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L.A. Unified set to renew charter contract despite evidence of cheating

The performance of Crescendo charter schools was nothing short of remarkable — annual gains on state tests that were sometimes 10 times what other schools would consider strong progress.

Too good, perhaps, to be true.

Last year, administrators and teachers at the six schools south of downtown Los Angeles were caught cheating: using the actual test questions to prepare students for the state exams by which schools are measured.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Education is scheduled to act on a staff recommendation to reauthorize Crescendo's charter, giving the organization another five years to operate. Senior L.A. Unified officials said they are satisfied that Crescendo's governing board took appropriate steps after the cheating was uncovered.

"We did feel when we raised the issues … that the board did respond appropriately and took some swift action," said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the district's director of charter schools.

In the end, no one was fired, not even John Allen, the founder and executive director who orchestrated the cheating, then denied it had taken place until confronted with overwhelming evidence, according to district documents and officials.

Allen did not return phone calls or e-mails Friday, nor did members of Crescendo's board of directors or other top administrators.

The case underscores a periodic dilemma: What kind of transgression is egregious enough to shut down a charter school? Last June, the co-founders of Ivy Academia in the west San Fernando Valley were indicted on charges of stealing $200,000. They have denied wrongdoing. In December, the founding principal of NEW Academy Canoga Park pleaded guilty to embezzling at least $1.3 million and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Both schools remain open because of their apparent academic success and popularity.

Charters, which are publicly funded, are independently run and exempt from many state regulations. But they must take part in high-stakes state standardized testing.

"I understand the pressure regarding test results," said Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at UCLA. "But to advise your entire enterprise to cheat, that would be a serious, serious ethical breach."

At Crescendo, according to L.A. Unified's account, Allen ordered principals to have teachers break the seal on the state tests and let students practice with the actual test questions.

The principals complied. One later told the district that she had no intention of carrying out this order, but some teachers at the school insisted that this principal had relayed the directive.

"Several principals later told us they had asked Allen if this is OK for us to do," said t.r. Porter, the district's coordinator for Crescendo and about a dozen other charters. "None of them said they put forth valiant resistance."

Several teachers blew the whistle, contacting the district while also expressing fear of retaliation.

Allen, a much-lauded veteran educator, had directed employees to deny any wrongdoing if confronted, according to a district investigation outlined in correspondence to Crescendo.

"We received the first call from a teacher on May 3 and by May 5 we were asking John Allen about it, and he was denying it," Porter said. "When we put this to the school's board of directors for its own investigation, Allen initially denied it to them also."

In correspondence obtained through a public records request from The Times, Crescendo never challenged the district's findings, but its governing board downplayed the cheating two weeks after its confirmation.

"While such a breach was not authorized or condoned, the fact that regulations exist to address such breaches suggest they do happen," then-board president Leah Bass-Baylis wrote to L.A. Unified.

Allen received a six-month unpaid suspension, then returned to work, demoted to director of facilities. His salary as executive director had been $161,333.

"It is our assessment that Mr. Allen through his actions, has committed a fatal error in judgment," the district wrote in a June 15 letter.

L.A. Unified threatened to revoke the schools' charters immediately but backed down when Crescendo made a series of promises. These included a staff reorganization; a revamped board of directors that added a parent; ethics training for the staff; and additional review of board governance, conflicts of interest and the public records and open meetings act.

The principals were suspended for 10 days.

The school district never disclosed the cheating, but Crescendo parents who attended the charter's board meetings or questioned administrators were informed, officials said.

District officials are uncomfortable with Allen's continued presence but are satisfied with the overall response.

Allen "expressed very, very deep regret and said the cheating was born out of a desire to be better, better, better, best," Porter said.

Two of the six Crescendo charter schools are up for a five-year renewal at Tuesday's meeting: Crescendo Charter Academy in Gardena and Crescendo Conservatory in Hawthorne.

The district's recommendation is based largely on high test scores before 2010. Some teachers told district staff that they'd also heard of cheating in 2009, but the district could not confirm those allegations.

The Gardena campus had gains of 31 and 62 points on the state Academic Performance Index in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, the year of confirmed cheating, its score went up another 55 points, a rate of improvement consistent with the two previous years. The invalidated state index score would have been 867. The state's target score for schools, on a scale of 200 to 1000, is 800.

The Hawthorne campus jumped an astonishing 224 points in 2008 to an API score of 907, rising from one of the state's lowest- to highest-scoring schools in one year. Only 17 students were tested each year, which could account for steep fluctuation. Most students were in kindergarten or first grade, levels that aren't tested. The next year 22 students took the exams and the score dropped 80 points but remained high. No score was calculated for 2010.

Crescendo schools enrolled a total of 1,294 students last year; 44% were in kindergarten or first grade.

The 2010 cheating was discovered in time to prevent additional cheating on the actual testing days, the district said.

Scores for Crescendo Prep South in Manchester Square were never calculated for 2010. And the 2010 scores at three other Crescendo schools, which were later tossed out, showed a decline, calling the successes of prior years into further question.

At Crescendo Preparatory West in Gardena, test scores in 2010 declined 63 points from the prior year. Crescendo Prep Central in Gramercy Park slipped 7 points.

And scores at Crescendo Charter in Vermont Square declined 52 points. This school recently won a state academic achievement award.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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