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Principal With Fake PhD Removed

D.C. Elementary School Educator Joins Eastern High Team

By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page B01

A D.C. elementary school principal who claimed a doctorate from a phony school has been removed from her position, according to District education officials.

Since 2002, Wilma Durham had headed Walker-Jones Elementary School, one of 15 "transformation schools" that were targeted for additional resources because of persistently low student performance. Parents and teachers had accused her of having an authoritarian and eccentric leadership style, saying she prohibited students and teachers from talking in the school cafeteria and made inappropriate remarks over the public address system.

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Durham, 57, remains an employee of the school system and has been detailed to Eastern Senior High School as part of a team of managers trying to reform the school, according to Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice. Rice would not discuss the reasons for her transfer. Eastern's principal was fired Sept. 1, the first day of class, for failing to complete the school's schedule of classes and room assignments.

In April, The Washington Post reported that Durham, in personnel records on file with the D.C. school system, had claimed a 1998 doctorate in education administration from Columbia State University.

Columbia State, a company based in San Clemente, Calif., was "nothing more than a diploma mill that offered academic degrees from a non-existent school," the U.S. Department of Justice said in April 2003. The company's founder, Ronald Pellar, pleaded guilty to nine counts of mail fraud in January and was sentenced in April to eight months in prison. Prosecutors estimated that he made at least $10 million from 1996 to 1998, when FBI agents raided and shut down the company.

"Columbia State University had no faculty, qualified or otherwise; no curriculum; no classes; no courses; no tests; no one to grade tests; no educational facilities; no library; and no academic accreditation," a business associate, Laurie Gerald, told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing in May. Gerald, who also has pleaded guilty to mail fraud, said each student paid $1,500 to $3,600 for a degree that Pellar promised could be earned in 27 days.

Last year, the District school system's personnel office reduced Durham's pay from $115,226 to $113,751 after learning that she did not hold a doctorate, but wrote to Durham that "this error is not of your doing." Her salary has not changed because of the transfer, officials said.

Durham, who also has used the names Wilma Diggs and Wilma Elbouhnini, did not respond to telephone messages left at Eastern and at her home in Mitchellville. Her attorney, Vanessa Carpenter Lourie, said her efforts to reach Durham also were unsuccessful. Lourie has said Durham was an unwitting victim of the company's fraudulent scheme.

From 1998 to 2001, Durham was a co-principal at Ballou Senior High School. She previously was an educator in the Roman Catholic archdioceses of Washington and Los Angeles.

Walker-Jones, at 100 L St. NW, near the Sursum Corda housing development, has been classified as "in need of improvement" because of low test scores. Test results released last month showed that only 27 percent of the school's students were proficient in reading and 37 percent were proficient in math.

Ray Bledsoe, a former principal at other D.C. elementary schools, has been asked to be interim principal at Walker-Jones.

An advocate for families in the area applauded the decision to transfer Durham. "I felt she was an arrogant and unfeeling person," said Alverta H. Munlyn, a founder of the Perry School Community Services Center, which houses 10 groups that provide social services and health care to poor residents in the neighborhood.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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