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El Paso Schools Cheating Scandal: Who's Accountable?

Wed, April 10, 2013 9:30pm

Story by Claudio Sanchez




Listen to this story on npr.org »

No one knows if Atlanta's school superintendent or any of the people accused of falsifying test results will go to jail, but they wouldn't be the first if they do.

Lorenzo Garcia, the former superintendent of schools in El Paso, Texas, has been sitting in a federal prison since last year. He's the nation's first superintendent convicted of fraud and reporting bogus test scores for financial gain.

Now, the school district is in turmoil and everybody is blaming everybody else for the scandal.

In the Whataburger parking lot across from James Bowie High School, the last thing kids want to talk about is "the cheating scandal."

"Yeah, it's true and it does feel bad because everybody looks down on us," a student says.

Students say it's embarrassing; some don't want to believe it happened. They have every right to be embarrassed, says El Paso Independent School Board President Isela Castañon-Williams.

"We had a superintendent who engaged in criminal activity and worked with others inside the district to commit that crime," she says.

Test Scores And Rumors

Garcia's plan was to inflate test scores at Bowie High School by not testing the poorest performing 10th graders, changing failing grades to passing grades and forcing struggling students to drop out of school altogether. It worked. Bowie's rating quickly went from "failing" to "academically acceptable."

Everybody looked great — the district, the school board, the state — while Garcia collected more than $56,000 in bonuses. He was nominated for Texas superintendent of the year twice.

"His work was being praised all over the state," Castañon-Williams says. "He was making presentations all over the state."

The cheating started at Bowie, then broadened to other schools. This kept going until a counselor at Bowie complained, and rumors about the cheating spread.

"What I was hearing was anecdotal stories from the students themselves. Many were being, in my opinion, coerced into dropping from school," says Mark Emanuel Mendoza, the school district's director of student services.

Initially, the rumors were dismissed as just that, Mendoza says. The reason Garcia got away with it for so long was because he held people's careers in his hands, including Mendoza's.

"If you said no to him, you were gone," Mendoza says.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) got wind of the alleged cheating — twice — though state investigators cleared Garcia of any wrongdoing.

Another Investigation Surfaces

Later that year, the FBI started looking into another Garcia scheme — a bogus $450,000 contract he awarded to a girlfriend. By then, the El Paso Times and a state senator from El Paso were conducting their own investigations.

Garcia's arrest in August 2011 was a huge local story. Nationally, it was just one more in a string of cheating scandals blamed on the enormous pressure to raise test scores mandated by No Child Left Behind.

The scandal in El Paso, though, is not just about cheating. It's about state and local school officials running for cover and blaming each other for letting it happen.

Who Else Is Accountable?

To this day, Castañon-Williams insists the school board didn't go after Garcia because it couldn't. Why?

"Well, truthfully, because even though there had been many rumors in the community, the FBI had been investigating, the Texas Education Agency had done two investigations and found absolutely no wrongdoing and so there was no evidence at that point on which the board could use to take action against that superintendent," she says.

But Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams says the response by the El Paso school board was "wholly insufficient."

"Once it became evident that wrongdoing had occurred, the school board still did nothing. That is the reason for my action," he says.

Williams has stripped the elected school board of its authority and appointed a five-member "board of managers" to oversee the district for at least two years. He has also asked the state auditor to examine why TEA investigators cleared Garcia in the first place.

Castañon-Williams says TEA is just papering over its own negligence.

"TEA failed this school district, and it failed this board of trustees," she says.

'Where The Buck Stops'

There's a lot of blame to go around, says Guillermo Glenn, a parent and long-time community activist. But it was board members who should have stopped Garcia and didn't, he says.

"I think the school board is responsible, that's where the buck stops," Glenn says. "And our concern is that this scandal will blow over and things will continue the way they were."

Last week, the Texas state senate passed legislation vowing to investigate cheating in schools more aggressively. In El Paso, two federal investigations are ongoing. At least six former district employees could still face charges for allegedly helping Garcia carry out his scheme.

'Los Desaparecidos'

Meanwhile, school officials are trying to track down the students caught up in that scheme. They're called los desaparecidos, the disappeared in Spanish, or some say "the forgotten." Officially, 77 kids who dropped out. Investigators say there were probably many more.

"Kids were denied an education and educators just stood by," says Xavier Miranda, a teacher in El Paso.

For Miranda, the scandal is a wake-up call. Miranda is a highly regarded teacher at Coronado High School in one of El Paso's wealthiest neighborhoods. He has requested a transfer to Bowie High School because, he says, it's the best way to channel his anger about what happened there.

"I'm a product of there. I went there. I had teachers that cared," he says. "And I'm a teacher; I want to give back."

If they abandon those kids now, Miranda says, fighting back tears, then everybody in El Paso — not just a discredited superintendent — will have betrayed them.

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