The meeting at Crescendo Preparatory South was progressing as usual when the acting principal dropped a bombshell: She had been given copies of the upcoming standardized tests. The teachers were to study them, take notes — and make sure the kids got it.
Some of the eight instructors were troubled by what seemed to be an order to cheat. One burst into tears.
So began one of the most brazen cheating scandals in the nation. Ultimately, all of Crescendo's schools in South Los Angeles, Gardena and Hawthorne were shut down, its teachers let go and 1,400 students forced to find new schools.
Only the rough outlines of the 2010 scandal were made public, but dozens of interviews with former Crescendo employees and officials — as well as a review of previously unreleased documents — portray an environment so poisoned by demands to excel on state proficiency tests that many submitted to a plan to boost the scores of schools that were already doing well.
Two separate investigations blamed Crescendo's founder and chief executive, John Allen, who was driven, as one official said, by a desire to be "better, better, better, best." Allen has declined all interview requests and maintained his innocence in court documents.
Former Crescendo principals are still grappling with how they were drawn into violating a fundamental tenet of their profession, and teachers are left questioning their own actions and an educational mission in which they believed so deeply.
"Here I had been going around bragging about how awesome our school is, and now I wonder: Are we cheaters?" former Crescendo teacher Lisa Sims said.
The first Crescendo schools opened in 2005, part of a burgeoning charter movement spurred by overcrowding, shrinking resources at traditional public schools and parents' fears over safety.
The Crescendo network, which combined strict academics with arts and music enrichment, attracted black families in particular; African Americans made up at least 80% of the enrollment, compared with less than 10% districtwide.
The schools were the brainchild of Allen, an imposing figure who started teaching in L.A. Unified in 1988 and became a principal in the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County eight years later. He then headed the well-regarded Watts Learning Center, a publicly funded, independently run charter.
"John worked 24/7," said a former Crescendo board member who, like some others interviewed, cited legal or employment ramifications in requesting anonymity. Much, if not most, of Crescendo's success could "be attributed to John."
Allen provided a strong vision to his largely young and inexperienced teachers.
Sandra Kim, 24, had been waiting tables for six months before she got a job teaching at Crescendo.
"John Allen seemed sincere and nice, wanting to know about my school, my teaching philosophy, my background. He seemed like he really cared about the kids and how the school was being operated," Kim said. "I was ecstatic."
Allen's ideas on how schools should be run included enforcing his notions of professional attire.
Teacher Patricia Hardison said that when Allen would arrive on campus unannounced, the first teacher to notice would send a student to other classes with the message: "Do you have a red pen?"
That was the signal for teachers to pull out their uncomfortable high heels.
But Allen's biggest fixation was test scores.
Nationwide, schools' reputations and educators' jobs increasingly depend on student test scores. At Crescendo, Allen seemed to push harder each year. In 2009, he had classroom results posted for all to see, teachers said. He also told them flat out: "You better score a 900 this year," one recalled.
There are a possible 1,000 points on the state's Academic Performance Index. California's goal for its schools is 800. In 2009, Crescendo's scores ranged from 768 to 827, well surpassing most neighborhood schools.
"The students know the standards very well because we drill them, and they learn how to take the test," said Kim, whose classroom was in rented church property on Western Avenue. "It's sad that 8-year-olds are drilled on the test rather than doing projects.... By April and May, they're just burned out."
By 2010, the pressure to excel had increased.
At an April 22 meeting, Allen asked principals to "show the teachers the test to see if they have prepared students" well enough, according to one principal. "He said anyone who doesn't get with the program, this will be their last day at Crescendo," recalled the administrator, who did not want to be identified.
Most principals complied with Allen's orders to varying degrees, according to an internal Crescendo report that was never released.
At Crescendo Preparatory South, Sims, the wife and daughter of a teacher, was immediately distressed by the order to review the tests. "Don't we sign something that says we're not supposed to look at testing materials?" she asked.
The teacher sitting across from her shrugged uncomfortably. Sims turned to Principal Sheryl Lee: "Do you know?"
Lee, who had been an assistant principal in L.A. Unified, responded that she'd never read the test affidavit, according to Sims and Hardison. Lee left the room, they said. Lee declined to be interviewed.
"I took it as her saying: 'Shut up and do this,' " said Sims, who began to cry in front of her colleagues.
Her husband told her she had to report what happened. But she was worried about getting fired and unsure whom to contact.
On a Crescendo campus three miles away, Kim and other teachers walked into their break room to find the state tests laid out.
Principal Anne Rinaldi asked them to take notes and left the room.
The exercise was reassuring at one level. "We kind of looked over the booklets and said, 'We got this. Our students know this material,' " Kim said.
"I was very naive about things," Kim said. "I didn't know if it was wrong or right" to look at the tests. "I thought it must be OK."
Rinaldi returned after about 30 minutes and said, " 'Got all the notes?' We said, 'We got it,' and she collected the booklets," Kim said.
Rinaldi also declined to be interviewed.
It is uncertain how seeing the tests affected scores. No teachers admitted using the illicit materials; others said they refused. Still, just looking at the tests violated the rules.
The scheme came to light May 3, 2010, when an unidentified teacher reported the matter to L.A. Unified, which launched an investigation.
Sims said Allen came by to talk with her at that time. She thought she was about to get fired because she had challenged his order to look at the tests.
Instead, Allen assured her that she would have a job the next fall. And if anyone came around from L.A. Unified, Sims said she was told, she should say she'd never seen the test.
Kim only learned something was wrong during a Saturday tutoring session. Her principal, Rinaldi, was "frantic and crying." Rinaldi said teachers had reported what happened to L.A. Unified.
Within days, several teachers, including Sims, Kim and Hardison, had also called the school district.
One Crescendo board member later asked principals why not one of them questioned Allen's directive. They said that "people had been fired for less," according to the report on Crescendo's investigation.
The state tests still took place, but Crescendo was in crisis.
L.A. Unified threatened to shut down the charter schools and demanded that anyone involved in cheating be fired, especially Allen. His actions, the district said in a June letter to Crescendo's board, constituted "a fatal error in judgment."
Crescendo's board called an emergency meeting — during which there was an unscheduled visit from Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, a member of the L.A. Board of Education.
LaMotte's message was clear, two Crescendo trustees said: You don't need to fire Allen, and the cheating was not serious enough to warrant closing the schools.
LaMotte had often railed against charter schools, but she was friends with Allen, who was the choir director at her church.
The Crescendo board, according to one member, was "somewhat in awe" of LaMotte's presence. The board member said her appearance was a "crucial factor" in the board's 4-3 vote to retain Allen.
Within the L.A. Unified upper hierarchy, LaMotte "talked to anyone who would listen" on Allen's behalf, said a senior staffer who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak. LaMotte also appealed to then-L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.
Cortines had known LaMotte for years. And he relied on her, as a teachers union ally, to support aggressive reforms that had angered the union. "She said to me, 'He's my friend. He made a mistake. How do we help him?' " Cortines said.
The superintendent concluded that closing Crescendo would unfairly punish students — and alienate a key ally. "You can't take this issue unto itself," Cortines said. "I was attempting to keep a school board together, attempting to have a board that operated in the best interests of all the schools."
LaMotte declined interview requests and, through a spokesperson, said she had no comment on what happened.
L.A. Unified officials eventually agreed that Allen would serve a six-month, unpaid suspension and return to a lower administrative job. Most principals were suspended for 10 days. And everyone would receive ethics training, among other measures.
Crescendo parents were never told of the cheating, only that there were problems involving the tests.
Allen declined requests from The Times for an interview. But according to investigations by Crescendo and L.A. Unified, he admitted the cheating to Crescendo's then-board president, Leah Bass-Bayliss, saying that "he got carried away."
No public acknowledgment was made except for a blank space that appeared months later in state records where Crescendo's scores would normally be listed, with the notation that "adult irregularities" had occurred. The tests had been invalidated.
The matter may have never come to light except that two of Crescendo's schools were coming up for renewal in March 2011. District staff recommended approving the charters with conditions attached to make sure all testing rules were followed.
District insiders had expected a pro forma approval at a March 1 school board meeting. But after a Feb. 28 article about the cheating appeared in The Times, incoming L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy backed away from the staff recommendation for a five-year renewal. Board members, worried about appearing to condone cheating, went even further.
They voted to begin the lengthy process of shutting down Crescendo.
The Crescendo board hastily voted to fire Allen, but it didn't save the schools. They were allowed only to finish out the year.
In October, 2011, Allen sued for wrongful dismissal, contending in court documents that allegations of testing irregularities were "unfounded." In April, he reached a settlement for $245,000 of Crescendo's remaining assets, which approached $8 million at the time the schools closed.
In the end, said one trustee, "we didn't do what we should have done," namely, fire Allen immediately.
Cortines, who retired shortly after the board vote, said: "I'm sure the charter school office would probably tell you that I was not as direct as I might be."
Allen's mission to reach students in some of Southern California's poorest areas will be carried on by some of the teachers who became whistle-blowers.
Sims and Hardison are founding teachers for Apple Academy Charter Schools, which will open this month at one of Crescendo's former campuses.