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Principal, four teachers charged in cheating scandal

They allegedly created a culture of cheating on standardized tests. Authorities said more educators are likely to be charged.

Attorney Michael Coard, representing Bethune Elem. School principal Ary Sloane, speaks to the assembled press and insists on his client's innocence. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )
Attorney Michael Coard, representing Bethune Elem. School principal Ary Sloane, speaks to the assembled press and insists on his client's innocence. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )Read more

THE PRINCIPAL and four teachers at a Hunting Park elementary school were arrested yesterday and accused of cheating on standardized tests for five years, authorities said.

The charges - recommended by a grand jury - are the first filed in connection with the cheating probe, which was launched in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Department of Education into 14 Philadelphia schools. And state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said more charges are expected.

"We've put as many agents as we can spare right now on it," Kane said, although she declined to say how many schools her office was investigating or when more charges might be filed. "Hopefully, we can proceed in a timely manner, but it is ongoing."

Evelyn Cortez, principal at Cayuga Elementary, on 5th Street near St. Luke, and four current or former teachers there - Jennifer Hughes, Lorraine Vicente, Rita Wyszynski and Ary Sloane - allegedly changed students' answers, provided students with test answers and improperly reviewed the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) before administering the tests, authorities said.

The alleged cheating at Cayuga took place from 2007 to 2012, authorities said. When it ended, the percentage of students who scored well on the test dropped dramatically across all grades and subjects.

According to evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury, Cortez, 59, "blatantly" promoted the cheating, entering classrooms and letting children know when their answers were 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 in test booklets so teachers could check their work. That directive also was broadcast over the school's public-address system, the grand-jury report claims. Some students allegedly were pulled out of class to change their answers with the assistance of Cortez and Hughes, a special-education teacher.

The grand-jury report says various schools faced significant pressures to increase PSSA performance. When test scores went up, school principals received promotions and accolades, while others avoided demotions or terminations. One example involved Cayuga, where the district held a large celebration following a significant increase on the 2009 test.

"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."

Kane commended Cayuga staff members who refused to take part in the cheating and said the charges should send a strong message to all educators. "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 said it "strongly supports the actions taken by the Attorney General and the [Department of Education]." The district said it took steps in early 2012 to ensure test integrity, including increased test monitoring, changes in proctor assignment and test administration training.

An attorney for Sloane, currently the principal at Bethune Elementary, on Old York Road near Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia, insisted his client is innocent and called the charges an example of "overcharging" by prosecutors.

"It's simply an allegation. The law says folks are presumed innocent," attorney Michael Coard said. "She's factually innocent, as the evidence will show."

Marc Neff, a lawyer representing Cortez, also said his client would plead not guilty and defend herself against the charges.

At Cayuga yesterday, many parents said they were surprised by the news.

"I'm stunned because I didn't know [about the cheating] nor did I know that she was removed," Yaixi Ferdinand said in an interview conducted in Spanish, referring to Cortez. She said she had heard rumors of parents complaining about something at the school involving Cortez. "She was kind of arrogant with people."

Natalie Rodriguez, who has three sons at the school, wondered about the implications for her children.

"I'm in shock. I have a fifth-grader here," she said. "I hope it didn't affect him because he just got accepted into Nueva Esperanza [charter school] for middle school and they're waiting on his scores and I just hope that it doesn't affect him.

"How was it that they were still teaching and running a school?" Rodriguez asked. "That's crazy."

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.

All five defendants surrendered yesterday at Northeast Detectives and were expected to be arraigned late last night, authorities said.

A state-commissioned analysis of the 2009 tests showed statistically improbable scores and a pattern of suspicious erasures at 53 city schools and several others across the state. The state investigated 14 so-called Tier One schools, including Cayuga, while the district probed 19 so-called Tier Two schools. The remaining 20 schools have yet to be probed. It's unclear how officials determined which schools were investigated by the state.

Of the 19 investigated by the district, officials said 13 were found to have evidence of cheating, while three were cleared of wrongdoing and evidence was inconclusive at three others. Sixty-nine current and former employees were implicated and disciplinary action has been taken against 15, including three principals who were fired earlier this year.