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Superintendent in Mississippi Defends District Against Cheating Allegations

As state education officials dig deeper into test-cheating allegations at an elementary school in Clarksdale, Miss., the superintendent there is speaking out in defense of the school and district.

After three months of mostly silence on the matter, Dennis Dupree, Sr., the superintendent in Clarksdale, a district of 3,100 students in the Mississippi Delta, put out a lengthy statement. In it, Dupree defends the academic performance of students and the professional conduct of educators at Heidelberg Elementary School, where allegations of possible cheating first surfaced in articles in the Clarion-Ledger newspaper. 

"The Clarksdale Municipal School District has fostered steady growth district-wide and at Heidelberg specifically, through a combination of hard work, extended learning opportunities, structured ongoing professional development, the use of a variety of innovative instructional methods and reform practices, and targeted support for personnel," Dupree wrote.

The Mississippi Department of Education in May hired Caveon Test Security to investigate allegations that staff members at Heidelberg may have given answers to students taking state tests in 2013. Earlier this month, state education officials said that Caveon's preliminary investigation had determined that "reasonable cause" existed  that district employees "engaged in or were aware of potential violations" of state testing rules. A "second phase" of the investigation is underway, state education officials said.

It's a hard blow to Clarksdale, an impoverished community deeply divided by race.

Dupree, who has been superintendent since 2007, has steered the district through a series of reform strategies that have led to steady academic gains across most of the city's schools. Heidelberg, in particular, had made a dramatic turnaround in achievement over several years and had become the district's top-performing school.

Those improvements had put the district in the national spotlight in recent months before any cheating allegations surfaced. Last fall, it was awarded a $10 million Race to the Top grant  from the U.S. Department of Education, one of just five school districts to get one.  And Dupree was one of 16 local education leaders profiled in Education Week's 2014 Leaders to Learn From special report. 

In his statement, Dupree pledges that the district is fully cooperating with the cheating investigation, but the superintendent also uses strong words to counter what he says are unfair portrayals of the district's progress in the newspaper articles.

"The district's expectation is that all [Clarksdale] schools will continuously improve," he wrote. "We expect the improvement to be the result of students who have applied themselves, professionals who have worked equally hard, parents who are actively engaged, and a supportive community that recognizes that good schools are directly tied to the social and economic growth of a town."


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