Email reveals principal coached on grade changes

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DENVER -- A grade changing scandal at a Denver high school continues to grow more serious.

Records obtained by FOX31 Denver’s investigative team shed new light on why the Denver Public Schools might suddenly be calling for an outside expert to review what happened.

Last week we first introduced you to a former teacher who accused Collegiate Prep Academy administrators of changing nine physics grades from Fs to Ds over the holiday break – without students’ doing any extra work to improve those grades.

Wednesday, DPS Chief of Education, Susana Cordova, confirmed to FOX31 Denver that Collegiate Prep principal Martha Gustafson changed some failing student semester grades to passing ones.

She told Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne, “We think it’s important to be as transparent as possible so reaching out to the state in this case is really to make sure we integrity about our process. It is clear at this time that Principal Gustafson changed the grades.”

It is yet to be determined if that decision to change grades was inappropriate.

Cordova has called for an outside expert to find out. She said the reasoning behind it is that, “This has raised questions for us around the fact we don’t actually have a good way of understanding - is this a wide-spread practice? If it is, on what basis is this happening and should we frankly have different guidance in our procedures.”

About three weeks ago, FOX31 Denver requested DPS produce emails originating from Collegiate Prep principal Martha Gustafson’s account.

Certain records were withheld, which our investigative team knew existed and were directly relevant to grade change decisions. After filing an appeal under the Colorado Open Records Act, DPS produced 87 additional communications (on top of the original 100 or so). In that second batch, a pair of exchanges stood out.

CHRIS HALSNETitled “Grade Changes,” the January 27th emails are between Gustafson and a DPS-paid outside educational consultant named Michael Musick.

In them, Musick suggests what Gustafson should say “to address the concerns about changing grades for students.”

One prompt coached the principal to respond to concerns by answering: “I take the issue of grades very seriously and only in the most extreme situations will I consider this practice.”

Musick also sent Gustafson a fill-in-the-blank explanation sheet, which referenced four real scenarios where Gustafson may be accused of “assigned grades.”

Musick, who works for a company called Blueprint, did not reply to an email we sent for him to further explain the exchange.

Cordova admitted Musick was Gustafson’s “supervisor,” and that she was aware of the emails.

Cordova said the outside investigation will make a determination about what happened and DPS will make those results public.

“Frankly it’s an area that when we looked, it’s not as clear as it needed to be in our explanation of why the grades were changed -- part of the rationale for bringing in an outside third party is to really make sure that we are clear on what that process looks like.”