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Pace seniors hit the gym after school's P.E. crediting oversight

Until last week, Tejiana Lee, a senior at Pace High School, didn’t have to start her day until 10 a.m. After three years with a heavy course load, she was enjoying the late start her two consecutive free periods were giving her.

But now she must arrive at the school 45 minutes before the regular day begins to log time in the weight room.

Lee is one of dozens of second-semester seniors whose schedules were jolted last week when they found out the school had not required them to take the correct number of gym courses. State and city regulations require high school students to be enrolled in physical education classes for seven semesters, but Pace had scheduled them for only four semesters and still counted the requirement as complete.

Simply put, “the school granted students more credit than allowed,” said Marge Feinberg, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

So until the recent schedule change, most seniors were not actually on track to graduate in June. Now, they are scrambling to enroll in a variety of P.E. classes – and creative alternatives – that began this week.

Some, such as Lee, are enrolled in P.E. classes before and after the school day. One student, Chrystal, said she’s making up one P.E. credit through her part-time job as a dance instructor and plans to earn another by joining Pace’s flag football league in March. Another senior, Michael Thompson, said he’s getting credit by going to his local gym and showing up to school on Saturdays.

“We’re mad, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I just have to put on my tough face,” Lee said.

Compared to other crediting scandals that have emerged across the city in which students were given credits for minimal work or even for courses they did not actually take, the P.E. crediting snafu at Pace might seem innocuous. Students I spoke to seemed more annoyed at the schedule changes than anxious that they might not graduate on time.

But the dustup points to a longstanding tension between autonomy and oversight in the city’s high schools.

Pace, which opened in 2004 under a partnership with Pace University, was one of the city’s earliest “empowerment” schools, which meant that Principal Yvette Sy was granted unprecedented autonomy in exchange for greater accountability. The principle of empowerment now undergirds the entire school system: In theory if not always in practice, principals are free to make decisions about how to deploy time and resources, as long as they post results. But if their performance slips, they face steep consequences — up to and including seeing the school closed.

Since it opened, Pace has posted scores that blow similar schools out of the water. At least 80 percent of each class has graduated in four years, and the city’s most recent statistics show a 91.5 percent four-year graduation rate for students who entered in 2007. Pace students take courses at Pace University and complete a higher-than-average number of college-level courses, according to the city’s statistics. On its most recent progress report, Pace did better than 76 percent of city high schools, a significant accomplishment for a school is not allowed to screen students for admission and has many poor students.

The improper crediting of gym classes undermines much of that data, even though no student suggested that similar problems had been detected in academic courses.

That’s because seemingly small adjustments in the progress report data can have far-reaching implications. Pace did especially well when it came to how many credits in academic courses students picked up each year, beating not only the citywide average but also a smaller group of schools with similar demographics. Schedules with fewer physical education classes allow for more time in academic courses that carry more credits, making Pace students more likely to meet the credit accumulation standard.

Each semester of physical education classes carries just .58 credits. So a student who is enrolled in English, math, science, history, foreign language, and gym classes all year would rack up 11.16 credits if she passes them all. But if she fails an academic course, she would earn just 9.16 credits for the year — falling short of the 10 credits required to earn the school credit on its progress report. But if she had taken another academic class instead of P.E., she would have the 10 credits even if she failed one class.

Students said the school had long been light on gym requirements, suggesting that at least some graduates had received diplomas without completing all required courses.

Thierry Bonnet’s daughter is a senior at Pace and said she now had to take P.E. “several times a week to meet graduation requirements.” He said that she was surprised by the announcement, but “completely fine with it.” He praised the school for its strong leadership and teaching staff, which he said has prepared his daughter for college.

It’s unclear what directly prompted school administrators to change their credit policy in the middle of the semester and potentially after years without intervention. Sy declined to comment.

At Jane Addams Career and Technical High School in the Bronx, a midyear crediting clean-up effort followed revelations that the principal had given students math and social studies credits for taking courses in cosmetology and tourism.

Other schools are potentially preparing for the release of results from a broad audit of more than 50 schools’ data, including how they awarded credits, that city officials have said are set for this month. Feinberg would not say whether Pace was among schools whose data were audited.

Schools were selected for the audits if they had posted strikingly large swings in their performance. In 2010, Pace saw a 30-point jump in its progress report score at a time when high schools overall posted a slight decline. Last year, its score fell again, even as its graduation rate rose.

DOE spokesman Matt Mittenthal declined to specify if Pace was part of the audit. Feinberg said only that Pace had made a mistake and fixed it.

“There was a correction that was made,” she said. “Students on track to graduate will have the requisite credits.”

Thierry Bonnet, whose daughter is a senior at Pace, praised the school even as he said the news about missing gym credits came as a surprise. He said his daughter now must take P.E. “several times a week to meet graduation requirements” but is “completely fine with it.”

“It does annoy me, but I’ve got to do it to graduate,” said Queen Haggins before she attended her first early-morning weightlifting class of her new class.

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