Kansas Student Newspaper's Fact Check Results In New Principal's Resignation

Apr 5, 2017
Originally published on April 5, 2017 5:12 pm

In Kansas, a student newspaper is being praised for its hard work in reporting that Pittsburg High School's newly hired principal had seemingly overstated her credentials. The principal, Amy Robertson, has now resigned, after the paper found she claimed advanced degrees from Corllins University, an entity whose legitimacy has been questioned.

"In light of the issues that arose, Dr. Robertson felt it was in the best interest of the district to resign her position," the school board said Tuesday, adding that it will now begin looking for a new principal.

The turnabout came just weeks after Robertson was hired. Until Pittsburg High's newspaper, The Booster Redux, published its findings last Friday, the main impediments to Robertson starting full time on July 1 had been her impending move from Dubai and the need to acquire a Kansas school administrator's license.

"She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials," said editor Trina Paul, a senior at Pittsburg High, according to The Kansas City Star. "We stumbled on some things that most might not consider legitimate credentials."

Praise for the newspaper's staff has been rolling in from beyond its hometown in southeast Kansas, as news of the students' careful and diligent work spread.

"Loving all the support of the kids by professionals," their adviser, Emily Smith, said in a tweet. She noted that after Topeka Capitol-Journal reporter Justin Wingerter tweeted about the paper, he was retweeted by Todd Wallack, a member of The Boston Globe's Spotlight team.

The high school newspaper was preparing a feature article about the new principal when reporters found the irregularities. They brought their concerns to the school district and were encouraged to contact Robertson directly — so that's what they did, in a conference call that included Smith and the head of the school board.

"During the call, Robertson presented incomplete answers, conflicting dates and inconsistencies in her responses," the newspaper reports.

"The extensive amount of research that we had done really didn't line up with what she said was true on her end," Gina Mathew, a junior at Pittsburg High, tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. Mathew was one of the six reporters who led the paper's investigation.

As they did more research, Mathew tells Kelly on Wednesday's All Things Considered, she and other reporters realized that "those inconsistencies were what needed to be presented within our own newspaper, and to highlight to the community what we had found."

Mathew says that while some in the community tried to dismiss the students' concerns, "We knew that there was a story to be heard here, and that's exactly what our paper sought out to do."

By conducting interviews and collecting details from online databases, the newspaper's staff tracked down a complicated story with many moving parts, from an online university with seemingly no fixed U.S. address to Robertson's travels between Spain, New York and what she described as a Corllins campus in Stockton, Calif.

More fact-finding revealed doubts over Corllins' accreditation and whether the school had a business license in Stockton's San Joaquin County.

As the staff of the Booster Redux worked through those details, doubts about Robertson's qualifications were also raised in the local newspaper, The Morning Sun, in the form of an anonymous letter to the editor signed by "Pittsburg Citizen X."

The student newspaper published the results of its investigation last Friday; one day earlier, the Pittsburg Community Schools' Board of Education had released a statement titled "Dr. Robertson Brings Decades of Experience to PHS," which seemed to be a response to questions about its new hire.

"Robertson comes to Pittsburg with decades of experience in education, which include international exposure as a teacher and administrator," the board said.

The statement also noted that high school staff and students had agreed Robertson was the top candidate for the job — a sentiment that, as The Booster Redux reported on Friday, was echoed by history and social studies teacher Marjorie Griffin, who was on the board's search committee.

"I thought she interviewed very well," Griffin told the paper. "I thought she had all the answers."

But, Griffin told the Booster Redux, she became more uneasy as the issue of accreditation and other questions arose.

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Last month, a high school in Pittsburg, Kan., announced they'd hired a new principal. Amy Robertson would start the next school year. Then the school newspaper, The Booster Redux, got an interview with the new principal. But there were a few inconsistencies, like that Corllins University, where Robertson claimed to have earned a master's and a Ph.D., isn't actually accredited. The high school reporters dug further and found a few articles that classified Corllins University as a diploma mill, a place where people can buy degrees.

On Friday, the school paper published their weeks-long investigation of the credentials of their new principal. And yesterday, the principal resigned. With us now is one of the six Pittsburg high school reporters who led this investigation. Her name is Gina Mathew, and she is a junior. Welcome to the show.

GINA MATHEW: Hello. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So I just want to start from the beginning here. When did you learn about this new principal?

GINA: We had been announced that there was going to be a new principal earlier in March. Our paper typically does an introduction story to welcome any new administrator to our building. From there, we had begun to investigate her background because we really didn't know much about her. We had discovered that there were discrepancies between what she claimed she had in terms of educational background and what we could find.

MCEVERS: At what point did you start to understand that maybe her credentials weren't, you know, what she said they were?

GINA: The extensive amount of research that we had done really didn't line up with what she said was true on her end, the biggest being Corllins University and the lack of accreditation. So it came into question whether it was a diploma mill in general and whether that education was simply bought.

We had investigated as well background into her attendance at the University of Tulsa, where she claimed to have gotten her Bachelor's of Fine Arts degree, which we could not verify was offered at that time. And those inconsistencies were what needed to be presented within our own newspaper and to highlight to the community what we had found.

MCEVERS: Was anyone trying to discourage you from doing this work?

GINA: Along the way, there were some individuals who felt that we may be digging a little too much or that there was no information to be seen here. And so it wasn't necessarily discouragement as it was a dismissal of our concerns.

MCEVERS: What did you make of her resignation?

GINA: Whether it was the outcome that we had preferred or not, we understood that it was an action that had to be taken by the board. And that action was basically what spurred multiple news outlets from reaching out and understanding that we had affected change within our own high school through the power of journalism. And that was very powerful to me and my staff writers to know that we were able to do something as large as that.

MCEVERS: Any advice you would give to other journalists?

GINA: When someone tells you there's nothing to be seen, it's OK to keep finding new information for yourself to verify, to fact check. And for student journalists especially, I think it's an important message to know that it's OK to question authorities in terms of finding out the truth.

MCEVERS: That is Gina Mathew, a student journalist for The Booster Redux. That's the school newspaper at Pittsburg High School in Kansas. Thank you so much.

GINA: Thank you.

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