The award-winning principal of the Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology has been reassigned in the wake of an investigation that found he instructed staff to tell the parents of low-performing students about their right to pull their children from state tests.
Brandon Davis, who was hired in 2008, won several accolades for bringing up test scores at Cora Kelly, an Alexandria school that serves mostly black and Hispanic students and where most students come from families living in poverty. Just last week, Davis was named Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Davis was disciplined for his decision to selectively inform parents about how to pull their children from state tests, telling staff to call the families of students whose low test scores could hurt the school’s performance as it relates to state accreditation.
Superintendent Alvin Crawley decided to remove Davis from the school, reassigning him to administrative duties in the public school system’s central office “for the time being,” said schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd. Seazante Williams Oliver, who previously served as an assistant principal at George Mason Elementary, was appointed interim principal at Cora Kelly starting Monday.
“This has been a distraction since the start of school. It is in the best interest of the school in terms of school climate,” Lloyd said. “Cora Kelly and the community need to be able to move forward with the academic work and the work of the school, and move away from this distraction.”
School Board member William E. Campbell said he supports the superintendent’s decision to move Davis but said he is saddened by what has transpired.
“I don’t mind acknowledging that I have mixed emotions about what’s happening,” Campbell said. He pointed to the tremendous success the school has seen under Davis, with students earning the district’s highest pass rate for the state’s math exams in a recent year. “Those results are real. They’ve been sustained over the years and they ought not be diminished by the mistake that he made.”
Campbell said he admires how Davis approached leading the STEM-focused school, bringing a “no excuses” attitude to educating a population of underserved students, many of whom struggle with English.
“It doesn’t matter if the kid is poor. It doesn't matter their color. It doesn’t matter if they’re disabled,” Campbell said. “Our job is to maximize their academic potential.”
Jesse Holcomb, president of the Cora Kelly Parent Teacher Association, said he was “deeply concerned” when he heard what happened at the school regarding state tests, but he hopes the new principal offers a fresh start.
“The decision to bring in the interim principal offers an opportunity for the school to move forward,” Holcomb said. “Cora Kelly is a really remarkable place. We’ve got amazing teachers. We’ve got amazing students there . . . and I want to underscore that the events of this summer don’t define the school.”
Davis did not respond to a request for comment Monday. After inquiries from the Alexandria Gazette Packet — which reported in July that Davis was being disciplined for telling parents about their ability to opt their children out — he issued a statement apologizing, but did not indicate that the school had only contacted the families of low-performing students.
“I wish to stress that I did not do anything that I perceived was intentionally wrong at the time,” Davis said in July.
Davis came under investigation just months after he was named Distinguished Principal of the Year by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals. He also received a Washington Post Distinguished Education Leadership Award in 2014.
Virginia legislators passed a law earlier this year that allows parents to opt their children out of state exams without hurting the school’s chances of receiving state accreditation. Students who sit out state exams receive zeroes, but under the new law, those scores are dropped when the state evaluates a school for accreditation.
It is the kind of provision some education advocates have warned against, saying it could allow schools to push low-performing students to sit out state exams.
According to an investigation by the Alexandria school district, Davis instructed staff to identify students who might not pass the exams so they could call their parents to inform them of the new law. About three dozen families contacted chose to pull children from at least one test; none had done so the previous year.
After the school district learned what Cora Kelly educators had done, officials called the parents who had opted their children out of exams to ensure they understood the decision, and 11 changed their minds. Cora Kelly students ultimately sat out a total of 26 exams.
The school earned accreditation this year despite falling short of the state benchmark in science because of another new state provision that automatically grants accreditation to schools who have made the mark for three straight prior years.