Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Hernando school officials investigate grade change for School Board member's son

SPRING HILL — Kenny Sweeney struggled through his sophomore year of English. In his first semester, he earned an F; in his second, a D.

Most Springstead High School students in that situation would be required to take the course again, either online or in the classroom.

But Kenny, the son of Hernando School Board member John Sweeney, got a special deal: He was allowed to take a series of four tests to replace a year's worth of coursework.

He took the tests at home on two days in October. He earned C's, though the grades were entered into school records as B's, according to documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Details of the case, including the involvement of John Sweeney, have recently come under scrutiny by district officials. The district has opened an investigation, though Sweeney is not the primary focus because he is an elected official and not a district employee.

The questions began earlier this school year.

After a conversation with Kenny's parents, school district officials decided that he could try to improve his grades by taking a test through an online credit-recovery program known as CompassLearning Odyssey.

The option is not generally available to Springstead students, though it has been used previously by struggling students in Hernando. In this case, Kenny's scores would be used to replace his previous grades, according to district records.

Springstead principal Susan Duval, who declined to comment for this story because of the ongoing investigation, said the test would need to be taken at the school to ensure it was administered appropriately, records show.

In early October, Duval sent a message to Kenny's parents, saying he would be given the test the following week.

A few days later, however, Duval learned that Kenny, now a senior, already had taken the test after someone had given him or his parents secure information about how to access the CompassLearning website. That information was also shared with Tim Urban, the principal at Endeavor Academy, the district's alternative school, although it is unclear why or how Urban became involved.

Urban, citing the open investigation, was instructed not to comment.

Kenny took the test at home on Oct. 11 and 12.

He scored a 78.5 percent for the first semester's work and a 76.5 percent for the second, according to district documents. Both grades are considered C's.

On Dec. 18, Duval received a grade-change form for Kenny's English class. It was signed by Urban and hand delivered by John Sweeney.

The form indicated that Kenny's grade was to be increased from 27 percent to 80 percent for the first semester and from 67 percent to 81 percent for the second — both B's — according to district documents.

On Jan. 28, Springstead officials got another grade-change form signed by Urban. This one changed the class from English 2 to English 2 Honors, giving the course greater weight and improving Kenny's high school grade-point average.

Once again, the form was hand-delivered to Duval by John Sweeney.

But another problem arose.

The tests Kenny took were not for an honors-level class.

Duval asked for a "rigor analysis" of the exam Kenny had taken to determine whether it met the requirements of an honors course. It did not.

During the analysis, Duval also learned that Kenny's scores were actually C's rather than B's.

Concluding that the grades and course name were inaccurate, Duval authorized school staffers to change the grades back to C's.

And they were recorded for a regular English course — not an honors course.

John Sweeney, who is seeking a third term this year on the School Board, did not return multiple messages left by the Times.

Hernando superintendent Lori Romano said she could not comment on an open investigation involving school personnel.

In an emailed statement issued through the district's spokesman, Romano wrote:

"It would be highly unethical and illegal for anyone but a student's teacher of record to remove a grade or change a student's grade on a student's official record and/or transcript."

Others with knowledge of the situation also declined to comment on the record.

Bryan Blavatt, who retired this summer as the superintendent of Hernando schools, defended John Sweeney.

At a recent meeting involving district officials, John Sweeney and his wife, Vivian, Blavatt served as a parent advocate.

"There are no improprieties relating to this student's grades," Blavatt told the Times.

Then he expressed concern that district employees would share this type of student information.

"I am very perplexed and upset … when the media is involved in a situation between a student and a parent," Blavatt said. "I'm concerned, to be honest. … I think that basically that's out of bounds."

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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