Isaac Haqq's school has become mired in claims of cheating
University Preparatory Charter High School in East Oakland bills itself as a high-end academy where students attract recruiters from the nation's top universities.
Photos of young scholars in caps and gowns grace its Web site above the names of colleges that accepted them -- Oberlin, Dartmouth, Pomona, Whitman.
But that bright image belies a grim truth: Someone at this inner-city public school, also known as Uprep, is cheating.
The state Department of Education has just concluded for the second year in a row that one or more adults interfered with state-required testing at the school. This spring, state investigators seized copies of 2005 tests being illegally used to prepare students for the 2007 exams.
State rules require that test booklets be turned in at the conclusion of testing each year because many exam questions remain the same. At Uprep, someone photocopied the 2005 test books and kept them.
"That's a fairly significant security breach," said Deb Sigman, testing director for the state Department of Education. "California statute specifically prohibits any preparation that is specific to this test."
Last year, investigators found that someone changed hundreds of test answers from wrong to right before they were sent to the state.
In a rare move clamping down on a charter school's autonomy, the state is ordering the Oakland school district to take over Uprep's testing, Sigman said.
Now, eight former teachers assert in a 27-page report to state and local education officials that a culture of cheating exists at the school. And they say it's done at the top level.
The teachers claim:
-- Students' grades are frequently falsified.
-- Course titles don't always match the easier content tested.
-- Low-scoring students are barred from taking state-required exams in an attempt to keep them from lowering the school's scores.
-- Discipline is arbitrary and intimidating.
Just as stunning is the teachers' assertion of who is responsible for the alleged misconduct: the director, Isaac Haqq, Uprep's founder and most fervent cheerleader.
More than 470 students attend the school that Haqq, a former Pasadena city councilman, founded in 2001 inside the tattered Eastmont Mall on Bancroft Avenue in East Oakland. Haqq calls his school -- where classes are taught on an 11-month-long annual schedule -- "the front line of the civil rights movement" and sees it as an academic rescue mission for some of the Bay Area's most troubled teens.
"We're a great school," Haqq told The Chronicle.
In June, 100 Uprep seniors walked the graduation stage. The number of graduates was far lower than the 365 seniors the school claimed last fall. Even so, 40 of those graduates -- most from the low-income neighborhoods near the school -- are headed to college in the fall.
"It's kick-ass what I'm doing!" Haqq said.
But doubts are surfacing, and the Oakland Unified School District is investigating the teachers' allegations.
"We take this very seriously as the charter's authorizer," said Kirsten Vital, chief of community accountability for the Oakland schools, which has the power to close the autonomous public school but not to fire anyone.
Meanwhile, Uprep teachers aren't the only ones complaining. A counselor from Oakland's Skyline High told The Chronicle that some of Skyline's worst students suddenly became high-scoring scholars after they transferred to Uprep.
"It's appalling," said counselor Helen Wolfe-Visnick. "I don't know what they're doing over there."
She told of one Skyline senior who for years earned D's and F's. Last fall, he transferred to Uprep, where he not only earned A's and B's, but took 16 classes in a single semester -- including three English and three science classes.
He returned to Skyline this spring, and the D's and F's also returned, except for B's in two art classes. And he graduated, said Wolfe-Visnick, because she was obligated to count the suspicious Uprep grades.
"It's terrible!" she said. "It's so unethical. It's almost like we're just as guilty as Uprep is for accepting this."
Her experience bolsters one of the Uprep teachers' most serious allegations: that someone is falsifying grades.
In the report, former English teacher Kateri Dodds told of a sophomore who had "several of his failing grades changed to C's the first semester. He showed me his report card and told me the grades he should have gotten, according to his most recent progress reports: F's."
Dodds quit in May.
Kathleen Tarr, who also left in May when Haqq turned her government and economics course into an SAT prep class, wrote: "Isaac told me several times that he inflates students' grades if it means getting them into a good college." (Tarr has also filed a claim with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to force Haqq to release her final paycheck of $500.)
"That's simply not true," Haqq said of pumping up grades. "The exact opposite happens here. I'll call up a school -- Pomona -- and say don't take this kid. He's not ready."
Yet reports of altered grades go back years at Uprep.
"I was aware that Isaac was willing to bend the rules if he thought it would help the students -- and I was aware that I didn't object to that or care," said Sang Pahk, who taught math at the school in 2002 and 2003 before leaving to further his education.
"He had an attitude, and I kind of shared it, of not so much caring about what the rules were, but that if there was something you could do to make the school more successful, you should," Pahk said.
"It wouldn't surprise me to hear that he was cheating. I do believe his heart was in the right place."
Asked if he had direct knowledge of anyone changing grades at Uprep, Pahk responded: "I'm trying really hard not to answer that."
Breaking the rules is nothing new to Uprep principal