The principal and four teachers at a Hunting Park elementary school are accused of fostering a culture of cheating on standardized tests for five years, authorities said Thursday.
Evelyn Cortez, principal at Cayuga Elementary School on North 5th Street near St. Luke, and four teachers there - Jennifer Hughes, Lorraine Vicente, Rita Wyszynski and Ary Sloane - allegedly changed student answers, provided test answers to students and improperly reviewed the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) before administering the tests, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said.
The cheating allegedly took place from 2007 to 2012, and when it ended the percentage of students who scored highly on the PSSA dropped dramatically across all grades and subjects, authorities said.
The charges were recommended by a grand jury after the case was referred to Kane's office from the state Department of Education, which probed cheating at 11 district schools and three charters. The investigation is ongoing and other charges are expected to be filed, Kane told the Daily News.
"Cheating robs children of a good education and hurts kids and families," Kane said. "The alleged misconduct by these educators is an affront to the public's trust and will not be tolerated."
According to authorities, Cortez, 59, "blatantly" promoted the cheating, entering classrooms, letting children know when their answer was incorrect, and even reprimanding teachers who didn't want to take part and students who didn't want to change wrong answers.
Students were directed to record test answers on scrap paper instead of test booklets so teachers could check their work, authorities said, and this directive also was broadcast over the school's public address system.
Kane said she hopes the charges send a strong message to other educators. "Education is important to our kids and to their families and to their parents. The fact that certain educators, because they had pressure put on them, felt it was easier or better to serve themselves rather than our kids is unacceptable."
The school district released a statement, saying it "strongly supports the actions taken by the Attorney General and the PDE." The district said it will continue to cooperate with authorities to ensure all individuals implicated are prosecuted and disciplined.
Cortez, Vicente and Hughes are each charged with corrupt organizations, perjury, tampering, forgery, and criminal conspiracy. Sloane and Wyszynski are facing tampering, forgery, and conspiracy charges. All five have been suspended by the district pending a disciplinary conference to be held in the near future.
Marc Neff, one of the attorneys representing Cortez, said his client would plead not guilty and defend herself against the charges. He declined to comment further until he reviewed the charges.
Four of the five defendants turned themselves in Thursday morning at Northeast Detectives and are expected to be arraigned later today, authorities said.
Earlier this year, the district concluded its investigation into 19 so-called Tier Two schools, finding evidence of cheating at 13, while three were cleared of wrongdoing and evidence was inconclusive at three others. Sixty-nine current and former employees were implicated, including three principals who were fired.