School officials in Camden, N.J., have been under investigation for allegations of cheating on state tests, falsifying data and a cover-up. The results of that investigation are expected any day.
The alleged corruption is so pervasive and so blatant that New Jersey's commissioner of education has vowed to clean house. The two whistleblowers in the case say that's too little, too late for Camden's 17,000 school children.
Paula Veggian has worked for Camden, N.J. public schools for nearly 40 years, first as a math teacher and then as a scheduler at Brimm Medical Arts High School, the district's academic jewel.
"I have devoted my entire adult career to the children in the city of Camden, and what I uncovered was very damaging to children," Veggian says.
What Veggian uncovered and reported to her superiors was a grade-fixing scheme and the falsification of students' transcripts. She agreed to speak to NPR — her first public discussion of the case — at her attorney's office.
"This problem that I uncovered is now two years old," Veggian says. "I did exactly what I should do as a professional, and their answer was to demote me. So now, after two years, I want my side of the story heard."
Discrepancies in Grade Reports
Veggian says her ordeal began in the summer of 2004, as she was preparing the master schedule for the fall semester at Brimm High School. Veggian was responsible for compiling what's known as "the failure list" — a list of students who will not be promoted to the next grade.
But when Veggian cross-referenced the failure list with more detailed records, she noticed that kids who had gotten "Fs were still being promoted. She pointed out the discrepancy to the school's new principal, Joseph Carruth, who agreed that something was amiss.
Carruth recalls going over the results with Veggian. "We're talking about some seniors and I say, 'Well, the way it looks, Paula, these seniors don't have enough credits to graduate.' And she said, 'That's what I thought, too,'" Carruth says.
One student had failed all of her math classes in her sophomore, junior and senior years. But that, says Carruth, was not what her transcript said.
"Her transcript was changed," he says. "The grade was changed to a C. And so at that point, I had to tell the superintendent. I left a message asking that she call me back."
Accusations of Grades for Greed
The next day, Assistant Superintendent Luis Pagan showed up. By that time, Carruth and Veggian say, they had uncovered more bogus transcripts. They say it appears that administrators had been keeping two sets of books for some time. One set of transcripts was accurate; the other was doctored for college applications.
Veggian and Carruth say Superintendent Annette Knox and Pagan told them to keep quiet about what they had found — and made it clear that their jobs were in jeopardy if they didn't.
Knox and Pagan did not respond to NPR's request for comment. Veggian's attorney, Morris Smith, believes the motive for falsifying grades and transcripts was greed.
"It's my opinion, based on what we've seen in this case so far, that there were attempts to boost grades, and that those kids got out on time because it meant more cash for the superintendent in performance bonuses," Smith says.
A performance-incentive clause in the superintendent's contract allowed her to earn thousands of dollars in bonuses if students' academic performance improved.
Retaliation for Whistleblowing?
No one has been charged with a crime. But five months after coming forward, Veggian was demoted, with a cut in pay, and transferred to another school against her will. The Camden school board later voted to give Veggian her old job back at Brimm High, but only after her attorney, Morris Smith, filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the school district.
"My client had done nothing wrong except discover the information and turn it in," Smith says.
Assistant Superintendent Luis Pagan, meanwhile, is now under investigation by the state education department — not for the bogus transcripts, but for allegedly asking Principal Carruth to cheat on the math portion of the state's high-school proficiency exam. Carruth says Pagan approached him in January 2005 and showed him how it could be done.
"I knew it wasn't legal," Carruth says. "I mean, is this what everybody does? Am I the only one being singled out? Those things went through my mind. Am I being set up? Does this mean I'm going to lose my job if I don't?"
Test Scores Not 'Legitimately Achieved'
In local press accounts, Pagan has said Carruth is lying. The school board has taken Pagan at his word. And that, says Carruth, allowed the cheating at Brimm High to continue up until the spring of 2005, even though he refused to be a part of it. Scores that year jumped 21 points, the biggest increase in two years.
Finally, in January 2006, Carruth contacted the New Jersey Department of Education. The state responded by sending monitors to oversee the testing throughout the school district. By then, The Philadelphia Inquirer and other local newspapers were raising questions about big jumps in test scores at other schools in Camden —scores that state investigators now believe are not genuine.
"We know that, with respect to the test scores, those scores were not legitimately achieved," says Lucille Davy, New Jersey's acting commissioner of education. "There was manipulation of the process."
Davy says the crucial question in the state's investigation is whether there was an organized decision to cheat on state tests.
As for the alleged falsification of transcripts at Brimm High and Paula Veggian's lawsuit, Davy won't comment.
For now, Davy says, her focus is on the 2005-2006 test scores at Brimm High and two other schools. Last year, fourth graders at HB Wilson Elementary School had among the highest average math scores in New Jersey. US Wiggins Elementary posted high math scores and the third-highest science scores.
This year — with state monitors presiding over the testing — math and science scores at both schools plummeted. At Brimm High, scores dropped sharply, too.
A Widening Scandal
Camden School Board President Philip Freeman and District Spokesman Bart Leff both declined to discuss the matter with NPR.
Nor would school officials discuss their treatment of Principal Carruth. The Camden Board of Education fired him at the end of the school year, well before the state wraps up its investigation. Carruth, now unemployed, says he's going to sue.
And so, what started as a grade-fixing scheme in Camden's top high school is now a growing scandal — with so many twists and turns that nobody knows where it'll end.
New Jersey's attorney general is investigating former Superintendent Annette Knox, namely, because she gave herself almost $18,000 in unauthorized performance bonuses. And the principals at HB Wilson and US Wiggins elementary schools have been suspended — not for cheating on standardized tests, but for allegedly submitting thousands of dollars in phony expense vouchers.
Parents Demand the Truth
What are parents supposed to make of all this?
"We have gotten no answers to the test scores," says Camden school district parent Candy Causey. "I mean, we only know the allegations, but not the results."
Causey is part of a small group of Camden parents who are demanding answers. The group recently met in a cramped downtown office with community activists and lawyers.
Evelyn Acevedo says she has no idea how her daughter is really faring academically.
"My daughter is an honor-roll student. But is she really an honor roll student?" Acevedo says."What test scores did she have? Or were they altered? That's my question."
Causey says she finds it hard to believe that students might barely pass tests one year, only to "pass with flying colors" the following year.
"My son is in special education," Causey says. "You can't tell me he got 100 percent [on the state test]."
These parents say the state of New Jersey has to take responsibility for the mess in Camden's schools.
Acting Education Commissioner Lucille Davy says she can't be held responsible for the actions — or inaction — of her predecessors.
"But I will say this," Davy says. "There needs to be a change in leadership, without question. These children have one shot to be prepared, and if we fail them, then they don't have much hope."