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School district rebuilds after fraudulent testing

By Juan Carlos Llorca

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 2:05 p.m. MDT

In June, Garcia admitted defrauding the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education in his efforts to secure $56,500 in performance bonuses and federal funding for the district. His lawyers did not return repeated requests for comment.

At Garcia's plea hearing, prosecutor Debra Kanof said the former superintendent instructed employees "to do anything they could" to make it appear that students were making adequate yearly progress as defined by the No Child Left Behind act.

Court documents indicate at least six other people helped Garcia organize the scheme. The FBI has said it is still investigating.

Johnnie Vega, an assistant principal at Bowie High, admitted his participation and provided information to the FBI.

"At the time, I wish I would have known how serious this was going to be," Vega said. "I regret not having said no."

Bowie, one of El Paso's oldest high schools, was on the brink of being shut down after years of low performance.

"When grades improved, they gave us these really nice polo shirts. Mine is brand new in my closet, I didn't want to wear it," he added. "All my career as an educator I felt like I made a difference, except for that year."

Shapleigh was first alerted by parents who came to his office to complain about their children being dropped from El Paso schools. When he looked closer at Bowie, he found that student enrollment from ninth to 10th grade dropped by 55 percent in 2007 — the year after Garcia was hired.

In 2010, the Texas Education Agency had cleared Garcia of allegations brought by Shapleigh. After the FBI announced the details of Garcia's scheme, state officials placed the district on probation, named a monitor to oversee it and said the schools had shown "utter disregard" for student needs.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the agency closed its initial investigation after accounting for most of the students who were pushed out of high school.

Putting TEA in charge of a solution to the El Paso problems was "like putting the fox in charge of the chickens," said Shapleigh, who is now collecting signatures to demand the resignation of the trustees, overhaul the district's transparency policies and obtain restitution for students.

Meanwhile, the district is trying to find students who were thrown out to offer academic, as well as counseling, tutoring and social services.

For those who were booted out of class, the wounds run deep.

"They took away my high school, my time," said Cesar Diaz, who was told to drop out after the school claimed it had proof he was living in Mexico. "I wanted to study in the U.S. because I'm a U.S. citizen. My future is in the United States."

Diaz was born in Aurora, Ill., but moved to Ciudad Juarez when he was a child. His grandmother, who lives in El Paso, became his tutor, and he moved in with her so he could have a U.S. address.

As for the Avalos brothers, they want to see Garcia in prison and to move on with their lives. Roger Avalos, now 21, is seeking his GED while working at a cowboy boot factory.

"Justice would be getting my high school diploma, a picture with the cap and gown," he said.

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