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Cover Story: Matters of Principal

Grading the controversy surrounding Cincinnati's best public school

By Tony Cook · June 23rd, 2004 · Cover Story
Geoff Raker

While other schools in the Cincinnati Public School District struggle to pull themselves out of a state-declared academic emergency, Walnut Hills High School shines as an example of the potential inherent in public schools.

Walnut Hills is, in many respects, the flagship school of the district. It offers more than 20 advanced placement courses, and nearly 100 percent of its students pass the state proficiency tests. Its alumni include Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of prions; legal powerhouse Stan Chesley, virtual inventor of the class action lawsuit; and other notables.

At the helm of this flagship is Marvin Koenig, who has led the school for more than a decade.

For years Koenig has been the focus of controversy, especially after allegations last year that he tampered with student grades and allowed students to enroll without passing the required entrance exam.

Some say Koenig does what's best for students. This occasionally requires stepping over bureaucratic lines of policy and procedure, they say, and last year's allegations were a low-ball attempt to use students as a means for furthering adult agendas.

But critics say Koenig shows preferential treatment to certain students and teachers. The rules are not applied fairly to African Americans, they say, and students with financially or politically connected parents are allowed to take shortcuts.

New accusations of administrative misconduct at Walnut Hills have some school board members calling for an investigation, while others rally to support the principal.

The most recent allegation to surface is a January letter from Carol Wesley, a Walnut Hills guidance counselor, to Superintendent Alton Frailey. Included with the letter were memos from Wesley to Koenig alleging that a student had an unsatisfactory grade removed from her transcript and that another student was allowed to enroll after failing the entrance exam.

Over the objections of both her teacher and the guidance counselor, one student had her first semester grade of "D" dropped in mid-January.

"This transaction is against Cincinnati Public Schools board policy and the collective bargaining agreement," Wesley wrote.

The student who was allowed to enroll after failing the entrance test withdrew a week later.

"I do not believe this student should have been allowed to enter Walnut Hills High School in the first place, since we have a policy in place that states that all students must pass the Walnut Hills test in order to enroll," Wesley wrote. "Why are we accepting students if they have failed the test?"

Wesley declined to comment about either case.

There are also ongoing discussions between the district's human resources department and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) regarding the dismissal of history teacher Mose Cartier, a long-term substitute who says Koenig dismissed him after he refused a parent's request to change her child's grade (see "Low-Grade Management," issue of June 2-8).

The new allegations come less than a year after a district investigation failed to substantiate reports of grade tampering but found 14 instances of students enrolled at the school after not passing -- and sometimes without even taking -- the required entrance exam. The district dismissed any need for disciplinary action against Koenig and decided policies should be changed, not the principal.

Harriet Russell, vice president of the board of education and a longtime critic of Koenig, is now calling for another investigation.

"The new and continued allegations of grade changing since January 2004 point to potential fraud which should be thoroughly investigated by the superintendent," says Russell, who taught at Walnut Hills for nearly three decades.

Other board members, however, are rallying behind Koenig.

"He is a dedicated soul," says board member Sally Warner. "If you go back through his career, you might be able to find little things he's done, but his motivation was the well being of the school. Overall, he's done a fantastic job."

Cindy Mahin, an 18-year English teacher at Walnut Hills, says her grades have never been changed, but she has heard parents and students brag about having it done.

"The reason Mr. Koenig has been able to slip away from all this stuff is because he is operating on the fringes of what he is allowed to do," she says. "It is not that he cannot change grades; it's the fairness of the criteria this man applies when he does that sort of thing. I believe that depending on who you are, who your parents are, how much money they do or don't give to the school, then you're going to get preferential treatment."

The ongoing allegations raise several questions. Is Koenig allowing some students to take shortcuts or is he simply an administrative maverick who pushes the limits of board policy and administrative procedure to do what's best for the students? If Koenig does occasionally break the rules, are those instances justified by his ability to keep Walnut Hills a nationally renowned public prep school?

Finally, what kind of message is conveyed when rules are bent or broken to benefit certain students or in service of an institutional image? At Walnut Hills High School, do the ends justify the means?

Those questions might be answered by a special investigator. At a meeting June 14 the school board instructed the superintendent to recommend outside counsel to look into allegations against Koenig.

But Koenig's critics could also find their own conduct being examined. Board member Melanie Bates, who proposed the outside counsel, also wants an investigation into possible violations of federal law protecting the confidentiality of student records.

"Children's names were used," Bates says. "The documents are public records, but the names would then have to be redacted. Since some of us have been hiding behind the cloak of privacy -- well, not hiding, but bound by privacy -- people who aren't as ethical have been taking advantage of that."

Wesley did not provide CityBeat copies of her memos, which include students' grade printouts and enrollment information.

The newspaper obtained them from a high-level official in the school district, who provided them on condition of anonymity.

�They rise and rattle�
Repeated requests for interviews with Koenig were unsuccessful. At one point district officials said Koenig declined on advice of an attorney. He later returned a reporter's call but was unavailable for an interview.

During his tenure as principal, Koenig's job evaluations have been mostly favorable, but there are some exceptions.

A 1997 letter from then-director of human resources Haze Flowers says Koenig hired an assistant principal and a substitute teacher without proper authorization. That decision violated the CFT contract and cost the district $1,822, according to Flowers.

"You cannot take it upon yourself to make decisions which put the district in vulnerable positions with respect to labor and employee relations," she wrote.

There is no evidence of disciplinary action in the personnel file.

In 1999 Koenig gave away school equipment without permission. A letter from Deputy Superintendent Rosa Blackwell says Koenig was aware of the board's policy regarding disposal of property -- in this case, washing machines and other items from a defunct home economics classroom. Koenig gave the equipment to employees.

"Marvin, on other occasions I have found it necessary to remind you that you do not have the authority to ignore board policies and administrative procedures," Blackwell wrote. "It appears that these oral reprimands have been to no avail. Failure to comply or continued violations of board policies will result in more severe disciplinary action."

Blackwell ordered Koenig to retrieve or pay for the property, which the treasurer's office estimated at more than $600.

But Blackwell's reprimand was appealed and revoked by then-superintendent Steven Adamowski, who said Koenig's actions were based on the assumption that the equipment had no value and that the inventory coordinator did not promptly respond to Koenig's requests to assess it.

"I can tell you this is a guy who has always acted in the best interests of the students," says Adamowski, now an instructor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

Of the hundreds of principals he has worked with throughout his career, Adamowski says Koenig is among the top 2 percent. The former superintendent says high-achievement schools such as Walnut Hills naturally require less oversight than lower performing schools.

"A lot of very good principals don't follow all of the little bureaucratic rules," he says.

But some say Koenig's ability to break rules without being disciplined is a result of more than the excellent reputation and performance of his school.

An integral part of Walnut Hills High School is its extremely active alumni foundation. The foundation financed more than $10 million for the school's Arts and Sciences Building and receives more than $2 million in gifts, grants and contributions annually. The foundation has eight branches around the nation and an office inside the school.

As of 2001, the foundation's executive director was earning $10,000 a year more than the school's principal. Big donors include General Mills Chairman Steve Sanger and cancer researcher John Mendelson.

When asked to provide financial statements filed with the IRS, the foundation's staff directed a reporter to Chesley, who represents the foundation pro bono. Although the forms are public records, Chesley declined to release them until he had reviewed them.

"You say they're public records," Chesley said. "Go get them publicly."

He later released some of the documents.

The school's reputation, coupled with an elite and generous alumni base, creates a tricky atmosphere in which to even suggest wrong-doing, much less conduct an investigation of the school's principal.

"They have a very loyal and very active alumni body," says school board member and former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan. "Any suggestion that there is anything wrong with Walnut Hills, and they rise and they rattle. They are some people of real significance in the community who are not at all reluctant in using their influence in the community to defend the school and defend school personnel, almost with the attitude that nobody has a right to look at this."

As a result of its prestige in the community and its alumni base, Walnut Hills receives special treatment, Gilligan says.

"They get the kid glove treatment," he says. "We don't go barging in. We try to let things take their normal course."

But the normal course wasn't good enough during last year's investigation into allegations against Koenig, according to Gilligan and Russell.

�An inside job�
An organization calling itself the Parents Union submitted allegations to the superintendent last year that led to an investigation by the school district's Office of General Counsel. Former City Councilman Charlie Winburn acted as spokesman for the group of concerned parents and teachers who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, he says.

Winburn cited at least 17 instances of grade changing and at least 21 instances of students enrolled at Walnut Hills without taking or passing the required entrance exam.

Investigators didn't substantiate any allegations of grade changing. But they didn't even look for evidence in most of the cases. For example, investigators checked computer records of grades from Walnut Hills and compared them with the district's student database system. But not all 17 allegations were checked.

"Since there were no discrepancies with the grades of the first four students, the investigators did not check the rest of the students," the report says.

The child of a school board member was No. 6 on the list.

The report also says investigators retrieved all available grade books, but Walnut Hills had grade books dating back only to 2001-2002. Of the grade books that were available, investigators could decipher just 10. From these, there appeared to be a discrepancy between the grade book and the report card, but the teacher didn't recall the student.

"We are unable to determine whether this particular grade was, in fact, changed, and if so, whether it was changed without the teacher's knowledge and consent," the report says.

While the report says investigators couldn't substantiate grade tampering, it did find that 14 students were admitted without taking or passing the entrance exam.

"Both policy and procedure would seem to indicate that admission to Walnut Hills is contingent upon taking and passing the (Special College Preparatory Program) entrance exam," the investigation report said.

There is room for some exceptions. The district's policy allows enrollment "in accordance with procedures and standards established by the superintendent." Adamowski, who was superintendent until two years ago, says he allowed Koenig to admit students moving into the school district after the test date had passed. Those students were to take the test as soon as possible and, if they failed, were to re-enroll in another school at the end of the semester.

But that explanation doesn't cover all the apparent breaches of policy.

Koenig told investigators he allowed two students to enroll for extenuating circumstances. Adamowski says he didn't authorize Koenig to enroll students who hadn't taken the test because of extenuating circumstances.

Frailey, the current superintendent, didn't return a reporter's calls last week, and the school district's spokeswoman said other administrators were unavailable.

Investigators couldn't explain why Koenig admitted five other students who didn't take or pass the test. The report recommends changing policy and procedure to reflect current practice.

The recommendations to change policy and procedure haven't been acted on, according to lead investigator Julie Wilson, assistant general counsel for the school district.

"I do not believe any policies have been changed as a result of this investigation," he wrote in a letter to CityBeat last week.

Gilligan says he found the investigation results unimpressive.

"It's fair to say Walnut Hills, because of its prestige in the community and throughout the country, has been accorded special consideration," he says.

Russell is more outspoken.

"The investigation during the 2002-2003 school year was inadequate and there are documents to show that it was inadequate," she says. "It has resulted in the continued intimidation of some staff, students and parents. The practice of preferential treatment is a form of discrimination, because that practice helps some and victimizes others."

Other board members have a completely different perspective. Bates says the ongoing accusations against Koenig amount to a witch-hunt.

"It's just ugly when adults behave this way and use children to hurt other adults," she says.

The Parents Union submitted documents to the superintendent to support its allegations. Bates says that was illegal -- possessing private student information violates federal law. She uses that accusation even against the Walnut Hills guidance counselor who gave the superintendent and the CFT evidence of grade tampering earlier this year.

"It was an inside job to take out somebody else," Bates says. "That's wrong. That's against the law."

She says only public information should be handed to board members.

�Blacks have a grudge�
The motives behind last year's accusations have become more important to some than the investigation or its results. In this sense, Cincinnati's struggle with race relations becomes a factor.

Jim Buquo is a former member of the Walnut Hills High School Association, informally known as the Parents Board. Like the Alumni Foundation, the organization raises money for the school. The goal of its current campaign is $100,000.

"My wife and I were one of those private donors who donated thousands of dollars to Walnut Hills while our daughter was there," Buquo says.

Buquo claims Winburn's allegations last year were racially motivated. Buquo is white, and Winburn is African American.

"Blacks have got a grudge against Walnut Hills," Buquo says. "Walnut Hills is one of the few schools in Cincinnati that is predominantly white. It basically represents the racial make-up of Cincinnati, and they resent that."

Buquo's daughter was a victim of reverse discrimination, he says.

"I'm going to tell you flat out, there are some excellent teachers at Walnut Hills, both black and white, but the worst teachers are black," he says. "They can't show up on time for class. They were ill prepared, unprepared and most of the time the children, the students, were more intelligent than the teachers."

In addition to grade tampering and deviations from entrance requirements, Winburn's report last year also discussed concerns about racial inequalities at Walnut Hills.

"A disproportionate number of African-American seventh- and eighth-grade students were denied equal opportunity to learn and achieve over the last decade under Mr. Koenig," Winburn wrote.

In a 1994 memo from then-Deputy Superintendent Calvert Smith, Koenig is praised for tackling that issue.

"We discussed the problem and perception of people about the retention of African-American students, particularly at the seventh grade," Calvert wrote. "You have done an analysis of that problem, documented its sources and developed a plan to address the issue."

Last year's investigation did not substantiate Winburn's charges but did find that a disproportionate number of African-American students don't make it to the ninth grade.

Citing Elizabeth Holtzapple, director of research, evaluation and test administration for the school district, the report said, "Between 1996-2001, approximately 20 percent fewer African-American students than white students stayed for the ninth grade and beyond."

That was an improvement over the retention rate for prior years but was still a significant difference.

"Dr. Holtzapple is concerned with the 20 percent difference in retention rate," the report says.

Walnut Hills has the smallest percentage of African-American students of any major high school in the city, according to the district.

Gilligan says the race card is occasionally used for political purposes.

"In this town, if an apple falls out of the tree, it becomes a racial issue," he says. "Who was shaking the tree and why?"

But he also says that's no excuse for ignoring or dismissing allegations.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," he says. "These new allegations are alive; and if there is not some successful resolution -- by which I mean the offended parties feel like they've been dealt with fairly -- then I think the board probably ought to get into it."

Rules �like Swiss cheese�
Other members of the board seem content with last year's investigation and are focussing on its recommendations for policy change. Bates, who chairs the policy committee, says board policies are in the midst of a year-and-a-half review process. She blames outdated or inefficient policies for the controversy around Koenig.

"Our board policies are like Swiss cheese," she says. "That's why we're redoing them."

She also says the variation in superintendent oversight of principals might be cause for concern. She says the superintendent might have acted outside board policy in what he allowed Koenig to do with regards to entrance requirements.

"There may be fingers to point, and there may be malfeasance, but I'm not sure who should exactly be charged with the malfeasance,"she says.

When asked about the recent accusations in the letter from the Walnut Hills guidance counselor to the superintendent, Bates says the board has not been asked to act.

"If we focus all our attention on adults who, I believe, sometimes do this deliberately as a tactic to divert work, then we don't get the true work of serving kids done," she says.

But Russell says grade tampering is a threat to the kids, and a thorough investigation into allegations at Walnut Hills would serve them. At the crux of the debate are the lessons students are learning.

"If you know that you earn a low grade and it can be removed, then what's the incentive for you to work to earn the higher grade?" she says. "We're getting into an area here of questioning the integrity of our whole instructional process. It is threatening the integrity and ethics, the very fabric, of our society." "

Facts About Walnut Hills
-- 1,900 students in grades seven through 12.

-- Founded in 1895, became a college prep high school in 1931

-- The Cincinnati Board of Education recognized the schoolÕs special college preparatory mission in 1935 and again in 1972.

-- Motto: "Sursum ad Summum" -- "Rise to the Highest"

-- Racial makeup of student body: 59.9 percent white, 33.5 percent African-American

-- Racial makeup of Cincinnati Public Schools: 70.8 percent African American, 24.5 percent white

-- The Walnut Hills Alumni Foundation has eight chapters nationwide, including Boston, New York and Phoenix.

-- Famous alumni: James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera; Elisabeth Bumiller, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Edie Magnus, correspondent for Dateline NBC; Rick Steiner, Broadway producer of Hairspray and The Producers

-- "Most of our alums have higher allegiance to this school then they do to their college," says Deborah Heldman, Director of the Walnut Hills Alumni Foundation.

-- At the time of its completion in 1999, the $13 million raised by the foundation for the Arts and Science Center at Walnut Hills was the largest privately funded capital campaign public school in the nation.

-- The foundation provides 40 college scholarships to Walnut Hills seniors each year. -- Jay Antenen

Sources: Alumni Foundation Web site and Ohio Department of Education School Year Report Cards.


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