HISD Investigating Charges Of TAKS Cheating At Key Middle School

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The Houston ISD is investigating current and former employees at Key Middle School for alleged cheating on the TAKS test at Key. Some of those former employees ended up at Kashmere High School which the district is also investigating in regard to unathorized removal of computer equipment from Key -- some of which ended up at Kashmere.

Former Key principal Mable Caleb, now principal at Kashmere, is at the center of the investigation.

Superintendent Terry Grier called a late-afternoon press conference to announce that, due to an anonymous tip, district officials had pulled a surveillance video of Key from October 31, 2009.

"The tape shows computer and other equipment being removed from the school, nine days before the present principal of Key started to work," Grier said.

"The investigation has led to the discovery  of other allegations, such as alleged mismanagement including misuse of district funds, alleged cheating on the TAKS test, [and] alleged violation of federal free and reduced-price lunch regulations by selling significant amounts of food items including candy and snacks during lunch periods," Grier said.

The equipment taken followed Caleb from Key to Kashmere, Grier said.

Grier said the district has set policies about how equipment is to be moved from one school to another. "If two principals agree to move assets we send vehicles and staff out in a timely fashion. That did not happen here."

Instead, he said, the equipment was moved out of Key after hours and transported by private vehicles.

Grier has reported the alleged cheating and food infractions to the Texas Education Agency, which is going to investigate. HISD will cooperate fully, he said; the district will also share findings with the local District Attorney's office. He is putting on hold the ASPIRE performance pay for Key  teachers until the investigations are complete; those checks were scheduled to go out later this month, covering the 2008-09 school year.

He said Caleb had been on vacation the last two weeks, and he doesn't know what she is doing with that vacation.

One Key employee has been reassigned and "others may be reassigned in the future," he said. So far there have been no suspensions.

The district hired private investigators to sort through this, he said; they have found some of the equipment at Kashmere but not all. Grier said the employees involved include certified teachers, classified employees and administrators. Right now they are looking at six to eight people and he says that number will probably grow.

At one point Grier said the evidence he had seen was "compelling and factual, not just hearsay." He said some of the people who they believe were involved in it are now at other locations in the district and some have left the district.

Grier said he had heard reports that claimed the district's investigators had harrassed witnesses. He said a member of HISD's in-house legal staff or human-resources department now sits in on all interviews. But, he said, the investigators are supposed to be asking hard questions.

We'll update with reaction from Houston Federation of Teachers head Gayle Fallon soon; HFT is involved in representing Caleb.

Update: Fallon accused the investigators, who are with Houston-based Frizell Group International, of intimidating employees.

"The employees are sitting there saying, 'None of this happened,'" she said. "And every time they say it, these investigators come back and say 'You're lying. Tell me the truth. Why are you afraid of Ms. Caleb?' They're not lying, they are telling the truth. Apparently the administration cannot deal with the fact that a school with poor African-American children in it, in the Fifth Ward...kept being a recognized school as long as Ms. Caleb was there - and a great team of employees. To me, this is bigotry at its worst. I haven't seen anything like this since Wesley Elementary." (Wesley, also a largely minority, low-income school, was the center of a similar testing controversy in the 1990s).

She described the allegations against Caleb as a "witch hunt," and said it's just the latest in a series of wrongful accusations.

"It's kind of like, we're going to accuse her of stealing computers and if we can't prove that, then we're going to accuse her of charging people to teach summer school [and] having a dance every week and pocketing the money. Now we're at testing irregularities," she said.

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