Cover Story: Matters of Principal

Grading the controversy surrounding Cincinnati's best public school

Jun 23, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Geoff Raker

While other schools in the Cincinnati Public School District struggle to pull themselves out of a state-declared academic emergency, Walnut Hills High School shines as an example of the potential inherent in public schools.

Walnut Hills is, in many respects, the flagship school of the district. It offers more than 20 advanced placement courses, and nearly 100 percent of its students pass the state proficiency tests. Its alumni include Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of prions; legal powerhouse Stan Chesley, virtual inventor of the class action lawsuit; and other notables.

At the helm of this flagship is Marvin Koenig, who has led the school for more than a decade.

For years Koenig has been the focus of controversy, especially after allegations last year that he tampered with student grades and allowed students to enroll without passing the required entrance exam.

Some say Koenig does what's best for students. This occasionally requires stepping over bureaucratic lines of policy and procedure, they say, and last year's allegations were a low-ball attempt to use students as a means for furthering adult agendas.

But critics say Koenig shows preferential treatment to certain students and teachers. The rules are not applied fairly to African Americans, they say, and students with financially or politically connected parents are allowed to take shortcuts.

New accusations of administrative misconduct at Walnut Hills have some school board members calling for an investigation, while others rally to support the principal.

The most recent allegation to surface is a January letter from Carol Wesley, a Walnut Hills guidance counselor, to Superintendent Alton Frailey. Included with the letter were memos from Wesley to Koenig alleging that a student had an unsatisfactory grade removed from her transcript and that another student was allowed to enroll after failing the entrance exam.

Over the objections of both her teacher and the guidance counselor, one student had her first semester grade of "D" dropped in mid-January.

"This transaction is against Cincinnati Public Schools board policy and the collective bargaining agreement," Wesley wrote.

The student who was allowed to enroll after failing the entrance test withdrew a week later.

"I do not believe this student should have been allowed to enter Walnut Hills High School in the first place, since we have a policy in place that states that all students must pass the Walnut Hills test in order to enroll," Wesley wrote. "Why are we accepting students if they have failed the test?"

Wesley declined to comment about either case.

There are also ongoing discussions between the district's human resources department and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) regarding the dismissal of history teacher Mose Cartier, a long-term substitute who says Koenig dismissed him after he refused a parent's request to change her child's grade (see "Low-Grade Management," issue of June 2-8).

The new allegations come less than a year after a district investigation failed to substantiate reports of grade tampering but found 14 instances of students enrolled at the school after not passing — and sometimes without even taking — the required entrance exam. The district dismissed any need for disciplinary action against Koenig and decided policies should be changed, not the principal.

Harriet Russell, vice president of the board of education and a longtime critic of Koenig, is now calling for another investigation.

"The new and continued allegations of grade changing since January 2004 point to potential fraud which should be thoroughly investigated by the superintendent," says Russell, who taught at Walnut Hills for nearly three decades.

Other board members, however, are rallying behind Koenig.

"He is a dedicated soul," says board member Sally Warner. "If you go back through his career, you might be able to find little things he's done, but his motivation was the well being of the school. Overall, he's done a fantastic job."

Cindy Mahin, an 18-year English teacher at Walnut Hills, says her grades have never been changed, but she has heard parents and students brag about having it done.

"The reason Mr. Koenig has been able to slip away from all this stuff is because he is operating on the fringes of what he is allowed to do," she says. "It is not that he cannot change grades; it's the fairness of the criteria this man applies when he does that sort of thing. I believe that depending on who you are, who your parents are, how much money they do or don't give to the school, then you're going to get preferential treatment."

The ongoing allegations raise several questions. Is Koenig allowing some students to take shortcuts or is he simply an administrative maverick who pushes the limits of board policy and administrative procedure to do what's best for the students? If Koenig does occasionally break the rules, are those instances justified by his ability to keep Walnut Hills a nationally renowned public prep school?

Finally, what kind of message is conveyed when rules are bent or broken to benefit certain students or in service of an institutional image? At Walnut Hills High School, do the ends justify the means?

Those questions might be answered by a special investigator. At a meeting June 14 the school board instructed the superintendent to recommend outside counsel to look into allegations against Koenig.

But Koenig's critics could also find their own conduct being examined. Board member Melanie Bates, who proposed the outside counsel, also wants an investigation into possible violations of federal law protecting the confidentiality of student records.

"Children's names were used," Bates says. "The documents are public records, but the names would then have to be redacted. Since some of us have been hiding behind the cloak of privacy — well, not hiding, but bound by privacy — people who aren't as ethical have been taking advantage of that."

Wesley did not provide CityBeat copies of her memos, which include students' grade printouts and enrollment information.

The newspaper obtained them from a high-level official in the school district, who provided them on condition of anonymity.