In the midst of scandal, an embattled OKC high school discovers 81 percent of its senior class is not on track to graduate next spring.
BY JERRY BOHNEN
In the wake of scandal that has engulfed Frederick A. Douglass Mid-High School, state officials found that 81 percent of its senior class does not meet the necessary criteria to graduate next spring.
According to an audit conducted by the state Department of Education, 87 of 107 senior students need additional credits and/or state tests to graduate on time.
The revelation comes amid allegations by some former Douglass teachers and administrators that former Principal Brian Staples altered student grades and attendance records to make it appear that the beleaguered school was improving.
At a heated Nov. 29 news conference, Oklahoma City Public Schools officials blamed the mess on violations of policy and procedures, but declined to elaborate.
“It was due to a lack of procedures being followed,” said Angela Monson, who chairs the district’s school board.
Neither she nor district Superintendent Karl Springer would say whether those violations involved the charges that some have leveled against Staples, who resigned Nov. 15 after the conclusion of a school district probe.
“We can’t go there,” they said, noting that at least one probe, by the U.S.
Department of Education, is ongoing.
Who’s to blame? Springer accepted responsibility for the problems facing the graduates.
“The buck stops with the school superintendent. It happened under my watch,” he said, noting that the audit results were shameful. “I’m very upset. It was sickening.”
Monson, a Douglass alumnus and former state legislator, stressed the need to help students meet graduation requirements.
“We are very concerned; it’s very serious,” she said, announcing the creation of a plan to work with each student and parent. “Rest assured, as soon as we determined the needs of students were not met, we took action.”
That statement prompted an angry outburst from a woman at the news conference, Raynetta Dennis-Jamison, who described herself as a concerned citizen.
“I’m gonna call you a liar!” she shouted. “You’ve known of this problem since 2008 and 2009.”
Turning to address television news cameras, Dennis-Jamison charged, “They lie!” A plainclothes police officer then tapped her on the shoulder and led her away.
What now? District officials said that audits are often carried out on Oklahoma City schools but admitted one had not been conducted at Douglass.
“There were no prior audits there and we want to make sure it never happens again,” Monson said.
She added that it would serve no purpose to audit the records of students that have already graduated. “It’s time to help the students and we have full confidence in our superintendent. This is going to be hard work.”
That hard work began with the Nov.
28 meeting when Barbara Davis, the school’s interim principal, told faculty members about the challenges ahead. One-on-one meetings will be held with every senior and their parents.
I’m very upset. It was sickening.
“The findings are disappointing, but we have a plan in place and we will do what it takes to support each student,” Davis said.
The plan includes shifting the school’s master plan, requiring night and weekend classes for seniors, and possibly even scheduling a summer graduation for those who can’t meet the requirements by springtime.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi plans to meet with Douglass parents Monday evening at Metro Technology Center.
“At this meeting, we will begin laying the groundwork for a successful response to this difficult situation,” Barresi wrote in a letter to parents.
“I am already working to bring together educational leaders throughout the community to help address these issues, but time is of the essence. We
simply cannot let a new semester begin without having a plan for action.”
In the meantime, results of the school district probe have yet to be revealed. District officials forwarded those findings to the federal Education Department, the state Education Department and the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office.
Oklahoma County D.A. David Prater said the case is now being “criminally investigated.”
As Oklahoma Gazette reported last week, a few emails that Staples sent to teachers revealed that he did direct some Ds and Fs to be changed to Cs. However, those changes might have been permissible because Douglass standards were allowed to deviate from district policy.
Tammy Carter, the district’s general counsel, explained that since Douglass is the recipient of a federal School Improvement Grant, or SIG, the school could develop standards “that were a little different than standards for the district in general.”
A onetime Douglass administrator fired by Staples, Marcia Muhammad, contends that the entire scandal would not have been uncovered had it not been for a letter she sent last summer to the U.S. Department of Education.
“Angela Monson, the board and Karl Springer knew that this was going on three years ago,” she said. “It was only due to my contact and response from the federal government and the Department of Education that they were not allowed again to [have] swept their actions under the rug.”