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Jul 28, 2015 12:55 AM

Principal's suicide, forged tests rock promising NY school

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) Jeanene Worrell-Breeden had what she called a dream job running a public school linked with Columbia University's Teachers College when she killed herself by jumping in front of a subway car this spring.

Three months later, the city Department of Education says there was more to her sad story: The principal had fudged answers on third-graders' state English exams, and authorities learned of the cheating allegations the same day she made her fatal leap. All the school's third-grade English scores have been thrown out in the first year its students took the important test.

The scandal has stirred sorrow and uncertainty after a promising start for Teachers College Community School and clouded the career of a Wall Street worker-turned-educator who'd earned praise for her approach.

"People are devastated," Sanayi Canton, a second-grade parent and president of a local education panel, said Monday. "It has always been a very open and honest and transparent situation that we've been a part of."

The allegations, which the city Education Department said it substantiated, come amid debate over testing and the national standards known as the Common Core; teachers' unions and some parents say education is too driven by high-pressure tests, while officials say tests are tools to improve schools. Educators have been accused of doctoring scores before; 11 were convicted of criminal charges in a notorious Atlanta case this April.

Meanwhile, Teachers College Community School seemed poised to prosper in its first round of Common Core tests, which factor in teacher and principal evaluations.

Intended to pair a public school with the research and other capacities of a noted teacher-education program, Teachers College Community School boasts $30 million in backing from Columbia, graduate students helping out in classrooms and such extra features as a robotics program. Opened in 2011, the Harlem school is on track to enroll over 200 students in prekindergarten to fourth grade. Plans ultimately call for about 300 students going up to eighth grade.

Worrell-Breeden, 49, came to the $138,000-a-year job from six years as principal at a Bronx elementary school and over two decades in the city school system.

"This is a chance to build the school of my dreams," the former finance worker said in a Teachers College profile at the time.

The school quickly developed a reputation that drew 464 applications for 50 kindergarten spots this year. A 2013 Education Department review praised its supportive environment and "deep sense of trust and respect," while suggesting tougher academic challenges for top students. Parents appreciated the tone of openness that Worrell-Breeden set, including through regular parent breakfasts.

"We don't have one bad thing to say" about the school, said kindergarten parent Kathie Holsenbeck. "And that's why it's so unfortunate that the actions of one person are going to taint it because it really shouldn't."

Parents were stunned when they heard in April that Worrell-Breeden had died, unsettled again when officials said the English test scores were being invalidated. But it would be months before they learned the whole truth, parents said.

Worrell-Breeden was seen leaping onto a Harlem subway track on April 17, police said. Her death eight days later was ruled a suicide.

The day she jumped, someone told Education Department investigators that Worrell-Breeden had confided she forged answers on multiple third-graders' April 14 exams because the children hadn't finished them, according to a department memo released Monday.

It's unclear whether she knew about the investigation, first reported by the New York Post. The Education Department said Worrell-Breeden died without being questioned, but the agency wouldn't say whether she had been contacted about the allegations.

A working telephone number for her family couldn't immediately be found.

The school referred questions to the Education Department, where spokeswoman Devora Kaye emphasized the importance of test integrity and said the agency was working to help the school. Pupils won't be held back because of the invalid results, officials said.

Teachers College spokesman Jim Gardner said it remains committed to the school.

So do parents such as Holsenbeck and Canton, even if they feel bewildered.

"Why would she do that? . . . It doesn't fit her personality," Canton said. "It's a lot of unanswered questions."


Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.


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