Two separate investigations into the cheating scandal blamed Crescendo… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
The meeting at Crescendo Preparatory South was progressing as usual when the acting principal dropped a bombshell: She had been given copies of the upcoming standardized tests. The teachers were to study them, take notes — and make sure the kids got it.
Some of the eight instructors were troubled by what seemed to be an order to cheat. One burst into tears.
So began one of the most brazen cheating scandals in the nation. Ultimately, all of Crescendo's schools in South Los Angeles, Gardena and Hawthorne were shut down, its teachers let go and 1,400 students forced to find new schools.
Only the rough outlines of the 2010 scandal were made public, but dozens of interviews with former Crescendo employees and officials — as well as a review of previously unreleased documents — portray an environment so poisoned by demands to excel on state proficiency tests that many submitted to a plan to boost the scores of schools that were already doing well.
Two separate investigations blamed Crescendo's founder and chief executive, John Allen, who was driven, as one official said, by a desire to be "better, better, better, best." Allen has declined all interview requests and maintained his innocence in court documents.
Former Crescendo principals are still grappling with how they were drawn into violating a fundamental tenet of their profession, and teachers are left questioning their own actions and an educational mission in which they believed so deeply.
"Here I had been going around bragging about how awesome our school is, and now I wonder: Are we cheaters?" former Crescendo teacher Lisa Sims said.
The first Crescendo schools opened in 2005, part of a burgeoning charter movement spurred by overcrowding, shrinking resources at traditional public schools and parents' fears over safety.
The Crescendo network, which combined strict academics with arts and music enrichment, attracted black families in particular; African Americans made up at least 80% of the enrollment, compared with less than 10% districtwide.
The schools were the brainchild of Allen, an imposing figure who started teaching in L.A. Unified in 1988 and became a principal in the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County eight years later. He then headed the well-regarded Watts Learning Center, a publicly funded, independently run charter.
"John worked 24/7," said a former Crescendo board member who, like some others interviewed, cited legal or employment ramifications in requesting anonymity. Much, if not most, of Crescendo's success could "be attributed to John."
Allen provided a strong vision to his largely young and inexperienced teachers.
Sandra Kim, 24, had been waiting tables for six months before she got a job teaching at Crescendo.
"John Allen seemed sincere and nice, wanting to know about my school, my teaching philosophy, my background. He seemed like he really cared about the kids and how the school was being operated," Kim said. "I was ecstatic."
Allen's ideas on how schools should be run included enforcing his notions of professional attire.
Teacher Patricia Hardison said that when Allen would arrive on campus unannounced, the first teacher to notice would send a student to other classes with the message: "Do you have a red pen?"
That was the signal for teachers to pull out their uncomfortable high heels.
But Allen's biggest fixation was test scores.
Nationwide, schools' reputations and educators' jobs increasingly depend on student test scores. At Crescendo, Allen seemed to push harder each year. In 2009, he had classroom results posted for all to see, teachers said. He also told them flat out: "You better score a 900 this year," one recalled.
There are a possible 1,000 points on the state's Academic Performance Index. California's goal for its schools is 800. In 2009, Crescendo's scores ranged from 768 to 827, well surpassing most neighborhood schools.
"The students know the standards very well because we drill them, and they learn how to take the test," said Kim, whose classroom was in rented church property on Western Avenue. "It's sad that 8-year-olds are drilled on the test rather than doing projects.... By April and May, they're just burned out."
By 2010, the pressure to excel had increased.
At an April 22 meeting, Allen asked principals to "show the teachers the test to see if they have prepared students" well enough, according to one principal. "He said anyone who doesn't get with the program, this will be their last day at Crescendo," recalled the administrator, who did not want to be identified.
Most principals complied with Allen's orders to varying degrees, according to an internal Crescendo report that was never released.
At Crescendo Preparatory South, Sims, the wife and daughter of a teacher, was immediately distressed by the order to review the tests. "Don't we sign something that says we're not supposed to look at testing materials?" she asked.