Students who were encouraged or coerced into leaving Bowie High School were told they “were not Bowie material” according to testimony at Monday’s hearing against current and former El Paso Independent School District administrators.
Monday marked the sixth day of the Texas Education Agency’s hearing and the first day for this hearing that former Bowie High School students testified about their experience as victims of the 2006-2013 scheme to manipulate student data to meet state and federal accountability standards.
The three-week hearing, which began July 11, could result in sanctions or the removal of credentials for former Bowie High School Principal Jesus Chavez; and former Bowie High School Assistant principals Anna Luisa Kell and Juan Manuel Duran. Duran is currently an assistant principal at Burges High School.
“I feel sad,” said David Dominguez, former Bowie High School student. “Even though it’s been seven or eight years, I feel sad because that’s the school I wanted to graduate from. That’s the school I loved dearly and unfortunately I couldn’t graduate from there.”
According to the original petition the Texas Education Agency alleges Kell, Duran and Chavez of manipulating student grades, and providing state and federal agencies with falsified records.
Kell and Chavez are also accused of implementing the Bowie Plan – or encouraging and/or permitting individual teachers, counselors and staff to manipulate student records to prevent low-performing students from taking the TAKS, or state mandated test, in the 10 th grade – or that would otherwise negatively affect Bowie’s state accountability rating and/or federal AYP status. Further allegations against Duran include coercing Limited English Proficient students to withdraw from school to avoid taking the TAKS test.
Students that were affected were part of the Limited English Proficiency subpopulation or were students from Mexico.
Former student Perla Valenzuela was the first of three former Bowie High School students to testify on Monday.
Valenzuela tried to enroll in Bowie High School in August 2008 after moving to El Paso from Mexico, but was denied admittance, she said.
“They didn’t want to accept me because of my English,” Valenzuela said in Spanish. “Then they sent me to another school (Paso Del Norte) but they didn’t want to accept me there either.”
Valenzuela said she tried to enroll at Bowie High School again in November 2008 and was accepted, but placed in the ninth grade and enrolled in an English as a Second Language class.
Valenzuela said she had brought her report card from Mexico to receive credit. She admitted she didn’t speak to anyone about transferring her credits, but said she had expected it to be done.
“I had expected them to be transferred and expected to be transferred to the 11 th grade,” she said in Spanish.
Valenzuela said she completed the first year in the ninth grade and began the 2009-10 school year – but was reclassified as a ninth grader again. Valenzuela was told by her English teacher that there was an “error in the system” and she did not receive any transfer credits from Mexico during her time at Bowie High School.
Frustrated, Valenzuela dropped out of Bowie High School, moved back to Mexico – and two months later she was pregnant.
“I had hoped to be in the grade that I was supposed to be in. I was frustrated and angry because I should not have been in that grade,” Valenzuela said in Spanish. “So, I went back to Mexico.”
Valenzuela added that in February of 2016 she returned to school at El Paso Community College to receive her G.E.D.
During her time at Bowie and afterward Valenzuela said she was working for five years and had gone one year without work.
“I had trouble obtaining a job because the majority of jobs want you to be proficient in English and have a high school diploma or a GED,” she said. “I wanted to complete my education at Bowie. I feel bad because I expected to finish my studies and get ahead.”
David Dominguez, testified after Valenzuela and said that he was forced out of Bowie High School by Duran during an encounter at the cafeteria. Dominguez attended Bowie High School from 2005 to 2009.
“I was walking toward the cafeteria and he (Duran) stopped me and got in my way and he said you are no longer allowed in this school, you need to leave,” Dominguez said. “I was trying to talk but he kept pointing and kept saying ‘leave, leave leave, leave before I call the police.’ I turned away and left.” Dominguez, said he then began his 3-mile walk back home.
“I remember it was the longest walk ever.”
Dominquez admitted he had trouble getting to school on time or attending because of his work schedule.
“My mother is a single mother of eight, so I had to work from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. at McDonald’s to help with her expenses,” Dominguez said. “So sometimes I wouldn’t make it to school.”
Dominguez said he did not have transportation to get to and from work, home or school. “So by the time I got home it was around 2 or 3 in the morning,” Dominguez said adding that he would miss the morning bus to school.
Despite the difficulties Dominguez said he tried his best to attend school, but was often tardy – and after several tardies accumulated he would receive an absent. He also added there was a policy at Bowie High School that stated if you were 5 minutes late to a class you were counted as absent. Dominguez said that he tried to recover his credits by going to then Assistant Principal Johnnie Vega.
Vega, according to the original petition by TEA was employed at Bowie High School from August 2006 to November 2012. According to the petition, during 2009 to 2012 Vega falsified and/or directed others to falsify and/or permitted others to falsify at least 127 Bowie student appeals forms and attendance records by removing no credit codes, thus enabling the students to receive credit when the student had not actually earned enough credits to advance to the next grade level.
When Dominguez tried to meet with Vega about possibly recovering his credits, Vega said no.
“When I approached Mr. Vega he said I wasn’t in his grade because he was attached to the sophomores and freshman,” Dominguez said. “But he never approached me because I was in the eleventh grade.”
After Dominguez left school in March of 2009 he attended Premier High School, where he did not complete his courses to receive a high school diploma.
During Cross Examination lawyer Tony Conners, who represents Duran, asked Dominguez if he recalled any phone calls, letters or home visits by Bowie High School personnel informing him of conferences and warnings of his possible withdrawal for not attending school.
“No,” Dominguez said.
When referred to documentation that stated Dominguez had been contacted at home via phone in January 2008 and that administrators spoke to his brother regarding Dominguez status of being an at risk student for lack of attendance.
“It couldn’t have been my brother, he was at war,” Dominguez pointed out.
Conners then asked Dominguez if his mother received a letter on April 9, 2009 in English warning her of ahis possible withdrawal would she have understood it.
“No, she only speaks Spanish.”
David Alvarado Aldaña attended Bowie High School from Aug. 2008. Upon entering he was classified as a ninth grader because he had previously attended a school in Juarez. He was also placed in an ESL course.
Then in 2009-2010 he was skipped to the ninth grade.
“I wasn’t aware I was a junior,” Aldaña said. “I thought I was still a sophomore.” During Aldaña’s testimony TEA lawyer Merle Dover asked whether he had taken the TAKS test, or the state mandated test.
“No,” Aldaña said.
To complete his credits, Aldaña was enrolled in mini-mesters for English 2, 3, and 4. During his mini-mesters Aldaña said all he, and other students completed TAKS practice test packets.
These were to be completed at home.
“Did you ever read or analyze a Shakespeare play?” Dover asked.
“No,” Aldaña responded.
“Did you ever write a personal statement?” Dover continued.
“No.” Aldaña said.
“Did you take a final exam?”
“No,” Aldaña said.
Dover then asked Aldaña how he felt about his education at Bowie. Aldaña said that at the time, he didn’t really feel affected by it – but knew he didn’t like it because he wanted to be taught in a regular classroom setting.
“After I found out they were manipulating grades and all that, I felt somehow – bad because I didn’t have access to that kind of information – to make me aware of what they were doing with me,” Aldaña said. “They were treating me – literally like a number or an amount of money.”
Aldaña was able to graduate from Bowie High School and was able to attend the University of Texas at El Paso where he plans to major in English.
“I want to be an English teacher and I want to teach at Bowie.”
During cross examination lawyers Mark Berry and Tony Conners, representing Kell and Duran respectively, turned the former students’ attention to documents that related to TAKS test records, transcripts, and withdrawal forms.
Conners made it a point to ask each student if they recalled this information on the document, and whether they believed it to be accurate.
Initially, and prior to seeing the documents, Dominquez and Valenzuela agreed that the documents were accurate. “If it’s on the document, then I guess it’s correct,” Dominguez initially said. “I don’t have the records in front of me.”
Conners then referred to Dominguez’s failed courses due to his absences. Dominguez agreed with that information. Conners then referred to a transcript that showed Dominguez only had 5.5 credits after three years of attending Bowie High School and was still labeled as a freshman when he dropped out of Bowie High School.
Frustrated Dominguez said, “I would have to disagree with this paper because I attended summer school in between years and I know I got
some credits going to summer school.”
Conners further referred Dominguez to a meeting he had on Oct. 2012 with former Bowie High School Principal Lionel Rubio and Mark Mendoza, director of Pupil Services for EPISD who came to see him at his work at O’Reilly Auto Parts on S. Piedras.
“I remember speaking to Mr. Mendoza on the phone, about getting my GED, but I don’t remember him coming to my work,” Dominguez said.
When Conners questioned Mendoza, he referred to a text message that Mendoza had sent to former interim superintendent Terri Jordan regarding a student – David Dominguez.
The text message showed that Mendoza had met with Dominguez, that he had established trust and that the student indicated he wanted to return to school.
During Valenzuela’s cross examination, Berry referred to her transcripts and data that showed she enrolled on Aug. 21, 2009, withdrew that same day and re-enrolled Aug. 27, 2009; then withdrew on Nov. 19, 2009.
“Well, I’m a little confused now,” Valenzuela said. “I didn’t do all those things. I didn’t withdraw and then return, I didn’t do that.”
Valenzuela confirmed that she only withdrew on Nov. 19, 2009.
Former employees instructed to follow Bowie Model
Mark Mendoza, director of student retention and truancy prevention and Francisco Alejandro Guerrero, outreach specialist at EPISD testified that their department was targeted for assisting “bad” students return to Bowie High School.
During March 2008, Mendoza was among a team of truant officers that had been directed by former EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia and former associate superintendent Damon Murphy to take pictures of students crossing the international bridge from Juarez, Mexico into the United States.
Mendoza said he was directed to take a team of truant officers and identify students who may not reside in, within the El Paso Independent School District.
“That was the stated reason for the mission,” Mendoza said.
After obtaining the results, Mendoza later perceived that the reason he was directed to do this was to “get rid of bad kids.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with getting rid of any student within the EPISD,” Mendoza stressed.
Dover asked Mendoza to clarify what he meant by a “bad kid.”
“According to what I was told, a bad kid is a student who speaks Spanish; a student who many not come to school on a regular basis; a student who may not live within the school boundary; a student who has disciplinary issues; a student who has academic issues,” Mendoza said.
Both Mendoza and Guerrero indicated that their job was to find students that had dropped, and convince them to go back to school. Mendoza added that it was their job to go door to door to identify these students.
But this model was later seen as unsupportive, by Bowie High School administrators Mendoza and Guerrero said.
During the 2009-10 school year Guerrero said he was assigned as the outreach specialist at Bowie High School, but was removed in March of 2010 after he overheard a conversation between Duran, Chavez and a student and a parent.
“I happened to hear a conversation between Mr. Duran, a parent and a student. Mr. Duran had told the parent, ‘You need to remove’ the student from Bowie High School or we will take you to court and charge you $1,000 each – to the parent and to the student. Then Dr. Chavez entered Mr. Duran’s office and confirmed the information.”
Guerrero then said he heard Duran tell the parents, “Take him back to Mexico.”
In light of this conversation Guerrero contacted Mendoza, who said he would handle the situation. Within hours Guerrero received a response from Mendoza – he was to be reassigned to Guillen Middle School.
“The principal at the time, Dr. Chavez, didn’t want me there anymore and didn’t trust me being there anymore,” Guerrero said. “I believe that Dr. Chavez didn’t trust me because I was bringing back kids that he wanted out – and I had several occasions where I brought back students and he told me directly that he didn’t want them there.”
Guerrero said that Chavez did not want students with bad attendance and that could bring down grades.
During his time at Bowie, Guerrero said he noticed a pattern.
“Most of the students targeted were students with bad attendance, students whose parents that were not aware or knowledgeable of the policies district wide. These were parents that were pressured to withdraw their students.”
When asked how these students and parents were pressured into withdrawing, Guerrero said Bowie High School assistant principals would meet with the student, and then the principal – during those meetings the parents and the students were told that they would be taken to court and fined up to $1,000 if they did not withdraw.
“If these students were removed, grades and testing would go up.”
During the 2008-2010 school years Mendoza, who was director of pupil services at the time, was in charge of enrollment and withdrawal. It was their job, Mendoza said, to bring the students that had left back to school. Some students had been classified as an unknown reason or were dropped because they had been classified as returned back to their home country.
“Students that had attempted to enroll but were turned down at Bowie High School were brought to my attention as well.”
Mendoza added that these students did not leave of their own accord.
“In many cases they (students) said they were lined up, had a conference with the AP and the principals said they were not, ‘Bowie material.’” Mendoza said. “These students were lined up, they were told they were the reason Bowie was in trouble and they were encouraged to drop from the campus.”
Mendoza said he also noticed a pattern regarding the student drop outs at Bowie.
“They didn’t speak English or did not speak it very well,” he said. “They were between 17 and 19 years old and they were at risk as far as graduation and at risk as far as test taking on the standardized examinations.”
Time and time again, Mendoza said he was met with difficulties when he would try to reenroll the students at Bowie High School.
In January of 2010 there was a meeting with Kell.
“She said we were not being supportive and diverting resources from kids that deserved the education and really wanted to be there,” Mendoza said.
Then finally there was a conference meeting organized by Dr. Chavez and facilitated by James Anderson for being non-supportive of the Bowie model.
“I was presented with a laundry list for the lack of support for this model of not wanting to serve kids,” Mendoza said. Dover then asked Mendoza if there was any reason these cases were not reported by the parents.
“Yes, this population has a high rate of parents and even students who may be undocumented,” Mendoza said. “And parents who may be afraid of being exposed. And they believe the authority of the principal is to be final – and they would not have the capacity or the desire to question what this ultimate authority was telling them.”
The hearing ended with testimony from Austin High School Principal Craig Kehrwald, whom during the 2008-09 school year was asked to conduct an audit on 77 student transcripts originally found by Patricia Scott.
Kehrwald said he was instructed to do so by interim Superintendent Terri Jordan. In doing so he and had confirmed there had been some discrepancies.
The hearing continues today.