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Accounts of testing advice in Hillsborough schools led to allegations of wrongdoing

The investigation was “devastating,” says a former district leader who maintains her innocence and now works in the private sector.
 
Tampa Heights Elementary School, where three employees accused a Hillsborough County school district leader of state testing improprieties in 2021.
Tampa Heights Elementary School, where three employees accused a Hillsborough County school district leader of state testing improprieties in 2021. [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]
Published Jan. 24, 2023|Updated Jan. 24, 2023

Science coach Kayla Hoag thought she might be hearing things.

In a conference room at Tampa’s Lockhart Elementary School, she said she heard a district leader advise a principal to think about which students should be discouraged from taking state competency tests.

The suggestion sounded highly unethical. Florida requires that every child who is willing and able be tested. To do otherwise could give the state a dishonest portrayal of how students, schools and school districts are performing.

Hoag said she witnessed a similar conversation at Tampa Heights Elementary, another of the schools where she worked. She took her concerns to district headquarters, triggering an investigation in 2021 that raised questions about accountability efforts in Hillsborough schools.

The case, kept quiet until now, unfolded at a time of remarkable improvement in school grades for the district. Investigators interviewed nine employees, including teachers, assistant teachers and principals.

But, according to a report they released after a Tampa Bay Times public records request, they were told not to interview Region Superintendent Lindsey “Star” Connor, the focus of their inquiry. It was an unusual accommodation.

Instead, Connor was allowed to submit a written statement showing evidence of her innocence.

Since then, most of the people involved — including Hoag and Connor — have taken transfers or left the district.

The investigative report offers no findings on whether anyone tried to discourage children from testing. And it takes no position on Conner’s contention that she was made a target as she tried to make changes in a group of struggling schools. As it turned out, large percentages of students took the tests in the spring of 2021.

What is clear is that Hillsborough that year went from having 28 D and F schools — one of the state’s worst showings — to 14. Since Superintendent Addison Davis took over in 2020, the district has climbed from 35th place in a state ranking of school grade points to 19th.

Hillsborough County school Superintendent Addison Davis brought several executives onto his leadership team after he arrived in early 2020. Region Superintendent Lindsey “Star” Connor was among them.
Hillsborough County school Superintendent Addison Davis brought several executives onto his leadership team after he arrived in early 2020. Region Superintendent Lindsey “Star” Connor was among them. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Connor told the Times it was “devastating” to be accused of wrongdoing. She and Davis, who previously were colleagues in Duval County, said they labored to tighten practices in Hillsborough.

“This school district lacked accountability and instructional focus for many years,” Davis said. “We have busted our butts to put systems and processes in place to move student performance so they can be successful every single day.”

He called it “unacceptable” to suggest there were improprieties. “I’ll make this very clear,” Davis said. “If anyone under my leadership would do something unethical related to not following statutory requirements or assessment requirements, they would no longer work for this administration. We’re talking about children and their future. So, absolutely not.”

Connor, 40, arrived in a second wave of Davis’ executive appointments. The first wave included her husband, Terry Connor, who is Hillsborough’s deputy superintendent and chief academic officer.

Star Connor had distinguished herself in Duval County by raising academic performance at long-struggling schools. In Hillsborough, she was a supervisor in the Transformation Network, a group of schools with similar challenges.

Terry Connor also worked for Davis in Duval, and in Clay County, where Davis was superintendent before coming to Hillsborough.

With state testing suspended in 2020 because of COVID-19, the spring of 2021 marked the first opportunity for the new team to test their effectiveness.

“There was a sense of urgency,” Star Connor said. “Some schools were going to close if they continued to get a D or an F.”

In its investigation, the school district’s professional standards office got conflicting accounts of the conversations that Hoag described.

Hoag said Connor instructed Gilda Garcia, then the Lockhart principal, to “start thinking about what students you want to encourage not to take the (state tests) because they’ve been an e-learner all year.”

But Garcia said her memory of Connor’s instructions wasn’t anything like that. She told the investigator that if Connor said such a thing, she would have refused. “I would’ve probably said something back that we have to test all kids,” she said.

Connie Chisholm, who was principal of Burney Elementary in Plant City, also did not remember any unethical request. Nor did the assistant principals at Burney and Lockhart.

But the team at Tampa Heights gave other accounts.

Wendy Harrison, the Tampa Heights principal who was soon to retire, said Connor advised her and assistant principal Philip Cottone to be “strategic” and “selective” in preparation for state testing.

“I just felt like she’s wanting to cheat, just be selective, choose students that are not going to score well and don’t test them,” Harrison told the investigator. She added that she refused, determined to “do the right thing.”

Cottone found himself in uncomfortable conversations with two of his teachers. Both told the investigator that Cottone wanted them to discourage specific students from testing.

The investigator cited a conversation Hoag had described. As Hoag recalled, Cottone told her, “It’s difficult when your boss, Star Connor, is encouraging you to do this and at the end of the day, if the school grade doesn’t come up and they don’t do something like this, then it’s me on the line for not listening to what she said to do.”

The investigator asked Cottone if he had said that.

“Yeah,” Cottone answered.

Cottone and Harrison said they were also troubled to hear Connor say teachers should read test questions aloud to all learning-disabled students. Harrison said she told Connor the correct thing to do was to read the question aloud only if the child raised his hand and asked for help.

The report mentions a meeting between Connor, the chief of human resources, and the director of professional standards. In that meeting, it says, Connor denied the allegations and explained her use of the term “strategic,” saying it referred to making arrangements for students returning from quarantine.

There were no further details. Davis said he believes the meeting lasted about an hour and that notes in the full report clearly show the allegations were unfounded. But he also said standard practice is to interview anyone who is under investigation, “regardless of who the employee is.”

The file ends with Connor’s written statement.

In it, she said she never directly or indirectly encouraged schools to omit students from testing. And she denied saying teachers should read test questions to all special education students.

Connor noted that two principals and two assistant principals contradicted Hoag’s assertions. She alleged that Cottone and Harrison mischaracterized her instructions.

She described the two as “disgruntled employees” who were “likely influenced to make a disparaging insinuation because they were having a difficult time adjusting to the new district leadership’s performance expectations.”

She told the Times she had disagreed with Harrison and Cottone on other matters, including future leadership at Tampa Heights. She described an unflattering performance review she had given Harrison.

In her 2021 written statement, Connor said Harrison later apologized and now “sees that I was only trying to help her.”

As proof that she did not discourage students from taking the tests, Connor submitted a chart. It showed the percentage of students tested in the district as a whole and in her 14 Transformation schools. The rates for her schools ranged from 93% to 100%. The districtwide average was 92%.

Connor remained in her job for about a year after the controversy. Recently, she went to work at the McGraw Hill publishing company. She said she welcomed the chance to serve a greater number of students. “It was the best move for myself, children and family,” she said.

Hoag is on a leave of absence, attending graduate school. Cottone works for Florida Virtual School. Burney, Lockhart and Tampa Heights have all changed principals.

Davis said that since he arrived, “many leaders in this organization have stepped up and done remarkable things for children.” But he added that his team’s more forceful approach may have stirred up resentment in some employees.

“Accountability creates discomfort,” he said.