PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, Md. - Some teachers and staff members in Prince George's County Public Schools say intense pressure to boost the graduation rate has caused students to be pushed through the system whether they earned their diploma or not.
It has several Prince George's County school board members calling for a state investigation into allegations of fraud. Board members Edward Burroughs, David Murray, Raaheela Ahmed and student member Juwan Blocker sent a letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan saying that whistleblowers at almost every level in the school system "have clear and convincing evidence that PGCPS has graduated hundreds of students who did not meet the Maryland State Department of Education graduation requirements."
Schools CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell has denied the claims and said they are politically motivated.
The school district celebrated significant gains in its graduation rate earlier this year with 81 percent of seniors graduating in 2016, the highest number since 2010. Dr. Maxwell and his team made surprise visits at high schools with graduation rates over 90 percent.
"When Maxwell came up to our school with an entourage to celebrate our high graduation rates, we all howled with laughter," a teacher told FOX 5. "Because we knew that they were completely fraudulent."
"Most of the counselors laugh at it," said a high school guidance counselor. "Because we know that it's not real."
The staff we spoke to wanted their identities concealed for fear of retaliation. They work at different high schools but tell the same story.
"There is incredible pressure coming from the central office onto all of the principals at all the schools to push kids through whether they really earned the credits or not," a teacher said.
"It's, 'What are you going to do to make sure that they pass,' rather than, 'What are you going to do to make sure that they learn,'" another teacher told FOX 5.
Boosting the graduation rate has been a top priority for Dr. Maxwell since he was appointed in 2013. The county had been lagging behind the state average before making gains.
Along with the spike in graduates, there have been changes in policy. For example, a new grading procedure says that students will get a minimum of 50 percent for making a "good faith" effort on an assignment or assessment.
"As long as 50 percent of the work is done," a teacher said. "It doesn't have to be correct, just has to be complete - which makes no sense."
Staff members say that is the just the beginning.
"Either outright asking the teacher to change the grade, I've seen them just change the grade," the guidance counselor said of administrators at her school.
She says her principal told her to contact the teachers of failing seniors and see if more could be done to help them pass. She says when some students were still failing, she was told to contact those teachers again.
"Email them all and tell them, 'Change all the grades.' Whether it was a 30 or 50, change it all to passing," she says she was told by the principal.
FOX 5 obtained an email from a guidance counselor and assistant principal at DuVal High School, one of the schools where Maxwell was celebrating the 92 percent graduation rate. It was sent to staff and read in part, "Below are a list of our seniors who need one last intervention with your assistance."
It goes on to say, "If there is any last minute, (rub a genie in a bottle), assistance you can help our future scholars, please assist (yes one more time)!"
The email was sent about a month before graduation and lists the names of 141 seniors and their teachers.
FOX 5 spoke to a mother who has an 11th grader at DuVal. She says she learned he was failing a class with a 29 percent and talked to the teacher.
"She had nothing else to justify a higher grade," said Randa, who opted not to give her last name. "The guidance counselor for that grade said, 'Do not worry he will pass with a 65.'"
She says her son indeed passed the class, and that he is very aware of why.
"When I try to challenge him and say, 'You need to give more with that essay, you need to study a little bit more,' (he says), 'Well what for? They're going to pass me anyway,'" Randa said. "He is passing, no problem. Does he know the material? No idea. Am I going to be tasked to teach him that over the summer? I've already begun that process."
Dr. Maxwell declined our request for an interview, but provided this statement:
"I am aware that four Board of Education members sent a politically-motivated letter to the Governor regarding Prince George's County Public Schools' (PGCPS) graduation rate. These claims are an affront to the hard work of our teachers, administrators, students and parents over the last few years. I categorically deny any systemic effort to promote students who did not meet state graduation requirements. Prince George's County schools have much to celebrate this graduation season: more than $151 million in scholarship awards, acceptances to our nation's finest colleges and universities, certifications to help students embark on challenging careers. We remain focused on improving students' lives and preparing them for opportunities beyond high school. We welcome the Maryland State Department of Education to fully explore this matter."
On Monday, nine school board members wrote their own letter opposing the allegations, and demanding their colleagues apologize and resign if an investigation fails to provide clear evidence of systemic corruption or no investigation is warranted at all. They blasted the board members for contacting the state instead of bringing the claims to the attention of the board and county first.
"The claim that folks are pushing students out is false," said board member K. Alexander Wallace. "We're pushing our students to be the best that they can be."
Board Chair Segun Eubanks said he was confident the state would find no evidence of wrongdoing if there is an investigation.
"If there is any clear and compelling evidence from legitimate authorities about this, we're very anxious to see it," Eubanks.
FOX 5 asked if he had requested to see the evidence referenced in the board members letter to the governor.
"We have not asked them for any evidence," Eubanks said. "We have gone to our administration and said we want to make sure that everything they have told us is correct and that there is absolutely no systemic corruption going on. And we are confident they will give us that."
"I'm confident we will be vindicated in this," added board member Sonya Williams.
The three board members also referenced a prior investigation by the Maryland State Department of Education into an anonymous tip that educators were being forced to change grades.
According to a report provided by a PGCPS spokeswoman, the state looked into the issue in January after the tip was sent to the U.S. Department of Education.
In a letter, the academic officer assigned to the case says she spoke to Dr. Maxwell and "asked him to identify others with whom I could talk." The letter goes on to say that she spoke to an Instructional Director, a Data Management and Strategy Analyst, a Special Project Officer, a Deputy Superintendent as well as Maxwell and concluded there was no wrongdoing. The U.S. Department of Education said they found the state response "satisfactory" and considered the matter closed.
A spokesperson for the Maryland State Department of Education said she had no comment at this time.
Gov. Hogan's office confirmed it has received the board members letter saying, "The allegations are very concerning and they have been forwarded to the Maryland State Department of Education."
Staff we spoke to say they hope to see an investigation by the state.
"You're cheating the students," a teacher said. "They're not learning good work ethics. They're pretty much being led to believe that entitlement is the norm, and it's not.
"If they go to college, they are going to be in a great deficit because they didn't learn that content," said the guidance counselor. "And so I feel like we're setting them up to fail."
Stay with FOX 5 for the latest on this developing story. Contact the reporter at Lindsay.Watts@foxtv.com.