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Brooklyn Local Superintendent and Principal Allegedly Cheated on Regents Tests, Then Vindicated After a Second Investigation
"The system is stacked against a whistle-blowing teacher who can be subjected to retaliation," says teacher Philip Nobile. SCI Chief Richard Condon says: “I can’t say that there wasn’t cheating,” he said. “What I say is that the investigation showed no credible evidence that there was cheating. And certainly no evidence that this principal covered up evidence that there was cheating.”
July 1, 2005
Principal Hid Fraud on Tests in Brooklyn, Officials Say

A Brooklyn high school principal covered up a widespread effort to inflate grades on the Regents exams in social studies in 2002 and 2003, education officials said yesterday, and he will face termination.

The principal, Lennel George of the Cobble Hill School of American Studies, was removed this week after a 14-month investigation involving state and city officials.

The authorities also said yesterday that Kathy Pelles, a local superintendent in Brooklyn responsible for supervising the school, would be formally reprimanded for failing to properly supervise the investigation into cheating allegations and for failing to promptly report the allegations.

Officials said an assistant principal had directed teachers to change failing grades to passing on dozens of exam papers.

The finding is the latest blow to the state's Regents testing system, which has been plagued by cheating and other problems. And it called into doubt the state's longstanding practice of letting schools grade their own test papers.

Earlier this week, an official in the Jericho school district on Long Island was charged with official misconduct, accused of providing his son, a student at John Glenn High School in the Elwood district, with answers to the Regents exam in global history.

Last week, state officials lowered the score needed to pass the Math B Regents exam after they said they had erred in scaling the test results and that too many students would probably fail. In recent years, there were similar problems with the Math A and physics tests.

In the Brooklyn case, an investigator for the city school system, Louis N. Scarcella, determined that the assistant principal for humanities, Theresa Capra, had directed staff members to tamper with the results for the Regents exams in global history and in American history, by raising grades on the essay portions of the exam.

In his report, Mr. Scarcella said that three teachers had admitted changing grades by engaging in a process called "scrubbing," in which grades just below the 65 passing mark are bumped up.

In some cases, teachers said that papers with grades in the low 50's with no chance of passing had also been lifted above 65. A statistical analysis by the State Education Department in April 2004 found that "the aggregation of scores assigned in the 65-69 range as compared to the 60-64 range for students of the Cobble Hill High School ... goes beyond any dispersion, magnitude or directionality that is likely attributed to chance."

According to Mr. Scarcella's report, Ms. Capra denied the allegations but refused to be interviewed during the investigation. She resigned in May 2004.

Darren Dopp, a spokesman for State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, confirmed yesterday that the case had been referred to his office and that officials were considering criminal charges against Ms. Capra. The removed principal, Mr. George, said he was fighting his dismissal but declined further comment. Efforts to reach Ms. Capra and Ms. Pelles last night were unsuccessful.

The Cobble Hill case left city and state education officials struggling to explain why the investigation took so long.

Because of the delay, at least 50 students at Cobble Hill were apparently permitted to graduate even though their Regents scores were fraudulent.

Alan Ray, a State Education Department spokesman, said the agency did not require scores to be changed unless errors were found within one year. While the department had initial statistical evidence of irregularities at Cobble Hill, the city's investigation was not concluded until last month.

At the heart of the case was Philip Nobile, a social studies teacher and the union chapter leader at the Cobble Hill School, who pressed allegations of misconduct by Ms. Capra in repeated complaints to the principal, Mr. George, and later in formal complaints to officials in both the City and State Education Departments.

Mr. Nobile passed along an e-mail exchange with Ms. Capra that took place prior to the June 2002 Regents exams in which he expressed concern that many students would fail.

Ms. Capra replied: "Let's try to focus on getting these kids a 65. Teach them to do the essays first before the multiple choice. In a pinch they can get points from writing any old garbage down."

That sentiment, while starkly put in the e-mail message, reflects an understanding among educators that they have more latitude in grading essay portions on Regents exams.

Mr. Ray said state officials routinely audited about 10 percent of Regents test papers. "We are certain that this kind of cheating is not widespread," he said.

Mr. Nobile said he saw exam grades being changed in June 2002 but did not complain to the principal until April 2003 out of concern for the teachers involved.

Mr. Nobile said that Ms. Capra retaliated against him, by giving him unsatisfactory reviews. In March 2004, he complained to state officials, who ordered the city to investigate. Around the same time, another teacher hand-delivered his own complaint to officials in Region 8 in Brooklyn, which was led at the time by Carmen Fariña, now the city's highest ranking instructional official.

Jerry Russo, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, said, "While an isolated incident, this behavior is entirely unacceptable."

Mr. Nobile said city officials should do more to protect teachers who report corruption.

"The system is stacked against a whistle-blowing teacher who can be subjected to retaliation," he said.

Carey department chair resigns
Leaves to fight allegations of inflating Regents exam scores at old school

By Brian Zanzonico July 14, 2005


After being investigated by the New York City Department of Education for orchestrating Regents exam grade-tampering while working at a Brooklyn school, the chairwoman of the H. Frank Carey High School social studies department resigned Monday at a meeting with Sewanhaka Central High School District officials.

The DOE investigation, which concluded in May, found that as assistant principal of the Cobble Hill School for American Studies, Theresa Capra elevated grades on Global History Regents exams in 2002 and 2003, and instructed teachers to do the same.

"She indicated she intends to devote herself full time to defending herself against those allegations, which she vehemently denies," said Sewanhaka Superintendent Dr. John Williams.
Capra was hired by the Sewanhaka schools last summer, during the DOE investigation. Williams said the district was unaware of the investigation during the hiring process, which DOE spokeswoman Kelly Devers said happened because it was still ongoing. "We're disappointed we didn't know about the incident before we hired her," Williams said.

Williams said he helped form a committee comprising social studies experts, current department chairs and retired chairs last week to comb through social studies Regents tests taken this year by Carey students, and found no abnormalities in the grading.
Capra did not return several phone calls.

Former Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Dr. Gerard Connors said that Capra "came with the best of references," and her New York State fingerprint check came back clean. Connors, now retired, was one of the officials in charge of hiring her. "I'm flabbergasted," he said of the news about her. "Shocked."
Capra was slated to meet with Sewanhaka officials last Thursday, but Williams said she had hired a lawyer who requested time to review the facts. Because she was a probationary employee and did not have tenure, Sewanhaka district officials had a multitude of options, including dismissal.
Williams said that district officials began interviewing candidates this week for the vacant assistant principal post at Elmont Memorial High School. Once that position is filled, he explained, attention will be turned to finding a replacement for Capra, which will most likely come from Sewanhaka.
Until the investigation came to light, Capra was considered a rising star in the district, rated "very good" in her one year at Carey by principal Douglas Monaghan, Williams said. "We wish her well," Williams added. "She was a good employee for us."

According to the 30-plus-page DOE investigator's report, obtained last week by the Herald, Capra was accused by Cobble Hill social studies teacher Vincent Leardi of changing failing grades on the 2003 Global Studies Regents to passing marks, and that at least one exam was changed from the 50th percentile to the 70th percentile. Leardi also said he personally changed grades below 65 to passing. As a result of his cooperation with investigators, Leardi avoided disciplinary action stemming from the investigation.
Cobble Hill social studies teacher and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader Phillip Nobile said in the report that he was told by Capra in May of 2002 that students could get essay points for "old garbage" they wrote. Two other teachers said they were asked by Capra to "scrub," or inflate the scores of that fall's exams that fell just below the passing grade of 65.

Several Cobble Hill teachers interviewed in the investigator's report, however, said they never saw or heard Capra bumping up grades or instructing teachers to do so. Capra declined to be interviewed for the report, but in published reports has denied wrongdoing.

The investigator's report also said that in a letter from a State Education Department official to a superior, the official wrote that data obtained from the Office of Information and Reporting Services concluded that "the aggregation of scores assigned in the 65-69 range as compared to the 60-64 range for students of the Cobble Hill High School on both Regents examinations goes beyond any dispersion, magnitude or directionality that is likely attributed to chance."

Cobble Hill Principal Lennel George was removed last week by Region 8 Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles, but his fate will not ultimately be decided until further investigation by the DOE, Devers said. She also said that Kathy Pelles, a superintendent in Brooklyn responsible for supervising the school, received a letter of reprimand but will not be terminated.

According to Cobble Hill's mission statement on the DOE Web site, it "provides a full college preparatory program with a special focus on American History. We believe that high teacher expectations, an emphasis on student effort and a supportive learning environment will help students achieve academic success."

Comments about this story? or (516) 569-4000 ext. 240.

The Special Commissioner of Investigation overturned the finding and vidicated Lennel, CAPRA, and all involved:

June 27, 2007
New Report Clears School of Cheating

When Philip Nobile reported in 2004 that the assistant principal of the Brooklyn high school where he taught had ordered other teachers to cheat on the scoring of Regents exams, he was embraced by a powerful city investigator as a whistle-blower.

His charges led to a full-blown investigation of the Cobble Hill High School of American Studies by the city’s Department of Education that backed up his story of failing scores being raised to passing. In short order, the assistant principal, Theresa Capra, resigned; the principal, Lennel George, was removed; and a string of education officials were caught up in questions about a coverup.

But, as it turns out, more than one person can blow a whistle.

Acting on a tip in July 2005, Richard J. Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for New York City schools, began a separate 23-month investigation into what happened at the high school in 2002 and 2003.

It resulted in a scathing 67-page report released yesterday that called Mr. Nobile a subpar teacher with poor evaluations who wrongly accused Ms. Capra of engineering a cheating scheme because she had given him a negative review that could have led to his firing.

The new report concluded that Louis N. Scarcella, the lead investigator for the Education Department, produced a deeply flawed report in 2005 that was largely influenced by Mr. Nobile, who was the union chapter leader at the Cobble Hill school.

David Cantor, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, said Education Department officials agreed with the findings of the new report. The department also said that Ms. Capra, who resigned during the investigation, could come back to the public schools, where she has been banned from working for more than two years.

Ms. Capra, who had said she did nothing wrong, said yesterday that she considered the report a vindication. She said that she was weighing a lawsuit against the city because the first investigation destroyed her reputation.

“This has been hell for me,” she said. “In a heartbeat someone can accuse you of something falsely.”

City officials said that Mr. Nobile has been removed from the Cobble Hill high school and reassigned to administrative duties for what they termed inappropriate behavior unrelated to the cheating allegations.

Mr. Nobile, in an interview, dismissed the new report. “I was an eye and ear witness to the tampering by Ms. Capra and the coverup by Mr. George,” he said. “I know what I saw, I know what I heard, and I know tampering when I see it.”

He said that the new allegations against him were without merit and that he expected to be reinstated to his teaching job. “There are two Mickey Mouse allegations of corporal punishment,” he said. “In the first case, the boy retracted his complaint because he realized he was being manipulated. Case No. 2 was when I tried to break up a fight and the boy jumped me.”

Mr. Condon’s report also raised serious questions about the Education Department’s investigations office; in the past year, Mr. Scarcella has resigned; Theresa Europe, who was the director during the cheating investigation, has been demoted; and Thomas Hyland, the former deputy director, has been fired.

Mr. Condon said yesterday that while his investigation did not explicitly rule out the possibility that cheating had occurred at the Cobble Hill school, he believed that both Mr. George and Ms. Capra, who bore the brunt of Mr. Nobile’s accusations, did nothing wrong.

“I can’t say that there wasn’t cheating,” he said. “What I say is that the investigation showed no credible evidence that there was cheating. And certainly no evidence that this principal covered up evidence that there was cheating.”

In the report, Mr. Condon saved most of his criticism for Mr. Scarcella, whom he described as biased and overtly influenced by Mr. Nobile. “Scarcella allowed Nobile to direct the investigation,” the report said.

“All I can say is I stand by my investigation,” Mr. Scarcella said in an interview. “To this day, Mr. Nobile was correct about everything.”

Mr. Nobile first accused Ms. Capra of concocting a cheating scheme in a memo to Mr. George in 2004, contending that she had encouraged teachers to change some failing grades. Schools are allowed by the state to grade their own Regents exams. Ms. Capra denied the allegations.

In April 2004, Mr. Scarcella was assigned to the case. His investigation supported Mr. Nobile, resulting in the removal of Mr. George as principal. Mr. George was cleared of wrongdoing in February and is now the principal of the Metropolitan Corporate Academy High School in Brooklyn.

Kathy Pelles, a superintendent in Brooklyn who is responsible for supervising the Cobble Hill school, was officially reprimanded. An Education Department spokeswoman said that reprimand would be rescinded.

A month after Mr. Scarcella’s investigation began, Ms. Capra resigned under pressure. She got a job in a Long Island school, but was forced to quit after the administration there learned about the cheating allegations.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said she planned to call for an independent investigation. “I have never seen one investigative arm of the school system spend time, money and resources to refute a report done by another investigator years earlier,” she said.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation