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Charges in 'culture of cheating' at Philadelphia school

The culture of cheating was so blatant at Cayuga Elementary, authorities said, that the principal broadcast orders to tamper with tests over the loudspeaker.

Evelyn Cortez (inset) principal, and four teachers at Cayuga Elementary School have been charged with fostering a culture of cheating at the Hunting Park school over a 5-year period, Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced Thursday.
Evelyn Cortez (inset) principal, and four teachers at Cayuga Elementary School have been charged with fostering a culture of cheating at the Hunting Park school over a 5-year period, Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced Thursday.Read more

The culture of cheating was so blatant at Cayuga Elementary, authorities said, that the principal broadcast orders to tamper with tests over the loudspeaker.

Five educators were arrested Thursday and accused of tampering with public records, forgery, conspiracy and other crimes - the first such charges brought in a Pennsylvania cheating investigation expected to yield more arrests.

Charged Thursday were Evelyn Cortez, 59, Cayuga's principal until last week, and teachers Jennifer Hughes, 59, Lorraine Vicente, 41, Rita Wyszynski, 65, and Ary Sloane, 56, who had been principal of Bethune Elementary.

The five were immediately suspended by the Philadelphia School District. Because they have not been convicted, they will still collect pay.

"The alleged misconduct by these educators is an affront to the public's trust and will not be tolerated," Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said in a statement.

Lawyers for Cortez, Sloane, and Hughes said their clients did nothing wrong and would be vindicated.

Samuel C. Stretton, lawyer for Wyszynski, said his client had devoted her life to teaching and was a scapegoat for a system obsessed with test scores.

"I just think it's a very sad situation," Stretton said. "For the district to throw these good teachers under the bus, I think it's wrong. Tremendous pressure was put on, by the district, by principals and others."

A state grand jury recommended the charges after the Pennsylvania Department of Education referred the case. The educators will be prosecuted in Philadelphia.

The Inquirer first reported cheating at Cayuga in 2012, when staffers told the newspaper of systematic test-tampering that stretched back years at the Hunting Park school.

Cortez, teachers said, would tell students over the loudspeaker to write test answers on scrap paper and not fill out their exam booklets until teachers gave approval. She also used the public address system to tell teachers to walk up and down aisles during tests, helping students with the questions.

The teachers said Cortez and others came into the school on a weekend to change answers, and called them at home to warn them that their test scores needed to rise. They said students told them they had been called to Cortez's office to fix wrong answers, and that students who could not read or write in English scored proficiently in reading.

The 14-page grand jury presentment released Thursday matches allegations detailed to The Inquirer in 2012.

Cortez's methods were no secret, the presentment said.

She "systematically cheated to increase Cayuga's test scores by changing student answers, providing test answers to students, and improperly reviewing PSSA test questions prior to administering the test."

Sloane, who was testing coordinator at Cayuga for a time, testified that she made test booklets available to teachers for review prior to testing. She told the grand jury that Cortez "had jokingly indicated to her that teachers could give a student an answer if the student answered it wrong," according to court papers.

Sloane said she saw Cortez remove exam booklets from the secure room where they were kept, and take them into her office and shut the door. Vicente and another teacher then holed up with Cortez and the exam books, Sloane testified.

Wyszynski told the grand jury that Cortez directed her to give students answers to questions they did not know, and to prompt them to complete blank questions. She denied allegations that she was part of a group who changed answers themselves.

Hughes, a special-education teacher, allegedly sat with Cortez, helping students who had already completed their tests change answers. She denied any knowledge of cheating, but the grand jury found her testimony "not credible."

Vicente, one former Cayuga student told the grand jury, walked around the classroom with an answer key during test administration. She would point out students' wrong answers, and direct them to change them, persisting until they answered correctly. She also denied knowledge of cheating, which the grand jury found unbelievable.

The pressure on schools to bring up scores is intense.

During the years investigators probed, principals whose scores stood out were publicly praised. Cayuga won the district's coveted "Vanguard" status, earning it some freedom in curriculum and budgeting, based on its test marks.

The school's scores were stunning.

On 2008-09 state proficiency exams, Cayuga's fourth graders excelled: 89 percent passed math and 84 percent passed reading. But by 2012-13, when the state had cracked down on cheating, the scores plummeted.

Just 31 percent of fourth graders passed math that year, and 25 percent passed reading.

Parents and grandparents picking up their children from Cayuga on Thursday shared a wide range of reactions to the cheating scandal. Some were shocked, others said they saw it coming.

Cortez "never showed me that side of her," said Judith Rivera, whose granddaughter attends the school. "She wanted to make the school better, not worse."

Natasha Unwin said that based on her daughter's experiences, she had suspicions about how Cortez ran the school.

"They said she passed with flying colors, but she was still having problems," Unwin said of her 11-year-old.

Mayor Nutter said that cheating at any level was wrong.

"It truly robs the students of the educational quality and an understanding of the fundamentals of their work, and damages the reputation of the School District," he said at a news conference.

The presidents of the city and national teachers union concurred that cheating can never be condoned.

But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that a national "testing fixation" must end.

"You have to wonder why you have in these high-high-pressure districts, where the scores are the be-all, end-all, that you have this kind of environment," Weingarten said at a news conference on education funding.

Sources with knowledge of the probe say the Cayuga charges are just the beginning. They drew parallels between Philadelphia's cheating scandal and one in Atlanta, where 35 educators from 44 schools were indicted.

An investigation of more than 50 Philadelphia district schools and three city charter schools began in 2011. The state Inspector General's Office investigated cheating at 13 city schools where the allegations were most serious. The district investigated 19 schools and had plans to probe 22 more.

Sixty-nine current and former employees were found to have acted improperly in one of the most serious group of investigations, district officials have said.

Among the second group of investigations, three schools were cleared, no conclusion could be drawn at three, and cheating was found at 13.

In January, the School Reform Commission fired three principals implicated in the cheating scandal. In all, 15 active and former district educators have been disciplined in some way, ranging from the firings to being barred from serving as testing coordinators.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district "strongly supports" the attorney general's actions, and would continue to support the criminal investigations so that those who committed wrongdoing "are fully prosecuted and disciplined."

The Attorney General's Office encouraged anyone with information about test cheating to call 610-631-5987610-631-5987 .

215-854-5146215-854-5146  @newskag

Inquirer staff writers Craig R. McCoy and Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.