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Parents criticize officials after cheating allegations roil school

October 30, 2012 |  3:46 pm

Leaders of a parent organization at Short Avenue Elementary on Tuesday criticized the school’s former principal and the Los Angeles Unified School District in the wake of alleged cheating and mistakes in administering state standardized tests by teachers. Parents at the school have generally defended the teachers, who were popular, but also said that the school district has shared little information.

Short Avenue, in the Del Rey neighborhood of Los Angeles, is the only California school to have been stripped of its rating on the state’s Academic Performance Index for each of the last two years. Veteran Principal James Downing III left the school earlier this year, and a new principal, Cynthia E. Paulos, was in place for the start of the current school year.

The parent group, Friends of Short Avenue, has praised new principal Paulos but said the school was poorly managed in the past. The school has performed well academically in recent years.

In all, 23 schools statewide lost their index ranking in results released this month. The API is based on test scores and is the most widely followed measuring stick for schools in California. Top rankings are celebrated and contribute to high property values. Low scores can label schools as failures and trigger penalties. Investigations were carried out by local officials.

Downing left Short Avenue in the wake of various complaints from a group of parents and teachers. The school system did not respond Tuesday to a request for more information about Downing and his employment status. When contacted by phone Tuesday, the former principal declined to be interviewed.

In 2011, three teachers at Short were suspected of cheating, improper coaching or serious mistakes in administering state standardized tests. All three have since retired — at least two under threat of dismissal.

This year, a fifth-grade teacher’s alleged actions resulted in problems. The teacher allegedly told her students in advance to jot down such helpful clues as multiplication tables, fraction-to-decimal conversions and number lines on scratch paper before starting the tests, according to a school district report. On exam day, she allegedly walked around the classroom making encouraging remarks to make sure students followed through. That sort of test-day coaching is against the rules. The teacher has since retired, according to the district.

The reasons behind Downing’s departure were not clear. In 2011, it was Downing who began the initial investigation against the teachers, and his actions had elicited praise from district officials.

“He did an excellent job … of following through on district procedures,” said senior administrator Brenda Manuel during a meeting for parents at the time.

In the same meeting, Downing acknowledged that he had interviewed four students as part of his investigation without notifying parents, which prompted some complaints. He tried to be reassuring.

“If someone makes an allegation, it has to be looked into,” he said at the time. “I love Short Avenue and I think Short Avenue is a great school, and we’re going to overcome this adversity.”

For a list of the 23 schools stripped of API scores, click here.

The reports on “adult irregularities” at schools, submitted to the state by school districts, are listed in the links below, organized alphabetically by school district. They were obtained by The Times under the state Public Records Act.

Alvord through Folsom Cordova

Fontana through L.A. Unified

Pleasant Valley through San Juan

Sweetwater through Westminster

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-- Howard Blume

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