College & Workforce Readiness

After the Whistle

By Jerry Jesness — September 01, 2004 11 min read
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Robert Kimball went public after learning student dropout records were altered at his Houston school.

From a distance, nothing particularly stands out about Robert Kimball. He’s an average-height guy in his late 50s in a polo shirt and khakis, talking with a small throng of people in the lobby of a nondescript Houston bank building. Walk up to shake his hand and you’ll notice he’s thicker through the shoulders than most men, with the trim and upright bearing of someone who’s spent time in uniform. But that’s about it.

The only thing you really notice is that, even in a crowd, he stands alone. Slightly apart. Start talking to him about his past, both recent and remote, and that trait keeps surfacing. In a little while, he’ll rejoin a meeting under way in a nearby conference room, but for now, he’s waiting to tell a reporter why he became known as the man who blew the whistle on Houston’s falsified dropout data and how he blew up his career in the process.

If Kimball’s name rings only a faint bell, cast your mind back to February 2003. He was then the assistant principal of Sharpstown Senior High School in Houston, an epicenter of the so-called Texas Miracle: Long-troubled schools that typically had dropout rates of 30 percent and 40 percent were suddenly reporting dramatically lower numbers. At poor, minority-heavy Sharpstown, administrators reported exactly zero dropouts for the 2001-02 school year. But as Kimball revealed to a local TV station, and as a subsequent district investigation confirmed, that number was more than just miraculous—it was fake. Houston Independent School District officials later acknowledged in an investigator’s report that records for 30 departing Sharpstown students had been altered. A state investigation of 5,458 students who left 16 district middle and high schools in 2000-01 later determined that the district had underreported dropouts by 2,999 students.

Although Kimball wasn’t the only one to spot the fakery, it was he who first stepped forward—a fact Kimball is no longer permitted to confirm under the terms of the settlement he ultimately reached with Houston administrators. In part because the district’s apparent success propelled Kimball’s boss, superintendent Rod Paige, into the highest education office in the country, the story made national news. Heads rolled, and repercussions rippled across Texas and beyond. But throughout the furor, Kimball has been mostly silent on the one-word question that might shed light on his decision to air his district’s dirty-data laundry: Why? It turns out that Kimball knows firsthand about being a dropout.

Kimball grew up desperately poor in Nashua, New Hampshire, in the 1940s and ’50s. His father died young, leaving his mother, who had never learned to read or write, to raise Kimball and his 10 siblings by herself. “We went to school dressed in rags, and not always clean, and we were treated accordingly,” he recalls. Although his skin has been tanned by a long spell in the Texas sun, a faint, incongruous New England accent still tugs at the vowels of his careful diction. Once, when he raised his hand to answer a question, he recalls, he was told by his 6th grade teacher, “Put your hand down. You don’t need to ask questions. You’ll never graduate anyway.”

She was right. Kimball dropped out in the middle of 10th grade, trailing a string of D’s and F’s behind him. At 16, he took a factory job in nearby Manchester, then joined the Army. While in the military, he got a GED, then received a BA in social science from what is now California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and served two tours in Vietnam. After retiring in 1989 as a lieutenant colonel with a chestful of combat medals, he started teaching history and English in Houston, got his doctorate in educational leadership, and became an assistant principal.

But the ladder that enabled Kimball to climb from dropout to doctor of education is no longer available, making the consequences of dropping out—and falsifying dropout statistics—that much more dire. Dire enough that Kimball couldn’t stay silent about Sharpstown’s dropout numbers, even though he knew he was risking his career. “The rules have changed for the military,” he says. “This generation of dropouts won’t be offered the opportunities that were available to me.”

Kimball is no stranger to the lonely sentry box of the whistleblower. In 1978, while teaching ROTC military science at the University of Houston, Kimball reported a superior for misusing federal money. He realized that he was putting his military career on the line, but as he says now: “There are things more important than career—like knowing right and wrong.” After an investigation, Kimball’s superior was forced into early retirement, and Kimball was promoted to major.

Neither was the Sharpstown dropout cover-up the first time he had sounded the alarm at a Houston school. During his assignment as an assistant principal at Welch Middle School, he wrote 15 letters to his superiors, alleging budget mismanagement and the failure of administrators to report crimes, support teachers, and remove disruptive students from the classroom. He alerted then- area superintendent Kaye Stripling, then-district superintendent Rod Paige, and, ultimately, a local TV station. Soon afterward, at Kimball’s request, he was transferred from Welch to another school, and finally to Sharpstown High.

After disclosing the data irregularities there this past February, Kimball was again transferred, this time to a bare desk in the district office. “Solitary confinement,” he calls those four months, during which he says he was given no responsibilities whatsoever. Kimball and other Sharpstown administrators were also disciplined for inadequately supervising computer technologist Kenneth Cuadra, who told district investigators he entered the zero-dropout rate under orders from Sharpstown’s then-principal, Carol Wichmann.

After disclosing the data irregularities, Kimball was again transferred, this time to a bare desk in the district office.

Neither outgoing superintendent Kaye Stripling nor any other district official was willing to directly address Kimball’s allegations for this article. But Stripling insisted in an October 2003 commentary for the Houston Business Journal that Cuadra acted alone. A statement attributed to her on the district’s Web site states, “The Sharpstown investigation found specific directive contributed to reporting of low dropouts.” But, it continues, “a climate existed at the school that tolerated the reporting of unrealistic dropout rates.” Wichmann, who has since retired, was docked two weeks’ pay for signing off on dropout figures that turned out to be false, and the rest of Sharpstown’s leadership was replaced. Kimball says the district’s decision to punish him for Cuadra’s actions is ironic because it was Cuadra who brought the zero-dropout issue to him and because he had no direct authority over the computer technologist. As part of that punishment, Kimball was shuttled to a small elementary school, where, he says, his pay grade was bumped down and his duties consisted mainly of putting traffic cones in front of the school, alphabetizing lunch cards, and occasionally moving furniture.

Kimball had the clear sense he was being encouraged to quit. But if district officials were figuring he’d roll over without a fight, they figured wrong. “I believe the administrators forgot that I am a child of poverty and a veteran of two years in a combat zone,” he says. He filed a grievance, alleging that he had been effectively demoted because he had revealed Sharpstown’s dropout deception. After the school board unanimously denied his grievance, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which the district settled in June. Kimball isn’t allowed to discuss even the settlement’s most basic terms. But according to information disclosed by the district in the Houston Chronicle, he agreed to resign in exchange for $90,000 and a neutral letter of recommendation. Neither side has to admit any wrongdoing.

Also as a result of the settlement, Kimball says he has to stay mum about his previous grievances and appeals. He can’t even repeat the information he gave to the local TV station or to Dan Rather in a 60 Minutes II broadcast last January. The school board support office provided complete transcripts of Kimball’s hearings, but officials declined to comment, except to issue a statement from M. Kaye DeWalt, the district’s general counsel, which says in part: “Dr. Kimball and the district have entered into a mutual agreement. The parties are pleased to have resolved the matter in a way that brings closure to the pending litigation and other challenges.”

Not that Kimball considers his fight over by any means. If anything, he says, resigning from the district has freed him to agitate for dropout prevention and educational honesty on a wider scale. “I didn’t want to spend five years in court with a lawsuit when I could be out serving children in the community as an educational activist,” he says. To many, however, he’s much more than that. “He’s an hermano, a brother. We’ve been at war with HISD for decades concerning dropouts,” says Rosemary Gonzales Covalt, a staff representative for the Houston Federation of Teachers, referring to the Hispanic community. “He’s a hero,” echoes Steve Kirsch, the Silicon Valley founder of Infoseek who has offered to back Kimball financially, should he choose self-employment. “There are few people with the spine to stand up to the system and pay the price he’s paid.”

That price—the job he’d always wanted—was steep, though the 59-year-old Kimball says he’s not dwelling on it. Indeed, he now has several job options to choose from. Other school employees who have battled school districts have suggested that he establish a consulting firm for educators who file grievances. He plans to continue his student-retention advocacy with the League of United Latin American Citizens, and he’s writing a book titled The Making of a Whistleblower. He’s also considering running for school board and weighing an offer to teach school administration to graduate students at a major university.

One thing he’s not interested in is retiring. Nor does he want to run another gantlet as principal or assistant principal, though he says he would consider a central-office position where he could make a difference on policies and practices that discriminate against at-risk students. “I have a larger view,” he says. “I feel I have a special responsibility.”

Renato de los Santos, director of the Dallas-Fort Worth office of the LULAC National Educational Service Center, says Kimball has already had a career’s worth of effect on the honesty of K-12 education. “It had been difficult for nonprofits like NESC to secure grants for dropout prevention projects,” de los Santos says. “Often the need for these projects was questioned because the official dropout rate was so low. Kimball’s willingness to talk about the issue has really made a difference.”

A high school dropout himself, Robert Kimball went public after finding out that student departure records were altered at his Houston school.
—Photograph by Paul Howell

There are other signs, too, that Kimball’s whistle has sparked key staff changes and forced HISD’s retention efforts—or lack thereof—to work more transparently. Stripling, the district’s superintendent, announced her resignation in the spring, and two other high-profile, Paige-era officials have already stepped down. To oversee data reporting, the Texas Education Agency has sent a monitor to the district; statistics will now be tracked by both an internal audit team and an independent firm. Although he remains skeptical that officially reported data will be accurate in the future, even Kimball sees progress in Houston. “In her annual State of the Schools address,” he notes, referring to a speech this past February, “Stripling reported the dropout rate was [30 percent to] 40 percent. Not many superintendents would admit something like that.”

But the bleakness of that statistic shows just how far the Lone Star State has to go if it wants zero percent dropout rates to become a reality. This past June, soon after Kimball’s settlement, a U.S. Census Bureau report noted that, for the second year in a row, Texas had the worst graduation rate in the nation. Only 77 percent of Texans 25 years or older had high school diplomas in 2003, compared with 85 percent of all Americans. Still, Kimball is glad people are now taking notice of his state’s problem, and he’s satisfied he helped bring it to light. “Writers who conduct research on education in Texas have for many years been publishing articles and books stating that Texas was falsifying its educational statistics,” Kimball says. His contribution, he says, was to open a locked door—one that could only be opened from the inside.

Although he has many admirers now, and plenty of people willing to get behind whatever education reform he aims for, the almost-visible cloak of the lone wolf still clings to Kimball, as though a whistleblower who steps up and sets himself apart forever stays slightly apart. At a LULAC meeting, a Dallas school administrator who later declined to identify himself came up to Kimball and said with feeling, “You’re a hero....”

Then he added with a smile, “But please stay out of Dallas.”

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