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Alan Petersime

Memphis school officials want to close charter school following investigation into grade-changing, other misconduct

Editor’s note: Gateway University Charter School was ordered to shut down a year after a Chalkbeat investigation into the Memphis high school found the administration falsified grades, improperly employed uncertified teachers, and awarded credits for a geometry class that did not exist. Find other articles in this series here

Shelby County Schools officials are scheduled Tuesday to recommend closing Gateway University Charter School.

Board members are set to discuss taking away the school’s charter at an academic committee meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday. The district is recommending the board vote at its Jan 29 meeting to close Gateway after this school year.

The Memphis district launched an investigation into the high school seven months ago following a Chalkbeat investigation into allegations by former staff members that the school’s administration falsified grades, improperly employed uncertified teachers, gave credits for a class that did not exist, and pulled students out of class to clean the building.

Read our in-depth investigation into Gateway University here.

About 100 students attended Gateway last year, and fewer than 5 percent scored on grade level in math and English state exams, according to the state report card.

Gateway is one of nine charter schools Shelby County Schools has recommended closing this school year. City University Boys Preparatory is scheduled to close at the end of this academic year, because its charter was not approved for renewal, partly because of low test scores. The board has not yet acted on the other schools.

This is the second time district officials recommended closing Gateway. The first was last school year, when the district ordered Gateway to move within district boundaries, which it did in June.

The district announced in June that it was launching an investigation into allegations at Gateway, but has provided few details.  An open records request made by Chalkbeat found that the district traded multiple emails with Gateway’s leader and founder, Sosepriala Dede, around the investigation in June and July.

In a statement sent to Chalkbeat Monday afternoon, Dede said he was aware of the recommendation for closure was prepared to file an appeal if necessary.

“While we are disappointed by this recommendation, our students’ success – in and outside of the classroom – remains our top priority,” Dede said.

In previous Chalkbeat reporting, former staff members alleged that seven Gateway students were enrolled in a geometry class that did not actually exist, and that members of the Gateway administration asked several teachers to change grades.

The district asked Dede for a geometry course syllabus, course roster, and final grades, according to a open records request made by Chalkbeat. Dede provided these materials in late June. Seven students were enrolled in the course, and all seven received the same grades for each quarter and a final grade of 92 percent, according to the records.

According to a summary of findings from the investigation, Dede told the district that the geometry class was a hybrid online and in-person class. He told the district that he would act as the geometry teacher for 15 minutes in the mornings so students could ask questions from their online course.

But only four of seven students had online logs with the district virtual school program, according to the investigation.

A teacher who taught both World History and geography at Gateway alleged that Dede asked her to change grades, according to the investigation.

When Chalkbeat asked Dede about the alleged grade changes in June, he did not directly answer whether he had ever asked a teacher to change a grade for a student or changed a grade without a teacher’s knowledge.

The investigation also looked into the use of long-term substitutes and unlicensed teachers, or teachers that have not completed an approved Tennessee teacher preparation program. These allegations also were outlined in Chalkbeat’s investigation from June.

According to the investigation findings, the teachers for World History and geography and English were two long-term substitute teachers without the appropriate teaching licenses. Furthermore, three current or former employees stated that at some point during the year, they witnessed Dede teach English, geometry, and World History, but Dede does not have a teaching license, according to the investigation.

On the allegation that students were pulled out of class to help clean the building, the investigation found that no former staff member said they saw a student perform custodial duties more demanding than cleaning the cafeteria or vacuuming the carpeted classrooms. However, the vendor hired for custodial services said the company only cleaned at Gateway a total of six times during the 2017-2018 academic year.

Beginning this school year, the charter school’s governing six-person board had four new members. According to the investigation, Gateway was in violation last year for having too few active board members. Chalkbeat reached out to current Gateway board members on Monday morning but did not receive a response.

Shelby County Schools also did not return an inquiry for comment.

Though Gateway’s own board is meant to act as its governing body, Shelby County Schools approved the charter school and district board members have the power to close it. The district oversees 54 charter schools, which receive public money but are independently operated.

The Tennessee Charter School Center said Shelby County Schools reached out during the investigation and invited the organization to meetings between the district and Gateway. The center advocates for and helps open new charter schools.

“When allegations such as these arise, we think it’s important to address the issues, have the difficult conversations, and stand up for what is right on behalf of children,” a charter center spokeswoman said in a statement. “Due to the severity of the accusations and thoroughness of the investigation, we will fully support SCS on their decision.”

You can read the investigation summary in full below, which cites Chalkbeat reporting multiple times:

This story has been updated with details from the Shelby County Schools investigation into Gateway University and with comment from Gateway University.