OAKLAND, Calif. - The Alameda County grand jury painted an unflattering picture of a small number of Castlemont High teachers in Oakland who might have had good intentions, but acted unethically by promoting failing or underperforming students.
The teachers used a "hodgepodge of methods" to make sure the young people could graduate, knowing that they were unprepared, the grand jury found.
"This school and the district that runs it are failing its students," the grand jury wrote. "There is no excuse for awarding a high school diploma to those who do not earn it."
The grand jury, which released its findings on Monday, found that some teachers misused the online educational program called Apex, unfairly graded courses and, in some cases, entered grades for tests and courses never taken.
In one telling example, the grand jury learned that one teacher guided students through tests, question by question. The teacher also encouraged them to use their phones to search for answers to the test questions or better understand what they were being asked.
Apex is a credit recovery program used to offer struggling students an online alternative to completing required work.
The grand jury also took aim at the Oakland Unified School District, where officials said last fall that they found "no evidence to support" the cheating allegations. The grand jury chastised district administrators for not knowing any of this was going on.
"It is unfathomable that OUSD administrators were oblivious to the problems at Castlemont and did not intervene long before whistleblowing teachers reached out to the media in desperation," the jurors wrote. "Statistical data demonstrating Castlemont’s under-performance, student truancy and rising graduation rates in the face of poor standardized test results have long been available for district scrutiny. When OUSD was forced to acknowledge the problems publicly, it wrongly denied there was misconduct, doing teachers, students, and the public a disservice. OUSD’s investigative reports failed to acknowledge the severe academic and ethical breakdown occurring at Castlemont High."
In response, OUSD spokesman John Sasaki said that the district is reviewing the report and will respond to the report within the 90-day mandated period.
Since the allegations about the Apex system came to light, Sasaki said the district hired a consultant to review the school's practices, and Castlemont has "already instituted changes to the Apex protocols and training. "
And to date, Castlemont has not been allowed to use Apex pending the completion of the investigation and retraining of all staff.
"Castlemont High School serves some of the highest-needs students in Oakland, and we are committed to better supporting our most vulnerable student populations so they are well prepared for college, career and community success," Sasaki said.
Sasaki also noted some errors in the report, specifically pointing out that the grand jury incorrectly stated that graduation rates at Castlemont increased during the time period in question.
Castlemont High School in East Oakland opened in 1929 and is one of Oakland’s 15 public high schools. Students are among the poorest and test scores are among the worst. Violence surrounds the neighborhood. Its current enrollment is about 830 students, though the campus can hold twice that number.
Castlemont has had the highest unexcused absence rate of the district in three of the last four years and poor test grades.
Between 2016 and 2019, 91―99% of Castlemont students performed below standard in English, and 99―100% performed below standard in math. Two years ago, only 18 of Castlemont seniors completed college preparatory requirements, the worst performance in the district.
State data shows that Castlemont has the second-highest teacher turnover rate in the district: 69% of Castlemont's teachers left the school over a period of six to 10 years.
Yet somehow, the school's graduation rate was "suspiciously increasing," the grand jury noted, as Castlemont's proficiency scores continued to drop.
So, the grand jury launched an investigation after two teachers came forward nearly a year ago to complain about this discrepancy. These teachers noticed oddities in student transcripts and found that students were completing a high number of online Apex courses in very short periods of time at the very end of their senior year, but they weren't showing up in their traditional classrooms in person.
The grand jury interviewed 11 current or former OUSD staff, and they subpoenaed and examined course, grade, and attendance data along with online course data linked to 29 seniors at Castlemont in 2019.
Among the jurors' findings:
- Three of the Castlemont Apex teachers violated district policy and the course's own best practices by coaching students during exams and quizzes.
- Multiple witnesses testified that many struggling students were not prepared to take high school-level courses.
- While the teacher support was being rendered to individual students, other classmates would look at and play with their phones.
- The Apex teacher wasn't credentialed in some of the courses and to compensate, Castlemont educators would instead list a credentialed teacher's name on the student's grade records.
- Some underperforming students were told by their counselors to take their normal, traditional courseload while simultaneously taking between three and seven Apex courses, enabling them to graduate.
- One student failed traditional economics with 35 absences but enrolled late in Apex online economics and received a final grade of C despite getting 62% or a D-. The student was logged into the Apex course for just 3.3 hours and received a 90% average on teacher-scored quizzes while Apex-calculated quiz scores averaged 28%. Two teachers testified that this student offered to pay money in exchange for Apex answers or better grades and had been reported absent over 323 periods that year. The teachers refused the money.
- The same student also failed World History three times but received B’s on their transcript in Apex World History each semester of the senior year. Yet, the grand jury noted there is no record of the student being enrolled in Apex World History that year.
The grand jury reported that they asked each teacher why they thought this happened. Every teacher answered that too many students arrive at Castlemont unprepared for high school level work.
But helping students succeed when they are not prepared is not only wrong, the grand jury found, it actually ends up hurting them in the long run.
"While some teachers and counselors may have been trying to help struggling students obtain their diplomas or qualify to apply to college, they were instead perpetuating an inequitable and failing system that pushed these students out the door without providing them with a complete education," the jurors found.
At the time the allegations surfaced, the district tried to justify the discrepancies by explaining that Apex-recommended final grades may have been unfairly low because teachers allowed students to skip sections of the course if they had already mastered the subject.
However, the grand jury found problems with those explanations.
A civil grand jury has no authoritative power to make changes or levy fines. Instead, it is convened to serve as a good government watchdog to expose flaws in government and suggest recommendations, which do not have to be followed.
In this case, the grand jury recommended a slate of changes that include having the district develop better practices and then enforce them, limit the number of Apex courses a student can take at one time, and ensure teachers don't coach their students on the tests.