As state education officials look to strip the El Paso school board of its authority after a testing scandal rocked the district, local officials are working to bring back students who dropped out of school as a result of pressure from school administrators.
Since August, a district program has sent officials to the homes of hundreds of students who left during the last three years, hoping to persuade them to return and get a high school diploma. "We're in the process of regaining the trust of the students," said Mark Mendoza, who is overseeing efforts to bring back students affected by the scandal.
Mendoza, who fought other administrators' efforts to keep students from enrolling, is leading the Alpha Initiative, which has a staff of 11 employees looking for what they call "leavers," or students who left El Paso high schools during the scandal.
It's a complicated process, as the staff must determine whether students left for their own reasons or because of pressure from administrators. A hotline has been set up for anyone to call with tips on how to reach former students, and over the last two weeks, staffers have visited 60 students every day.
In many cases, Mendoza said, students no longer live in El Paso or have reached the age of 18, meaning they cannot be compelled to return to school. He said his colleagues explain various options, including night school and GED programs, should students decide to resume their studies.
"It's kind of a distilling process that leaves us with the manageable population," he said, "so that I can send my team out to them."
In 2009, a high school counselor unearthed 77 transcripts documenting possible cheating, leading then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh to accuse district leaders of using a variety of methods to ensure that low-performing students were not taking the sophomore-level tests that counted for federal accountability standards.
Administrators, many of whom have still not been identified, are alleged to have designated students as low-performing, transferred them to charter schools or sent truant officers to tell them not to go to school on testing days. Other students had credits deleted or added so they would officially be recorded as freshmen or juniors, because the federal accountability tests are given to sophomores. Former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia is now in federal prison serving a three-and-a-half-year term related to the scandal.
On Dec. 6, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams stripped the El Paso school board of authority, saying that the trustees had “lost the trust of the community” and that he planned to replace them with a board of managers. The federal Justice Department must approve the replacement of elected officials, and the current board members are fighting their removal by appealing the agency’s request.
If the agency gets federal approval, the board of managers will serve for two years, though school board trustees will not technically lose their positions and can run for re-election.
Outgoing state Rep. Dee Margo, R-El Paso, is one of the managers appointed by the education commissioner. He said that until the federal authorities rule, he and the other appointees are waiting. "We don't know anything more," he said. "It's a state of limbo right now." The ruling is expected to take two to three months.
This is not the first time the TEA has installed a board to oversee a transition for a troubled district. Since 1991, the agency has installed boards of managers to oversee three school districts and six charter schools.
“It’s not something that is decided lightly,” said TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson, adding that many of the situations had nothing to do with cheating, but rather with questions over whether the district was “functioning adequately.”
The TEA has itself faced criticism in the wake of the scandal. When Williams stripped the El Paso ISD of authority, board member Alfredo Borrego accused the agency of using the district “as a scapegoat.”
In a news release, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, had said that "the TEA must also review its own role in this tragedy,” adding that the agency should be audited by a third party.
TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe confirmed Friday that the agency would bring in an external auditor to look at its investigative processes. Asked if the TEA accepted any blame for the scandal, she said, "We think there's plenty of blame to go around for lots of people in this situation."
As statewide and local officials await the Justice Department ruling on who will run the district, school officials are looking to address the fallout from the scandal. Federal court documents listed six school officials who assisted Garcia, though they have not been identified publicly, and details of their alleged involvement in the scandal are not known.
Former interim Superintendent Terry Jordan resigned this month. On Tuesday, the El Paso school board debated whether to fire James Anderson, the assistant superintendent in charge of high schools, but did not reach a decision. Anna Luisa Kell, an assistant Bowie High principal, is also facing an investigation.