Model Teacher Caught Cheating
Ohanian Comment: This can only be seen as tragic.
Those who know Babatunde Akinremi describe him as a model teacher who refused to let his students fail.
The Nigerian immigrant often arrived at Riverside's Sierra Middle School early and seldom left when the last bell rang. When other teachers were eating lunch with colleagues, Akinremi stayed in his classroom going over algebra equations with puzzled children. He encouraged students to call him at home when they were stumped by a homework problem.
"He was one of our strongest teachers," Principal Wade Coe said. "He was a model of how to guide students through complex mathematics concepts."
In the end, Akinremi's biggest strength may also have been his greatest weakness.
In May, Akinremi admitted he took matters into his own hands in his desire to see his students succeed. When confronted by administrators, heconfessed to cheating on state standardized tests, setting off a chain of events that could have serious and lasting repercussions for Sierra Middle School.
It could take the campus three years to exit a federal program for failing schools. In the meantime, Sierra Middle would have to let students transfer to better-performing schools. The campus also could lose federal funding, among other sanctions.
Akinremi told administrators he changed exam answers on dozens of tests because he was sure his students knew the material being tested, Coe said. It is not understood why Akinremi wanted to make the changes because state test results aren't considered when determining if students will pass a class or advance to the next grade. It also is unclear why Akinremi, who resigned in June, would be willing to put his career on the line by cheating.
Efforts to reach him at his Colton home were unsuccessful. His younger brother, Olosuji Akinremi, said Babatunde Akinremi is vacationing in Nigeria and will return in three weeks. Olosuji Akinremi declined to comment on specifics but defended his brother by saying he was popular with students.
Despite academic gains in recent years, much remains at stake for Sierra Middle School as a result of the cheating.
Even before the test-doctoring incident became public last week, the campus already was struggling to meet federal academic goals and was at risk of being labeled as needing academic improvement. Akinremi's admission that he changed test responses from wrong to correct has placed the school in bureaucratic limbo. It also has reignited a debate about whether the stakes of such state-mandated tests are too high.
Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for the Massachusetts-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said teachers are under mounting pressure to improve test scores because the scores are often used to decide a school's future. The group advocates ending standardized testing.
"We've seen an explosive pattern of these cases," Schaeffer said by phone. "Some teachers feel they have to boost those test scores by hook or by crook."
Request to state
Riverside Unified School District administrators - who citing employee privacy have refused repeated requests by The Press-Enterpriseto identify Akinremi or make his disciplinary record public - reported his actions to the state Department of Education as "adult testing irregularities." The school board this week voted to ask the state for special consideration so that Sierra Middle School's Academic Performance Index will still be valid despite the cheating. The index rates the academic growth of all California public schools based on student performance on a battery of standardized tests, including the California Standards Tests and the California Achievement Test.
Riverside's request faces some hurdles.
The state Department of Education frowns on so-called waiver requests because they can jeopardize the integrity of California's testing system, said Judy Pinegar, who oversees waiver petitions for the agency. The state Board of Education, which could take up Riverside Unified's petition in September, has rarely approved waivers for testing irregularities and never for blatant cheating, Pinegar said by phone from Sacamento.
"Based on the history of waiver requests that have come before the board, I don't think they (Riverside Unified) have a very good chance," Pinegar said.
It's worth a try, Coe and district officials said.
Without the score, known as API, the campus can't show Adequate Yearly Progress, a federal accountability mandate under the No Child Left Behind Act. If the state withholds the school's API, it could land on a federal list of campuses that must boost academic achievement or risk losing federal funding.
That would be a shame, said Sandra Soares, a mother and member of a group of Sierra parents and teachers who advise the principal on school issues.
"There has been way too much pressure put on everyone because of these tests," said Soares, a public school teacher in Colton. "My heart goes out to the teacher. Somehow he or she felt the pressure to make that decision."
But what Akinremi did is unethical and inexcusable, said Riverside school board President Gayle Cloud. Hundreds of students and dozens of teachers may have to pay the consequences of Akinremi's actions, Cloud said by phone.
"It's such as a terrible example to kids," she said. "I hate to penalize the whole group for the actions of an individual."
Officials from the agency that oversees teacher licensing in the state said Akinremi's cheating could be considered misconduct.
As required by law, Riverside Unified already has notified the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing about Akinremi's resignation, Assistant Superintendent Glenn King said.
Mary Armstrong, the commission's general counsel, said a teacher who admits cheating could be disciplined but would not say if the agency is investigating Akinremi. Punishment could range from revocation of a teaching license to a less severe private admonition, Armstrong said.
Akinremi also worked for the San Bernardino Community College District in a non-teaching capacity from 1998 to 2000.
At Sierra Middle, where he was an adviser to the Christian club, students and teachers liked Akinremi, Coe said.
Some students attending summer classes were shocked to learn that Akinremi had admitted cheating on state tests.
"I thought he was a good teacher," said Lucinda Herrera, a former Sierra student who will be a freshman at Ramona High. "When I didn't get it he always went over the steps and taught me how to do it."
Akinremi was a strict but fair teacher who cracked down on students who didn't do their homework, Lucinda said.
He also was friendly, Lucinda said, always waving when he traveled past students in his wheelchair.
Akinremi is a paraplegic, students said.
"He was nice to everybody," said Sierra eighth-grader Greg Mendoza, who was in one of Akinremi's pre-algebra classes. "We were all wondering why he left."
Maria T. Garcia
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES