Emails from Pinellas County Schools Official trigger investigation into GradPoint cheating

Teacher tells I-Team her concerns were ignored

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The I-Team has been reporting about possible cheating in a Clearwater High School Program since early this year.

GradPoint is designed to allow students to get credit for classes they previously failed.   

Teachers told us and documents showed students finished semester-long classes in just hours, almost always getting an "80".

 We obtained documents in which teachers modified failing grades just minutes after taking tests.

 In one case, a student got a "B" after failing 13 of 16 tests.

 Records show the student passed that semester-long course in just three days.

But even after we took those concerns to the district, they didn't launch a full audit of the GradPoint program... not until we turned up a telling email in our open records request.

“I don't want to be the one that's just pushing someone through, just to get the numbers up,” said Kelly Fichtner, a former Clearwater High School Social Studies teacher.

Fichtner says she discovered teachers inflated GradPoint grades in early 2015, when the school assigned her to verify American Government grades for 250 freshmen at Clearwater High.

“I was getting ready to sign a GradPoint thing for another teacher's student and they were like ‘wait a second, how does that student have an 80 percent? I submitted their grade just yesterday with a 73,’” she said.

Fichtner took a closer look.   

“I saw my personal student's grade I had submitted as a "C" was bumped up to a "B". I knew this was happening at a bigger level,” Fichtner said.

Fichtner reported the problem and resigned from GradPoint in an email, in which she said, “ I don't want to jeopardize my career by signing off on legal documents that I have no knowledge of.”

She was the second Clearwater teacher to resign from signing off on GradPoint in the spring of 2015.

Shortly after, the school's Assistant Principal Keith Henderson sent an email to all GradPoint teachers saying he would "submit a list of names and grades for them to review and report inaccuracies".

“We were never able to verify those grades because they never sent to us what was submitted through GradPoint,” said Fichtner,

The district was unable to prove the review ever happened, when we asked for any follow-up emails or documentation.

But something interesting did pop up in one of our records requests.

A February 2015 email from Pete LaVenia to a colleague said "Clearwater has been cheating for years".

Michelle Topping oversees Gradpoint and is LaVenia's supervisor.

“He monitors GradPoint and assures all schools are in compliance,” said Topping.

The district says it can't comment about the open investigation, but confirmed LaVenia has never been disciplined in his more than 30 years with Pinellas County Schools.

In other emails, LaVenia said he notified the district about the cheating.

"We'll see if they sweep it,” said one email.

He also said Clearwater Principal Keith Mastorides "told me basically to mind my own business"... after determining "they're fabricating all the grades".

LaVenia wrote,  "Most didn't even take the test and they gave them 80%. "

Multiple teachers made similar allegations to the I-Team, confirmed by dozens of student records.

We reported about that months ago, but the district says they found nothing wrong.

“I think the open investigation will provide a complete timeline of everything that occurred,” said Pinellas County Schools Spokesperson Melanie Parra.

Fichtner now teaches at a different school, but she says her old Assistant Principal Taylor Henderson recently called, asking her to sign off on GradPoint grades.

“He had asked if I could make time to come in and sign off on those, since I was the teacher of record for that year,” said Fichtner.

Those where the same grades Fichtner refused to verify 18 months earlier.

We reached out to Mastorides and Henderson through the Pinellas County Schools Public Information Office, but did not receive any comments from them.

The district says it cannot discuss open investigations.

The complete audit of all Clearwater High School GradPoint grades is being conducted by a certified fraud examiner who works for Pinellas County Schools.

If you have concerns or information about the GradPoint program at Pinellas County Schools, please contact us at adam@abcactionnews.com

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