Preuss School Under Fire in Grade Change Scandal

    Multiple allegations of grade irregularities at the Preuss School,
    UCSD’s nationally recognized charter school for low-income students,
    have spurred university officials to initiate a comprehensive audit to
    examine three to four years worth of the school’s academic records.
    Investigators within UCSD’s Audit and Management Advisory Services have
    been analyzing claims of grading improprieties since mid-June, when
    Cecil Lytle, former Thurgood Marshall College provost and current chair
    of the Preuss School Board of Directors, received the first of numerous
    allegations of inappropriate grade recording.
    Lytle said he immediately contacted AMAS to initiate the audit, citing
    a desire to preserve the school’s reputation as a groundbreaking
    experiment in public education. The Preuss School is w

    Cecil Lytle, Preuss School Board of Directors Chairman

    ell known for achieving high test scores among mostly
    underprivileged minority students, and was labeled the ninth best high
    school in the nation by Newsweek magazine in May.
    “I wanted the best professional review team to do this,” Lytle said.
    “Because we’re a model, we need to make sure that the model is squeaky
    clean.”
    AMAS Director Stephanie Burke said that accusations of grade tampering
    are unusual, and that auditors carefully analyze all claims of
    wrongdoing to determine the depth of the subsequent investigation.
    “Allegations of misconduct are not common,” she said in an
    e-mail. “When such allegations arise, UCSD assesses the nature of the
    allegations made and performs a brief or more in-depth review as
    appropriate.”
    As summer progressed, Lytle said he received even more complaints of
    misconduct, some reported anonymously. In the course of their
    investigation, AMAS auditors discovered other transcripts with grade
    inconsistencies — numbering between 68 and 100 in total — over the last
    three to four years. Some students’ course grades were reportedly
    raised or lowered, and other students were given grades for classes
    they had not taken, Lytle said.
    The school generates approximately 13,860 course grades per year,
    meaning the affected grades would amount to less than 0.5 percent of
    last year’s marks. Lytle added that a “bulk” of the questionable grades
    involved an online course taken over the summer, which is being closely
    analyzed by the auditors.
    The initial investigation led to one staff member’s termination,
    according to a Sept. 12 memo that Lytle wrote to fellow board members.
    He declined to elaborate on the situation, saying only that the
    employee had been fired for “unprofessional conduct.”
    On Sept. 12, Preuss Principal Doris Alvarez and her son-in-law, senior
    counselor Phil Ensberg, were placed on paid leave pending the results
    of the audit. Alvarez, an acclaimed educator, was awarded National
    Principal of the Year in 1997.
    Lytle emphasized that although both Alvarez and Ensberg were also
    anonymously accused, the decision to place the two on leave was not an
    implication of any wrongdoing.
    Burke agreed that placing accused administrators on leave is common
    practice to ensure that the audit is recognized as impartial.
    “Investigatory leave is generally used in cases where allegations are
    of a serious nature, and it is determined that the investigation should
    proceed without any appearance of influence by management,” she said.
    Vice Principal and Dean of Students Scott Barton is serving as interim principal until the matter is resolved.
    Lytle described the anonymous nature of some of the allegations as
    “suspicious,” and said that he believes the school’s reputation may
    have played a role in its becoming a target for detractors.
    “Had this been just another failing urban school, no one would have made these accusations,” he said.
    Lytle said that one of the allegations was made by a staff member who
    had been fired, but did not specify if this was the same employee
    terminated after the original investigation. AMAS is also investigating
    a claim that certain teachers were allegedly pressured by Preuss
    administrators to alter grades.
    If any of the allegations are proven, Lytle said that the school will take action as necessary.
    “I’m not worried about the results of the audit,” he said. “In fact,
    I’m looking forward to seeing it. Even if we find something that’s gone
    wrong, we’ll fix it.”
    UCSD co-charters the Preuss School with the San Diego Unified School
    District, which is responsible for verifying that the school remains in
    line with its objectives and mission statement. Moises Aguirre, manager
    of charter schools at SDUSD’s Office of School Choice, said that his
    office was not made aware of the audit until Sept. 10, though it had
    received similar anonymous calls during the summer. He said the most
    recent allegation was made approximately two weeks ago.
    “We’re monitoring the situation right now,” Aguirre said. “At this
    point, we don’t want to make any assumptions. We want to see the
    results before we take any action.”
    According to the district’s Web site, a school’s charter may be revoked if it fails to adhere to its operational goals.
    As the investigation continues, Preuss parents, students and faculty
    are anticipating the impact these allegations — and ultimately, the
    findings of the audit — will have on the school’s reputation.
    “I sadly believe the school’s reputation is already damaged, regardless
    of the results of the investigation,” Preuss parent Maru Cham, whose
    daughter graduated last spring, said in an e-mail. “People reading the
    news may not remember that the audit is talking about less than 0.1
    percent of the grades being altered. They may just keep in their minds
    ‘altered grades at Preuss’ and that is it.”
    Cham, an active member of the school’s parent council for several
    years, said that she trusts Alvarez, Lytle and the board of directors
    to handle the situation appropriately.
    “If an anomaly is proven, my reasoning tells me to keep in mind that we
    are all humans, [and] susceptible to mistakes and lessons to learn,”
    she said. “Mistakes do not take away a legacy of many successes and
    great results.”
    A.S. President Marco Murillo, a 2004 Preuss graduate, said he is
    optimistic that the school’s standing in the community will remain
    unblemished.
    “I think it is too early to jump to any conclusion on the future
    reputation of Preuss,” Murillo said. “In only eight years, Preuss has
    become a very prestigious school, and I believe the school will
    continue to carry on its mission.”
    Neither Murillo nor Cham said they witnessed any grade irregularities
    during their time at the school, though Cham said she did hear rumors
    of possible discrepancies during spring quarter.
    Burke said that the results of the audit are expected next month.

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