The DeKalb County principal accused of doctoring student enrollment records was exposed by the very computers she allegedly manipulated to boost her school’s ranking.
Angela Jennings was principal at Rock Chapel Elementary in 2010 when, according to a multi-count felony indictment handed down last week against her and two former administrators at other DeKalb schools, she deleted students from the system.
Jennings apparently did not realize the computers automatically generated letters to parents when their kids were dropped, DeKalb District Attorney Robert James said. Parents complained, and the district investigated.
Interviews and documents obtained last week reveal such new details about the alleged actions of the defendants while describing the scope of the investigation and the magnitude of the possible effect on children.
In 2011, James started investigating. He spent more than $40,000 on a half-dozen retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents to reinforce his own staff of three investigators. Their work led to indictments Tuesday against Jennings, former Cedar Grove Middle School principal Agnes Flanagan and former Stoneview Elementary assistant principal Derrick Wooten.
James said the administrators were motivated by fear their careers would suffer if their schools had poor student attendance and weak scores on mandatory state tests.
Jennings’ attorney, Robert Stephens, downplayed the indictments, calling them a “glass of spilled water” next to the “tsunami” that inundated Atlanta three weeks ago. Former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall was among 35 educators indicted in a racketeering case centered on test cheating.
There may be fewer defendants in DeKalb, but these three former administrators represent a fraction of the educators investigated on suspicion of test cheating or altering attendance records. Two years ago, DeKalb referred 29 educators to Georgia’s teacher licensing agency, the Public Standards Commission, or PSC.
District officials calculate that 1,875 students who came into contact with those educators had excessive wrong-to-right answer changes on Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, a sign of possible cheating.
None of the three indicted former DeKalb employees could be reached for comment. Their phone numbers were either unlisted or disconnected, and they didn’t answer their doors at home. Attorneys for Wooten and Flanagan did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
PSC investigation documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution late last week open a window on the alleged actions of two of them.
The investigative summary in Jennings’ case says she signed a sworn statement admitting she deleted 13 students from enrollment records. Jennings told investigators she knew that if such students remained on the rolls they would drag down her school’s attendance rate.
“I knew that making the temporary deletions and adding the students back would give me the break in enrollment necessary,” she reportedly wrote. Students can be removed for “excessive” absences, but Jennings admitted to investigators that nine of them were not absent too much. She said it was a mistake, caused by looking at the “wrong screen in the database.”
(James, the district attorney, said Jennings withdrew students during the state testing period so the test results of the deleted students would not drag down her school’s average scores, then returned them to the rolls.)
In Wooten’s case, PSC investigators had witness testimony. He ordered six teachers to mark an undisclosed number of truants as present during the 2010-11 school year, his indictment says.
The PSC case summary says a witness told investigators Wooten was worried the school’s attendance record would be an “issue.”
Wooten gave his staff computer printouts of attendance records, the PSC report says. On them, it says, he’d handwritten the number of absences he wanted for each student.
Two years earlier, when he was a fourth-grade teacher, state tests he administered bore a “significant” number of wrong-to-right erasures, the PSC document says. On one, 27 wrong answers were erased and replaced with correct answers. On another, 22 of 24 changes were correct, and on another 21 of 23.
Wooten insisted he’d done nothing wrong, and investigators acquired no evidence or witness testimony indicating otherwise.
James said test erasure data suggests cheating was “pervasive” at Wooten’s school and that he suspects cheating was more “widespread” in DeKalb than his investigators were able to document.
“At this point, we have taken the evidence as far as it will take us,” James said. “Obviously, if new evidence turns up,” he said, “we’re going to follow it.”
Patricia Gripper has two grandchildren in DeKalb schools and worked as a paraprofessional in the district in the mid-2000s. She does not excuse cheating, but casts the blame beyond the schoolhouse — at a system that puts educators under tremendous pressure to boost test scores and attendance. She blames politicians.
“The powers that be set this up,” she said. “They got what they asked for. … And the kids got shafted.”
DeKalb vs. Atlanta: How the cheating cases differ
In late March, a Fulton County grand jury indicted 35 Atlanta educators on charges they conspired to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests. Included were former Superintendent Beverly Hall and several top aides, who were charged with racketeering, theft, making false statements and false swearing. Hall has denied the charges, as have several top officials.
Unlike the Atlanta case, no conspiracy is alleged in DeKalb County, where three educators were indicted Tuesday on charges including public record fraud and forgery and, in two cases, making false statements and/or writings. A 2010 DeKalb investigation uncovered numerous testing irregularities and resulted in the referral of 24 educators and five former employees to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which monitors the ethics of educators. At the time, DeKalb earned praise for its proactive handling of cheating concerns.
Agnes Flanagan, the former principal of Cedar Grove Middle School, is accused of telling teachers to change students’ answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Flanagan worked for the DeKalb school district from 1988 until 2012.
Angela Jennings, the former principal of Rock Chapel Elementary, allegedly changed students’ records to make it appear that they weren’t enrolled so that their 2010 test results wouldn’t weigh down school averages. Jennings was employed by DeKalb from 1992 through 2010.
Derrick Wooten, the former assistant principal at Stoneview Elementary, allegedly ordered teachers to record truant students as being present in 2010 and 2011 so the school might meet federal attendance guidelines. He was employed from 2007 to 2012.