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CPS watchdog found some CPS employees cheated to get children into top schools

Students outside Walter Payton College Prep High School. | Sun-Times file photo

Stepped-up enforcement by Chicago Public Schools has cut down instances of parents cheating to secure highly coveted seats for their kids in selective-enrollment programs, but the district’s top watchdog says some people — including CPS employees — continue to game the system.

In a year-end report released Thursday, CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler outlined seven instances of families scamming to land kids in the fiercely competitive schools between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018.

That includes a CPS analyst and his wife, who used to work for the district. They put down a phony Washington Park address instead of their actual Dunning neighborhood address to help get their daughter into Whitney Young Magnet High School.

It’s a practice known as “tier fraud.” The address they listed — the home of the mother’s cousin, a CPS counselor — is in a poorer neighborhood. CPS gives more leeway in test-in school admissions to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Another CPS counselor listed a fake Little Village address instead of her family’s Logan Square home to help her son get into Payton College Prep, Schuler found. And a provisional substitute teacher got her son into Jones College Prep with a Brainerd neighborhood address even though he was living in Oak Lawn.

All three students were dis-enrolled and permanently banned by CPS from selective-enrollment programs.

Two of the employee-parents resigned, while dismissal proceedings are pending against the mother of the ex-Payton student. The Board of Education hasn’t yet decided on possible action against the counselor involved in the Whitney Young case.

Thousands of students are enrolled in selective programs citywide. After the 2016 school year, 18 students were caught cheating on their applications, and Schuler listed five in his report last year. From 2012 to 2016, 62 students were caught.

It’s hard to say how extensive selective-enrollment fraud is because of the resources needed to investigate, but cases have generally declined since CPS implemented some of the inspector general’s recommendations, Schuler said, including permanent bans and forcing families to pay back more than $13,000 in tuition.

Nicholas J. Schuler, inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools. | Sun-Times file photo

“Overall, I suspect incidents are going down. We’re providing a deterrence value,” Schuler said in a phone interview. “These are some of the top schools in the state. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to zero.”

CPS has said asking families for more documentation in the application process would only be another burden to families from challenged economic backgrounds.

In the 50-page report, Schuler said three central CPS office employees, a principal, an assistant principal and more than a dozen teachers were found to be living in the suburbs, against district policy.

In all, Schuler’s office investigated about 18 percent of the 1,520 complaints it received.

Among them was a high school choir club director who mismanaged more than $13,000 earned through local performances and online campaigns during the club’s run to a televised competition in Los Angeles. The director, who has resigned, kept the money in a personal account and couldn’t account for a large chunk of it when school officials caught on.

“CPS takes seriously its duty to address misconduct, and as noted in the report, the district has held accountable all individuals who committed serious breaches of CPS policy and public trust,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said. “We appreciate the Office of Inspector General’s continued diligence in identifying and investigating wrongdoing, and we will continue to hold employees to high standards of integrity to ensure they are acting in the best interests of students.”

The watchdog also noted a principal who hired an unlicensed dance teacher without a background check. Once the teacher left after two school years, the principal — now in dismissal proceedings — kept offering the class despite not having a teacher, and gave students credit just for showing up.

Schuler also outlined the cases that led to the downfalls of ex-CPS CEOs Forrest Claypool and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, as well as a “widespread pattern of improper and inconsistent” admissions practices at neighborhood schools.