TEA Hearing into EPISD Cheating Scandal Continues; Attorneys end up in Confrontation

Students were pulled out from their core classes and into tutoring or mini-mesters at Bowie High School for weeks at a time, said a former Bowie High School teacher and department chair for the English Department during the Texas Education Agency’s hearing on Tuesday.

The hearings, which began last week, are against three former Bowie High School administrators — Principal Jesus Chavez; and former Bowie High school Assistant Principals Anna Luisa Kell and Juan Manuel Duran.

The three are alleged to have manipulated student grades, and providing state and federal agencies with falsified student records.

Leticia Morales taught English at Bowie High School from the Fall of 2007 to May of 2012. During her time at Bowie the school had not performed well in the state mandated tests, or TAKS, and was classified as a stage 5 probation school by the TEA.

Morales said because the state of trouble Bowie was in with its testing, doing well on the TAKS test was “paramount.” Prior to being hired at Bowie High School, Morales had taught in the Ysleta District. She is currently a teacher at Vista Middle School in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“I was initially hired by Maria Flores, and a committee of administrators,” Morales said. “When I was being interviewed the focus of the questions was improving TAKS scores and other measures including attendance. But one of the first questions they asked was my familiarity with the TAKS test and how my students performed on it while I was at Ysleta High School.”

Bridget Remish, attorney for TEA, asked Morales if she noticed anything unusual during her first few years at Bowie High School.

“The first year I was there the scores went up from the previous year – so the passing rate was around 71 to 73 percent,” Morales said. “For ESL kids we saw an improvement as well – it was like double and we were excited because there were 136 ESL kids. Then the next year it was somewhere along 80 percent and there was an improvement for ESL as well but we didn’t have that many ESL kids.”

One of the methods used to improved scores was the “pull out method,” Morales said.

“Some of the students were pulled out from their regular courses and they went to a tutor out in the portables,” she said. “Some of the kids were pulled out from other content areas and they were pulled out from science, social studies and other content areas.”

The tutors in English had been retired teachers, while the tutors in other core areas such as Math varied from former teachers, to college students.

During the fall semester students were taken out of their courses at various times but during the spring semester students would be out for 4 to 6 weeks at a time, Morales said.

“How would you determine a grade for these pull-outs?” Remish asked.

Morales explained that Kell, presented her with a spreadsheet and notified her that the tutors would determine the students’ grades in the class they had been pullout from.

“So the tutors in an unrelated subject would provide grades for your students?” Remish asked.

“Correct,” Morales said.

Morales said she was opposed to the pullouts because over time she noticed that several of the  students, that were supposed to be in tutoring, were out in the hallways or outside playing wall-ball. At that point Morales did her best to keep her students from going to tutoring.

“I was very strongly (opposed) to these pullouts,” Morales said. “I went to our instructional specialist and to Ms. Aragon and then directly to Dr. Chavez. I even stood in the doorway because I didn’t want them to take the kids. I remember some of the tutors had come to pick up the kids and I told them, ‘You are not taking them because you guys are just playing with the kids. You don’t have direct control of them.’”

The following day, Chavez went to pick up the students from Morales’ classroom with a security guard.

“I told him (Chavez) that these students didn’t want to go,” Morales said. “I told them I don’t want to replace grades. I want them to earn them, and he stood in the door way and said to let the students go with him.”

Morales became further concerned when she became Department Chair of the English Department during her third year at Bowie High School.

“The issues I had were with the change of classification,” she said. “I was looking at the dates very closely and I noticed that some of the students from one week to the next were classified as 10th graders and then reclassified as 9th graders.”

Over time, Morales said she noticed a trend and thought, perhaps, it was a discrepancy or a mistake.

“It was shocking but it was pretty clear – numbers speak,” Morales said. “When you look at the LEP (limited English proficient student) number and the accountability report – when the numbers go from 136 (LEP students) to 49 from one year to the next – it’s pretty clear and you begin to wonder why this is.”

Morales noticed that students were either retained as freshmen or suddenly skipped to the 11th grade.

Morales took her concerns directly to Chavez and his response to her was that it was legal.

“Well, I said, it’s unethical,” Morales said. “And he said, ‘It’s legal and central office knows.” Determined to do something, Morales documented her concerns in an email to Myrna Gamboa, former director in the EPISD Priority Schools Division, and was later called into a meeting with Kell for it. Kell was the former assistant principal for Bowie High School at the time.

“I had capitalized one word – that I was no longer going to tolerate – something to that effect but it was not harassment. I wanted to

Monica Martinez, Associate Commissioner standards and programs at the TEA testifies via video conference at the TEA's Hearing against former Bowie High School Principal Jesus Chavez, and former Bowie Assistant Principals Anna Luisa Kell and Juan Manuel Duran.
Monica Martinez, Associate Commissioner standards and programs at the TEA testifies via video conference at the TEA’s Hearing against former Bowie High School Principal Jesus Chavez, and former Bowie Assistant Principals Anna Luisa Kell and Juan Manuel Duran.

emphasize that something is wrong here. So Ms. Kell showed me the email and mentioned to me there was a district policy about harassment through email and that capitalized word was considered harassment. But I explained to her that there’s a problem with attendance being changed,” Morales said. “She then emphasized I could lose my employment if I continued to harass people through email. And she made me sign a form – it was very frustrating and I understand there is a 90 percent attendance rule – but the students could only learn if they were in class.”

Gamboa later pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States in January 2015. She was sentenced to five years’ probation with a $5,000 fine for being part of the scheme to inflate test scores.

When asked how she felt about the education the student received at Bowie High School, Morales became emotional and teary-eyed.

“I taught at Del Valle and at the Ysleta high schools so that is my experience, and I also taught AP College preparation courses. I taught AP Language and composition courses so the standard by which we prepared student for the AP class – that to me was how I wanted to prepare a student in my English 3 class,” Morales said.

She added, “When I saw the level of education had deteriorated to simple TAKS preparation packets – to me that determines an entire city because we are sending our student out to our society lacking the skills necessary to succeed in college.”

Morales paused for a moment to catch her breath.

“I’m getting emotional because I personally know students – who weren’t offered the best opportunity through mini-mesters. They are now sitting in college classes, listening to their peers talk about what they studied in the 12 th grade, what they studied in junior classes and they will forever have to think to themselves, ‘I never got that opportunity.’ And ‘I don’t know who you are talking about or about Beowulf.’ They will feel cheated because of what happened with mini-mesters.”

During cross examination Kell’s attorney, Mark Berry, asked whether Morales had been a tutor and whether she was wholly opposed to accelerated courses.

Morales said she had been a tutor but wasn’t wholly opposed to accelerated courses overall but was opposed to the way it was being taught at Bowie High school through practice TAKS packets.

Early Morning Courtroom Drama

Tuesday morning’s hearing initially began with heated discussions over emails that quickly escalated during a break between attorneys Tony Conners and Stuart Baggish.

(From right to left)  TEA Attorneys Merle Dover, Bridget Remish and Stuart Baggish look over their notes during Tuesday's Hearing.
(From right to left)
TEA Attorneys Merle Dover, Bridget Remish and Stuart Baggish look over their notes during Tuesday’s Hearing.

Witnesses for the TEA who allegedly received these emails included Monica Martinez, Associate Commissioner standards and programs at the TEA; Susie Coultress, State Director of Bilingual Education/Title III/Migrant Education for the TEA; Shannon Housson, Director of the Division of Performance Reporting for TEA; and Ed.D Justin Porter, Director, Assessment for Special Populations at the TEA.

All four were unable to attend the hearing in El Paso and were instead questioned via video conference.

They were all called for their expert opinion over the facts of the case. During cross examination by Conners all confirmed that their knowledge of this certification case was based on the exhibits and documentation they received from the TEA attorneys via email.

Conners said he was upset that he had not received copies of these emails. He added that he was just learning about these emails on Tuesday.

Stuart Baggish, attorney for the TEA, stressed that the email were protected under attorney-client privileges.

In addition, Conners and Berry objected to the video conference calls stating that the delayed response made it difficult to cross examine the witnesses.

Visiting administrative law judge Pratibha Shenoy and Holly Vandrovec, ordered a 5-minute break to go over the issues at hand.

During the short break, Conners stepped out of the courtroom after stating something under his breath.

“What did you say?” Baggish asked.

Conners repeated, “Rookie Mistake,” to Baggish.

Conners then exited the courtroom, followed by Berry. Shortly thereafter Baggish left the courtroom.

Berry then reentered the courtroom and said, “Baggish just assaulted Conners. I saw the whole thing,” Berry said to those present in the courtroom. “He aggressively pushed him.”

Conners then reentered the courtroom and said he would file an assault complaint. He then sought El Paso County Sheriff’s deputies to provide security inside the courtroom.

When Shenoy and Vandrovec re-entered the courtroom Conners informed Shenoy of the incident.

“I’m going to file an assault charge against Mr. Baggish,” Conners said. “As I was standing out here to come back in he bumped into me, aggressively, and afterwards taunted in the restroom. We had a witness and I’m going to make an assault charge. We have a bailiff that will come over here because I’m a little concerned about it. And I may have made objections for my client but I shouldn’t be subjected to this kind of behavior.”

Baggish objected.

“I brushed against him – there was no aggression.”

Shenoy calmly told both attorneys that while in the courtroom there was a behavior that had to be maintained. She added that while she did not see this occur, Conners seemed to be taking the appropriate course of actions. Conners continued when Shenoy cut him short.

“I’m not going to get into the details about this,” she said. “That is not something I can do – however, while we are in the courtroom we will adhere to the proper behavior.”

The rest of the morning Conners and Berry questioned Martinez’s expertise and whether she had personnel knowledge of the Duran or Kell’s charges.

Martinez repeatedly said she did not have personal knowledge of their charges but had only received exhibits and documentation regarding Kell and Duran.

Housson, Coultress, and Porter who later testified in the afternoon, answered similarly.

Conners asked if Housson could directly point out evidence against Duran within the documentation provided to him by TEA attorneys.

Housson said he could not.

Berry repeatedly referred to the emails and asked about any additional correspondence that Coultress may have had with the TEA lawyers that had not been disclosed to Berry or Conners.

Coultress, looked puzzled throughout the entire cross examination by Berry and repeatedly responded with “I don’t know,” or “I’m not understanding you.”

The hearing continues Wednesday.