Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Grade Fixing Allegations Investigated

By Rick Outzen

Newpoint High, one of Escambia County’s high-performing charter schools, has been accused of fixing grades.

According to documents received by Inweekly, the school district was notified last May of how school administrators pressured teachers to falsify attendance records, delete overdue assignments, give answers to tests, and change grades in order to pass Newpoint seniors onto graduation.

Superintendent Malcolm Thomas did not notify the school board of the allegations or any problems at what had been portrayed as the model charter school. On March 16, Governor Rick Scott handed Newpoint High and its middle school, Newpoint Academy, checks for $11,392 and $15,861 respectively for their high performance during the 2013-14 school year.

The Pensacola Newpoint middle and high schools are a part of Newpoint Education Partners, an education services provider with offices in Clearwater, Florida and Akron, Ohio. Newpoint Education Partners manages 10 charter schools in Florida. Its Pensacola high school was the only one that an A. Four had F grades, one had a D grade and four had C grades. The Pensacola high school has “earned” an A every year since it opened in Escambia County in 2012.

The grading fixing scheme came to light when School Board Jeff Bergosh was contacted last March 25 by a whistleblower, who was frustrated that conditions at the charter school had deteriorated and it appeared no one within the Newpoint organization or the School District seemed to care.

The whistleblower sent Bergosh a 22-page report that detailed not only the grade tampering, but also told of unqualified teachers and substitutes who stole school funds, watched porn in their classrooms, and inappropriately touched and interacted with high school and middle school students.

Bergosh posted the next day a cryptic note on his blog. He wrote, “The worst example a public charter school can set is cheating. Cheating to boost graduation rates, which ultimately raises school letter grades, that ultimately assists a school in receiving funds from the state for bonuses–is about the worst example any school could set.”

On March 26, Inweekly contacted Bergosh, who said he had given the documents to Donna Waters, the district’s attorney. We would have to make a public records request to get them. The newspaper received the 22-page document from Waters with the names of the students and their parents redacted on March 30 and posted an article regarding the allegations the following morning on ricksblog.biz.

On “Pensacola Speaks” on News Talk 1370 WCOA, Bergosh talked why the allegations upset him so much.

“My interest, as a school board member, is always student safety. Number 1, I want to get to the bottom of these allegations. I want to get to the truth,” he said. “Number 2, I’m very, very concerned about money going to an organization like this, because I’m a staunch charter school supporter. I’m a school choice supporter.”

Bergosh said, “I’ve got a heavy heart. I just want to get to the truth. I want students to be safe. I want students to get what we’re spending tax dollars to give them. I want anyone that’s done anything wrong to be held to account. Again, I want to be able to move away from this and learn a lesson and figure out, how do we never allow this to happen again.”

On April 1, Escambia County Deputy Superintendent Norm Ross told Inweekly that the district’s investigator – a former NCIS investigator – opened an investigation into Newpoint misconduct two weeks ago.

Ross said, “I can assure you there is additional information.”

He emphasized that the school district has no control over charter schools’ “day-to-day” operations. “We have no jurisdiction with the staff.”

The piece of information that finally got the school district to act was information about fixing grades on tests. Ross acknowledged that Superintendent Thomas received the whistleblower’s information several months ago and the district looked into those allegations.

“This company has had some problems throughout state,” he said. “It’s hard to say what level of cooperation we will get. We would like to put this to bed as quickly as possible.”

Later that afternoon, Newpoint officials sent out a press release denying the allegations, calling them “baseless, unfounded and utterly false.”

The school said that the insinuation that changing grades is the reason for the school’s A grades was also false and misinformed. According to the school, the state grading formula is based only on the student’s scores on state assessments, and not related to classroom grades. “Therefore, there is no correlation between false allegations of grade tampering and the school’s success as an ‘A’ rated school.”

The school officials said that it had not been notified of any formal investigation and had not been approached by the district for any documentation related to questions regarding grading. The school agreed to cooperate with district representatives.

The school blamed the allegations on a “disgruntled former employee” whom the school said had been recruiting employees to spread negative messages to the district and others with the intent of getting the administrators fired.

The memo ended with: “We encourage the district and the community to make sure that they have all the facts before drawing conclusions based on any misinformation spread with the sole purpose of harming the school.”

On Thursday, April 2, State Attorney Bill Eddins told WEAR TV that his office had opened an investigation “because of the seriousness of the allegations that it would be appropriate to have us look into the matter to determine if there’s any basis for criminal charges.” Eddins said the charges could be theft or fraud, but also reminded viewers these are only allegations at this point.

As of our publication deadline, Inweekly had not heard from Superintendent Thomas or the State Attorney’s office as to the status of their investigations.  For updates, visits ricksblog.biz.