The search for the next principal at Mann Elementary School will begin next week.
Oak Park Elementary School District 97 is on spring break this week, and Supt. Albert Roberts said he’ll begin the search process for a new principal after the break. Last week, Principal Nimisha Kumar resigned her position at Mann after an internal investigation by D97 found that this month’s state standardized tests were inappropriately administered by staff.
Kumar, however, will stay on through June 30. While the district is pursuing disciplinary procedures against the staff members involved, Roberts insists the violations resulted in a “lapse in judgment” and was not done intentionally for unfair advantage. The investigation, which Roberts led, found several violations, including tampering with testing materials while administering the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.
The ISATs were given the second week of March and are taken each spring by elementary students in grades 3-8.
The violations include staff members giving students extra time to answer questions that they may have missed or skipped for reasons such as pages being stuck together. Other violations involved staff members reviewing test booklets and answer documents for stray marks and missing answers after students turned them in, as well as staff members themselves erasing stray marks from those documents.
Kumar submitted her resignation to the D97 school board on March 22, following the district’s investigation. She’s been the principal at Mann, 921 N. Kenilworth, since 2006 and was interim principal the year before that. The district sent their findings to the Illinois State Board of Education, which is now investigating the matter.
The violations, Roberts said, involved only a handful of staff and about 20 third- and fourth-graders.
Mary Fergus, a spokesperson with ISBE, said the state agency reviews such cases to determine if the test scores affected should be invalidated, and if staff involved in any irregularities should be disciplined, which could result in their certificate being suspended or revoked. Fergus said the agency investigates testing irregularities every year in school districts across the state; such reviews usually take a month or two.
As to whether Mann’s ISAT results would be ruled invalid, Roberts said that decision rests with the state board, and he anticipates hearing from ISBE sometime in May.
Anonymous ‘whistleblower’ at school
An anonymous teacher at Mann alerted the Oak Park Teacher’s Association about the possible violations, according to Roberts. He said the teacher was concerned about how the tests were handled. The president of the OPTA contacted a district administrator, who then alerted Roberts. Roberts and the administrator then went to the school to interview staff and found that the tests were mishandled.
After the irregularities were discovered, Kumar decided to submit her resignation to the D97 board, according to Roberts. No other violations were found at any other district school, he said. Kumar released a statement via D97 last Friday afternoon addressing her tenure at Mann but not the alleged violations.
“There is still much to be done prior to the end of the school year, and I look forward to continuing the important work we do each and every day here at Mann,” she said.
Roberts stressed that the violations were found not to be committed in malice or “to give our students some kind of unfair advantage on state tests.”
Concerning reaction at Mann to Kumar’s resignation, Roberts said there’s some disappointment, and he’s also heard good things about Kumar’s tenure. Wednesday Journal contacted parents last Friday, who were surprised by Kumar’s departure.
“I am stunned and very sad to hear the news of Mrs. Kumar’s resignation,” said Judy Larscheid, a parent and PTO volunteer, via an email to the Journal. “Mrs. Kumar is a wonderful asset to Mann School and our community. I hope there is a way for her to stay; otherwise, it will be a big loss for our children and families.
Parent Mary Joyce echoed Larscheid’s comments.
“I, too, am stunned about the developments today,” Joyce said via email last Friday.
Staff could face discipline action by early April
Concerning the possibility of Mann staff members being terminated, Roberts, who spoke to Wednesday Journal on Monday, said he couldn’t comment on that “right now.”
Peter Barber, president of the D97 school board, said the superintendent will present a recommendation to the board on April 10 concerning possible discipline actions for the staff members involved. The board held a special meeting last Thursday to accept Kumar’s resignation. Barber said it was her decision to resign. She was not present at the evening meeting, which began shortly after 5 p.m. and lasted roughly a half hour. The board voted 6-0 to accept her resignation. Board member Jim O’Connor was not present.
The board was alerted to the testing irregularities two weeks ago, Barber said. In his six years as a D97 parent, Barber can’t recall any such issue involving the ISATs before.
“It’s difficult to hear about this happening at any of our schools,” he said. “We always hope and expect all of our staff to follow the rules on things like the ISAT tests, so it’s difficult to hear that this didn’t happen at any of our schools, Mann or otherwise,” Barber said. “But with this situation behind us, we can expect that the rest of our staff will be diligent in following the rules when it comes to testing or other rules.”