School district rebuilds after fraudulent testing

JUAN CARLOS LLORCA Associated Press Published:

EL PASO, Texas (AP) -- During his sophomore year, Jose Avalos was urged by a principal to drop out of high school. The next year, his brother was told to do the same after entering the 10th grade. A third Avalos brother shared the same fate in 2009.

Administrators at Bowie High School cited excessive tardiness in their efforts to remove the siblings. But now the brothers suspect they were targeted for an entirely different reason: The district was trying to push out hundreds of low-performing sophomores to prevent them from taking accountability tests. The scheme was designed to help El Paso schools raise academic standards, qualify for more federal money and ensure the superintendent got hefty bonuses.

"I thought I was going crazy. I even doubted my sons," said the boys' mother, Grisel Avalos. She said she tried several times to keep her sons in class, but district officials "were on the side of the teachers and the principal."

Three years after the youngest of the Avalos brothers dropped out, the former superintendent faces prison time, state officials are strictly monitoring the schools and the district is trying to contact ousted students to help them complete their education.

"A few people did a lot of damage," interim Superintendent Kenneth George said. "Now we want to make sure these things never happen again."

The idea to cast out the weakest sophomores originated with former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who pleaded guilty to fraud in a case that could put him behind bars for up to 3½ years. He's scheduled to be sentenced Friday.

After being hired in 2006, Garcia soon began implementing a plan with several other administrators that included pre-testing 10th-graders to identify those who were likely to fail standardized tests. He even asked an employee to photograph students crossing the border so they could be forced out on the grounds that they were living in Mexico and not within the district.

Garcia "was looking for 'bad kids,'" said Mark Mendoza, the district official who reluctantly photographed students crossing a border bridge during three days in 2008.

"I told him: 'Is this a residence check? Or are you asking me to get rid of kids that will not perform well?'" Mendoza recalled. "It was the most uncomfortable thing in the world for me. I threw the game. I tried to find all the reasons possible to kill this idea."

In the short term, the strategy worked. Test scores improved at eight of 11 high schools. The district's overall rating improved from "academically acceptable" in 2005 to "recognized" in 2010 -- the second-highest rating possible.

But the achievements came amid startling enrollment declines for sophomores.

Austin High School, for instance, had 615 freshmen in 2005, but that number had dropped 40 percent by the time accountability tests were given the following school year. With the next batch of 571 freshmen, only about half were still enrolled by the time the tests were administered.

Students with bad grades, low attendance or limited English proficiency would be held in the ninth grade and then promoted to the 11th grade. Or if they were old enough, they might be told to seek other options such as attending a charter school or obtaining their GED elsewhere. Many of them had recently transferred from nearby Juarez, Mexico.

The whole idea, said former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, was to make those students "disappear" so they would not be counted among the students who were tested.

Other large districts have been ensnared in scandals to raise test scores, most recently in Atlanta, where educators gave answers to students or changed answers after tests were completed. But none has been so brazen as to cast off low-scoring students.

In June, Garcia admitted defrauding the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education in his efforts to secure $56,500 in performance bonuses and federal funding for the district. His lawyers did not return repeated requests for comment.

At Garcia's plea hearing, prosecutor Debra Kanof said the former superintendent instructed employees "to do anything they could" to make it appear that students were making adequate yearly progress as defined by the No Child Left Behind act.

Court documents indicate at least six other people helped Garcia organize the scheme. The FBI has said it is still investigating.

Johnnie Vega, an assistant principal at Bowie High, admitted his participation and provided information to the FBI.

"At the time, I wish I would have known how serious this was going to be," Vega said. "I regret not having said no."

Bowie, one of El Paso's oldest high schools, was on the brink of being shut down after years of low performance.

"When grades improved, they gave us these really nice polo shirts. Mine is brand new in my closet, I didn't want to wear it," he added. "All my career as an educator I felt like I made a difference, except for that year."

Shapleigh was first alerted by parents who came to his office to complain about their children being dropped from El Paso schools. When he looked closer at Bowie, he found that student enrollment from ninth to 10th grade dropped by 55 percent in 2007 -- the year after Garcia was hired.

In 2010, the Texas Education Agency had cleared Garcia of allegations brought by Shapleigh. But in late 2011, the El Paso Times filed a Freedom of Information request for correspondence between the federal Education Department and the school district. When the attorney general ruled that the records must be released, the district acknowledged the scandal.

State officials soon placed the district on probation, named a monitor to oversee it and said the schools had shown "utter disregard" for student needs.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the agency closed its initial investigation after accounting for most of the students who were pushed out of high school.

Putting the TEA in charge of a solution to the El Paso problems was "like putting the fox in charge of the chickens," said Shapleigh, who is now collecting signatures to demand the resignation of the trustees, overhaul the district's transparency policies and obtain restitution for students.

Meanwhile, the district is trying to find students who were thrown out to offer academic, as well as counseling, tutoring and social services.

For those who were booted out of class, the wounds run deep.

"They took away my high school, my time," said Cesar Diaz, who was told to drop out after the school claimed it had proof he was living in Mexico. "I wanted to study in the U.S. because I'm a U.S. citizen. My future is in the United States."

Diaz was born in Aurora, Ill., but moved to Ciudad Juarez when he was a child. His grandmother, who lives in El Paso, became his tutor, and he moved in with her so he could have a U.S. address.

As for the Avalos brothers, they want to see Garcia in prison and to move on with their lives. Roger Avalos, now 21, is seeking his GED while working at a cowboy boot factory.

"Justice would be getting my high school diploma, a picture with the cap and gown," he said.