 2019, the school board adopted a new grading policy for schools that requires more than one person to sign off on a grade change. In addition, the school system said a new grading platform allows better tracking and monitoring of grade changes.

They also said they have established other safeguards for school schedules and enrollment to thwart similar schemes in the future.

The school system said it has worked with affected students to help them meet graduation requirements.

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Santelises said the problems at Augusta Fells Savage were not sloppy record keeping.

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“This was a planned operation, this wasn’t someone changing a grade,” she said.

The final report comes after the school system apologized to the school community for mistakes at Augusta Fells Savage, saying it would issue a report later. John Davis, the chief of schools, said the focus has been on helping students harmed by the scheme.

“We don’t, as of yet, have any indication that this is happening beyond this school,” Santelises said.

Over her tenure, Santelises said she has increased the number of supervisors for principals. The issues at Augusta Fells Savage might not have been caught if the principal’s supervisor had been in charge of more than 15 schools, Santelises said.

An experienced principal was moved into Augusta Fells Savage in 2020. School officials said they are trying to build a school culture that allows teachers and staff to alert those above them to fraud. The school system has a fraud hotline, an ombudsman and Santelises said she sometimes receives emails directly from staff pointing out irregularities that she asks to be investigated.

Santelises said the incident saddens her because it will hurt the public perception of the school system and unfairly tarnishes the work being done to improve the school system.

“There are teachers doing the hard work to move kids,” she said. “It undercuts those efforts and it calls into question the real successes that educators are having every day in our schools.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Lillian Reed and Christine Condon contributed to this article.

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