APS principal resigns over grade inflation accusations

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An Atlanta high school principal has resigned after accusations he bullied and threatened teachers into changing failing grades to passing grades.

Former B.E.S.T Academy High School Principal Boris Hurst ordered teachers to inflate students’ grades, berated teachers who questioned him, and issued warning letters to teachers with high failure rates, according to a notice of charges signed by Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis.

The allegations of grade tampering came as APS attempts to recover from a standardized test cheating scandal in which teachers and administrators in 2009 changed students’ wrong answers to right answers. A state investigation accused 178 Atlanta educators of wrongdoing, resulting in most of them losing their jobs.

Hurst had been principal at B.E.S.T., a northwest Atlanta all-boys school, since it opened in 2010. The APS charge letter said he “ignored glaringly inappropriate grade changes” and allowed almost all of the school’s inaugural freshman class to advance to the next grade level, regardless of whether the students learned the required material.

The principal resigned after the school district’s lawyers presented their case against him at a disciplinary hearing Feb. 21, APS spokesman Stephen Alford said. The school system removed Hurst from B.E.S.T. in March 2012, and an interim principal has been running the school since July.

Hurst denied doing anything wrong, and said Wednesday that he resigned to avoid harming his career.

“There was never any proof that I changed any grades,” Hurst told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I was just put in a bad situation. … Just because you resigned doesn’t mean you’re guilty of anything.”

Hurst’s attorney, Rosalyn Winters, said Wednesday that he resigned because he has accepted a job in Florida.

B.E.S.T. (Business, Engineering, Science and Technology) Academy is a 225-student high school that started with a ninth-grade class in the 2010-2011 school year and has added a grade level each year. The school will graduate its first class next year.

The Atlanta school district will monitor B.E.S.T. Academy’s performance, and all school employees are required to take an annual ethics course as a condition of their employment, Alford said.

“We do pay close attention to schools that have breached an ethical threshold,” Alford said. “That means making sure that all of our employees are taking the ethics training class, passing the ethics training class, and providing support to our teachers and community.”

Interim Principal Gary Cantrell, who wasn’t at the school when the grade inflation took place, wasn’t made available for comment. The superintendent had no comment, Alford said.

Parent Margaret McBride said students showed her progress reports filled with zeros and failing grades, and later she saw that their final report cards had passing grades.

“The kids were seeing that it didn’t matter. Whatever they did, they were going to pass anyway,” said McBride, whose son is a junior. “My child, in particular, said, ‘You know Mom, I go to school every day, I do my best, but I look around and the kids who are not even trying are passing, so why should I continue to try? Why should I continue to study?’”

Teachers told parents they were frustrated by the grade changes, and they complained that it was hard to teach when students knew there were no consequences if they didn’t learn, said Valerie Irvin, president of the school’s parent, teacher and student association.

“It was like he didn’t care if they could read or write, they were going to pass,” said Irvin, the parent of a junior. “He said, ‘We’re going to pass them. We’re not going to have a failure rate at B.E.S.T.’”

The school district didn’t have academic progress data readily available Wednesday, Alford said. Irvin said she believes more students are being given failing grades this school year.

Hurst told teachers that high failure rates were unacceptable, and that grades would be changed if teachers failed more than 25 percent of their students, according to the 32-count charge letter.

“During faculty meetings, you engaged in such inappropriate conduct as ‘hopping’ around and saying ‘these kids are not going to fail … you all are going to have to change these grades …’ or words to that effect. You would also use profanity, point at others, distort your face, and hit on the desk,” the charge letter said.

Hurst threatened teachers by telling them that their contracts wouldn’t be renewed or they’d be put in a professional development plan if their failure rates exceeded the 25 percent level, the charges said.

He demanded that teachers and administrators bring students’ failing grades up to at least grades of 70, which is the minimum passing grade, “regardless of whether the student could demonstrate mastery,” according to the charges. During the 2010-2011 school year, the student failure rate in five subjects was less than 2 percent.

In addition, Hurst told clerks to change or “clean up” attendance records, the charges said.

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement’s website says students at B.E.S.T. Academy High School attended school an average of 97 percent of the time in the 2010-2011 school year, compared with a 91 percent average throughout the school district.