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An award-winning biology teacher remains on paid administrative leave from El Molino High School four months after an investigation into a cheating incident that pushed the four-time California Distinguished School into federal sanctions.

Joan Vreeburg, a teacher at the Forestville campus for 29 years and the 2010 winner of the Outstanding Biology Teacher award by the California Chapter of the National Association of Biology Teachers, has been on paid leave since May in connection with the probe into cheating on the Standardized Testing and Reporting program test last spring.

She is accused of providing students with actual questions from the biology portion of the 2011 California Standards Test while telling students — and later administrators — that they were sanctioned review questions.

District officials declined to name the teacher involved in the investigation or give details about any disciplinary action, citing privacy rules related to personnel issues. But sources close to the investigation confirmed that Vreeburg is the instructor involved in the incident.

West County Superintendent Keller McDonald said a teacher was placed on administrative leave in the wake of the investigation. She then requested and was granted a paid leave of absence for the 2011-12 school year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

McDonald would not say whether the teacher will return to campus or any other district position for the 2012-13 school year, calling it "an ongoing personnel matter."

In addition, the teacher received "what the district believes is appropriate disciplinary action," which he would not describe, citing confidentiality restrictions.

The incident wiped crucial scores from the school's books and El Molino entered Year 1 Program Improvement sanctions laid out in the federal No Child Left Behind law. The school also did not meet at least one academic target in the tests given last spring, a failure that also would have put the school into federal penalties.

The investigation was conducted by the district and submitted to the California Department of Education. It determined that both inappropriate test preparation and a security breach occurred during the administration of the biology test, affecting 118 students at El Molino.

On April 20, following the biology portion of the California Standards Test at the school, a student told Principal Doria Trombetta that she thought about 75 percent of the questions in the official test were the same questions included on a practice exam provided by the teacher.

The teacher, students, principal and superintendent were not named in the report.

Trombetta interviewed other students in the class, who concurred that many of the practice questions were identical to the ones on the official test, the report said.

On three different occasions — April 21, 26 and 28 — the teacher told Trombetta the questions she distributed were part of the officially-sanctioned review materials, according to the report.

Trombetta asked the teacher to produce the review materials she had given students before the test. However, students said they did not recognize the review questions the teacher submitted to Trombetta, the report said.

One student provided a copy of the practice test used in the biology class. Brenda Hoff, the district testing coordinator, and the district's attorney reviewed the documents and determined that questions in the review material were also on the official biology test.

Memorial and benefit fund

A memorial will be held 6 p.m. Monday, March 19, at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center on the Yountville veterans home campus.

A benefit fund has also been established by Pathway Home to provide direct support to the victims’ families. Donations can be sent to 3 Brave Women Fund c/o Mentis, 709 Franklin Street, Napa CA 94559.

McDonald and Trombetta then met with the teacher and a union representative from the California Teachers Association. During that meeting, the teacher acknowledged she had supplied students with the document containing actual test questions, but said she did not remember where she had obtained it, according to the report.

She said she did not get the document from anyone she knew personally, according to the report.

As of May 12, the teacher was on a paid leave of absence.

McDonald said all tests are kept at the district office until they are delivered to individual campuses prior to test days.

"They sit in the district office until they are distributed out to the schools and then they are put in the security room until such time as the tests are given," he said.

"It's a matter of days, not months," he said of the time that tests are on campus before students take them.

The tests are held "in a secured room, in a secured location," he said.

The tests, which are administered over multiple days, are collected and kept in secure locations, he said.

"We collect the exams after they have been taken every day," he said. "They are collected and put in one locked room to which only a limited number of people have keys."

How a teacher could have access to actual exam questions is unclear.

"The answer to that question remains in dispute," he said.

McDonald said increasing pressure on schools and districts to push students to ever-increasing academic targets is not an excuse to cheat. Under No Child Left Behind, all students are expected to be proficient or advanced in core subjects by 2013-14 or be subject to Program Improvement sanctions.

"Some people believe that the pressure is unbearable or causes this behavior, but we're credentialed professionals, we are trained in giving tests and the reasons the assessments are given," he said. "I don't think the pressure should be viewed as an excuse."

Vreeburg has long been a celebrated member of El Molino's staff. She helped establish the school's biotechnology program and has provided working field trips to the University of California at Davis, Lawrence Livermore Lab, the Buck Institute, Redwood Toxicology Lab and the Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Last year, in advance of receiving her biology teacher of the year award, Vreeburg was hailed by students and colleagues for her deep connections in the science community and energetic delivery of ever-changing curriculum.

Vreeburg did not return a call seeking comment.

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