Atlanta fires first teacher in cheating scandal

It started with a question: “Do you think you could get into something undetected?”

It escalated when Parks Middle School Principal Christopher Waller asked Damany Lewis, a math teacher, to slice into standardized testing booklets.

It grew over four years into a well-orchestrated cheating scheme, where Parks’ staffers changed wrong answers to right.

It perhaps ended the first of many careers Wednesday. A tribunal of educators fired Lewis, making him the first APS teacher to be let go as a result of the massive test cheating scandal. Lewis asked the panel for a lighter punishment — and to consider the pressure he and other teachers were under to meet testing goals.

“We were told failure was not an option,” Lewis said. “Teaching and learning was the primary focus of the teachers. Results were the primary focus of this district and our administration.”

After months of delay and millions spent in payroll and legal expenses, educators suspected of some of the most egregious of the school system’s widespread cheating will begin appearing before a tribunal.

For the school district, it’s a chance to bring resolution to a case that has dragged on for months and cost taxpayers millions. For educators, its the first chance to tell their side of the story since a damning 400-plus-page state investigation was released in July.

That investigation was prompted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporting.

APS is paying $1 million a month to about 110 educators accused of cheating who are on administrative leave. So far, the district has taken formal steps to fire 11. Four have chosen to resign rather than go through with tribunal hearings, which are scheduled through March 30.

Lewis was the first of 180 educators named in the investigation, which found that cheating occurred at 44 schools and involved some of the district’s top officials. Investigators say some of the worst cheating took place at Parks Middle School.

Anita Ivy, a special agent for the GBI, testified that Lewis told her he first tried to use scissors to cut into the testing wrappers, but decided that was “tacky.” Instead, he used a razor blade to remove and copy the test booklets before the exam. He made notes on what to teach students and also confessed to spending one to two hours a day erasing answers with other teachers.

Eventually, he developed a system and advised teachers to only change three answers out of every 15 questions. He got nervous when too many teachers were brought into the scheme — and would have preferred he was the only one making changes, Ivy said.

“He felt some other teachers had [a] conscience and bad nerves,” she said.

The efforts brought accolades to Parks, and financial gain to Lewis through bonuses and outside awards, according to APS. Before Principal Waller took charge in 2006, 1 percent of Parks’ eighth-graders exceeded expectations on the state’s curriculum test. In Waller’s first year, 46 percent reached that level.

The school earned praise for its teaching techniques, and its day-to-day operations, Lewis said.

Efforts to reach Waller Wednesday were unsuccessful.

“A teacher is always under a lot of pressure. There is always the weight of student performance on that teacher’s shoulder, along with the expectation and watchful eyes of the administration, the board of education, the superintendent and the state,” Lewis said during Wednesday’s hearing.

Lewis did not dispute the statements in the special investigation. He wasn’t represented by an attorney, and choose not to cross examine either of the witnesses called by APS during the hearing, which is set up like a court proceeding.

When Lewis took the stand, he choose not to answer any direct questions from APS attorneys about statements in the cheating report, saying he didn’t want to incriminate himself.

Instead, an emotional Lewis took a gulp of water and stood while delivering a 10-minute testimony, in which he talked about how much he loved Parks Middle, where he worked for more than a decade. In addition to teaching, he coached sports and also advised the chess club in an effort to contribute more to an impoverished community.

“Somewhere along the way, I started to feel like Parks needed me, and I needed Parks,” he said. “The school climate and overall culture was wonderful. However, the [test] scores were dismal at best. The results overshadowed all of Parks’ positive effects.”

Educators involved in the cheating scandal could face criminal charges as well as the loss of their teaching license. The Professional Standards Commission, which oversees Georgia educators, suspended Lewis’ license for two years, and he was granted criminal immunity for his cooperation with special investigators.

Lewis said he worked with the GBI because he believed telling the truth would help students, and he encouraged other teachers to do the same. Attorneys for APS said Lewis only confessed after he was granted immunity from criminal charges, and they say he “betrayed” the school system.

Fighting back tears, Lewis asked the district to grant him and other teachers from Parks leniency. He thanked APS for allowing him to collect his salary after being placed on administrative leave in July, saying he was “broken” when he learned he would no longer be able to teach.

“The people who are being honest and who have exuded the most character are being persecuted the most and being let go first,” he said. “Let us not crucify the teachers and act like there weren’t and aren’t systemic problems that need to be addressed all the way up.”

The Atlanta school board will vote at its next meeting whether to uphold or reject the tribunal’s decision. Lewis can appeal the firing to the state school board.

Unmatched coverage

Our investigative reporters broke the story of cheating at Atlanta Public Schools, and we’re still digging. That coverage continues today as we provide a first-hand account of how one teacher developed a system to change test scores.