Voula Coyle pulled out of East Rockaway classes after probe clears her of testing allegations

Voula Coyle, a former 4th-grade teacher at Rhame Elementary School in East Rockaway, photographed in front of the school in East Rockaway July 15, 2014, has been removed from her class and assigned routine desk work.

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East Rockaway school officials have pulled a top-rated teacher out of her fourth-grade class for the 2014-15 academic year and assigned her to write lesson guides after an investigation cleared her of district allegations that she helped students answer questions on state tests.

Local officials last fall accused the teacher, Voula Coyle, of boosting students' scores by coaching them on English and math tests given in spring 2012. A state-appointed arbitrator last month dismissed the charges as "not credible" and cited gaps in the district's investigation.

Coyle, 47, and supporters now contend the district is punishing her anyway, in part because her students consistently score well above district averages, highlighting differences between teachers in their performance ratings under the state's new job-evaluation system. They also point to the case as exposing flaws in the district's disciplinary and hiring practices. For two consecutive years, Coyle was rated "highly effective," the top designation under the evaluation system.

The teacher, during a two-hour interview last week, described her assignment to nonteaching duties as emotionally devastating.

"It's a shock to my very being," Coyle said. "I feel that's who I am, a teacher. I feel like I'm almost experiencing a death of my career."

The case, which has shaken the tight-knit, 1,200-student East Rockaway district, is an example of consequences from the emphasis on standardized testing and the evaluation system, which is linked to pupils' test results. Under state law, 20 percent of evaluations for classroom teachers in grades four through eight are based on annual improvement in students' state test scores. Teachers were first rated in 2012.

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Elementary-age children were called in to testify before state arbitrator Ruth Moscovitch during the four months she investigated the district's accusations. At a June 10 school board meeting, adults spoke in support of and against both the teacher and the district's actions.

Students confused

Moscovitch, in clearing Coyle, concluded that students had confused assistance that Coyle gave during practice tests with actual test sessions, when the teacher did not help with answers. The arbitrator also noted that the teacher's annual evaluations by East Rockaway administrators had been "uniformly positive."

Coyle -- who has taught for 17 years, all in East Rockaway, and earns $115,000 annually -- was removed from her class at Rhame Avenue Elementary School on April 29, while the arbitration hearings were underway. She was replaced by a teacher who for two consecutive years was rated "developing," which is deemed less than effective, according to district records obtained by Newsday.

A district letter told the parents of students in Coyle's class that the new teacher was "extremely competent."

AnnMarie Bruzzo, co-president of the Rhame Avenue PTA, declined to comment on the case.

Parents told Newsday that Coyle was strict but inspiring, and some questioned her removal from the classroom.

"I think she's a very good teacher," said Ben Temple, 44, an electrician. His two children -- one going into sixth grade, the other into eighth grade -- were in Coyle's classes previously.

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"She's very tough on the kids, but we need more teachers like that -- tough love," Temple said. "I think the district should lighten up and give her some room."

Susan DuBeau, 63, a recently retired teacher who spoke on Coyle's behalf at last month's board meeting, said, "They looked for a scapegoat."

Newsday obtained details from state and district documents provided by Vincent White, the attorney representing Coyle in her effort to regain her classroom job. The teacher union represented her as she successfully fought district charges of misconduct and insubordination.

East Rockaway school superintendent Lisa Ruiz declined last week to discuss the reasons for Coyle's reassignment, citing confidentiality rules. Ruiz confirmed, however, that the district's investigation is continuing, and she also addressed the issue of Coyle's replacement.

"I don't want to comment on her specific rating, but I know her to be very competent," the superintendent said.

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The arbitrator, in her ruling, noted that fourth-graders took more than 60 practice tests from January 2012 through April 2012, virtually a daily routine. The arbitrator also noted that the elementary school's principal had endorsed the practice sessions.

Moscovitch declined to comment on the case.

The arbitrator's 36-page decision stated that East Rockaway launched its investigation in April 2013, after one of Coyle's fellow teachers overheard two fifth-graders talking about state tests held in spring 2012. The students, whose conversation was recorded by that teacher on his cellphone, recounted how Coyle had helped them answer test questions.

Acted improperly?

District administrators, after interviewing more students, concluded that Coyle had acted improperly and called for a "3020a hearing" -- a legal procedure named after a section of state education law that provides for disciplinary action of tenured teachers, including firing.

Moscovitch conducted six hearings from February to May. The arbitrator's report ultimately cited several reasons for dismissing East Rockaway's charges, including the fact that students generally said desks were bunched together on the days when Coyle helped them with tests.

Desks were arranged that way during practice tests, but not actual tests, leading the arbitrator to conclude that students had confused the former with the latter. Confusion was understandable, the arbitrator said, given the fact that the district's investigation took place more than a year after the alleged misconduct occurred.

Moscovitch, in her June 4 decision, wrote that "it is not credible that the alleged misconduct occurred during the real testing."

On June 25, Ruiz informed Coyle by letter that she would continue in a nonteaching assignment during the 2014-15 school year, helping to write lesson guides in the district's curriculum office.

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