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Phila. principal and 3 teachers ordered to stand trial in cheating probe

After a parade of witnesses testified they saw adults manipulating state exams at one Philadelphia elementary school, a judge on Tuesday ordered four educators to stand trial on multiple cheating charges.

After a parade of witnesses testified they saw adults manipulating state exams at one Philadelphia elementary school, a judge on Tuesday ordered four educators to stand trial on multiple cheating charges.

Evelyn Cortez, the principal of Cayuga Elementary School, and teachers Jennifer Hughes, Lorraine Vicente and Ary Sloane were all charged by state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane with forgery, conspiracy, tampering with public records, and other crimes.

At the conclusion of a lengthy pretrial hearing in which several teachers said they saw incorrect answers changed and teachers berated for failing to take illegal steps to boost scores, Municipal Court Judge David C. Shuter ordered the four defendants to be tried on most of the charges brought by Kane. Corrupt organization counts filed against some of the defendants were dismissed.

The criminal charges were the first brought in a citywide cheating probe. Officials have said that the investigation was continuing and that they expect more people to be charged.

Attorneys for the four educators say their clients are innocent and will be vindicated.

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

Cortez and others allegedly created a culture of cheating at the school so blatant that the principal broadcast announcements over the loudspeaker advising adults to tamper with tests.

Cayuga's test scores rose astronomically during the time of the alleged cheating, then plummeted after testing improprieties were first reported and the state imposed strict new testing protocols.

Daniela DePaola, a special-education teacher at Cayuga from 2009 to 2013, testified Tuesday that she once walked into Hughes' classroom to find Cortez working with students on their state exams.

Cortez was yelling at one student, DePaola said, telling the child that an answer was wrong. The student changed the answer once, but the new answer was also incorrect.

"She said it was still wrong," DePaola said. "She said, 'Fix it.' "

DePaola said that on another occasion, Cortez came into her classroom and loudly reprimanded her for not assisting her pupils on the test.

"She yelled at me in front of the students that I wasn't helping the students," DePaola said.

Angelee Rivera taught at Cayuga for one year only, 2006-07. On one occasion when she was administering the state math exam, Rivera said, Sloane and Cortez entered the room, and Sloane picked up a student's test booklet. She began talking about the problem, and other students listened.

"Some of the students started erasing their answers and started rewriting answers," Rivera said.

Later that day, five students were summoned from Rivera's room, she said. They left with their test booklets and returned later, without them.

Rivera spoke up about the violations she saw, she said, writing a letter to officials voicing her concerns. After she submitted the letter, her fortunes changed at the school.

"I felt like I was being punished for saying no or not being a part of what was going on," Rivera said.

Wanda Vangas, an aide at the school from 1999 to 2011, said she was once directed by Cortez to review footage from a school security camera. The footage showed Cortez entering the school around 5 a.m., Vangas said, removing testing booklets from the room where they were kept, and taking them elsewhere.

Vangas told Cortez what she saw on the cameras, Vangas testified.

Then "she asked me to delete it," Vangas said. She said she told the principal she did not have the authority to delete the footage.

Another teacher, Steven Masterson, said Cortez told him to fill in a student's blank answer. Another said she saw Cortez with a small group of fifth graders, their test booklets opened, working on a portion of the exam that had already been finished.

Miriam Abreu, a bilingual teacher at the school, said she also saw Cortez in a classroom with a small group of students and their tests.

Abreu said she saw Cortez in conversation with one student.

"She said, 'I want you to do well today, because yesterday you didn't do so well.' "

How would Cortez know how the student performed on the test? Deputy Attorney General James Goldsmith asked Abreu.

She must have examined the girl's booklet, Abreu said.

Is that allowed? Goldsmith asked.

"No," Abreu said.

A trial date has not been set for the four.

Cortez, Sloane, Hughes, and another Cayuga teacher, Rita Wyszynski, have been suspended without pay by the Philadelphia School District. Vicente had been laid off from the school system before the allegations surfaced.

Wyszynski waived her preliminary hearing and did not appear in the courtroom Tuesday. She is scheduled to appear in court in December.

Her lawyer has said his client was being made a scapegoat for a system obsessed with test results.