The scoop

Bronx high school changed grades to graduate more students

The principal of the Bronx's Herbert Lehman High School is charged with changing students' failing grades to passing.

Teachers are accusing a Bronx high school principal hired with a $25,000 bonus to improve the school’s academics of instead transforming the school into a “diploma mill.”

Transcripts given to GothamSchools by current and former teachers show that in the last year, dozens of students at Herbert Lehman High School have been given credit for courses they failed or never took.

In some instances, a student failed a class, passed the Regents exam by a slim margin, and then had his failing grade overturned. In others, students were given two credits for a class they passed once, or for classes that never appeared on their schedules.

Click here to view Lehman transcripts and school records. Multimedia feature by Maura Walz.
Click here to view Lehman transcripts and school records. Multimedia feature by Maura Walz.

Changing students’ grades is commonplace in the city’s schools and is often done by principals and teachers for legitimate reasons. In some cases, students are given credit recovery, meaning they complete a project, make up work, or re-take part of a class in order to get a passing grade. Other times, students who are on the cusp of passing a class can receive a boost from a Regents exam they passed by a substantial margin.

But teachers said that at Lehman, students are getting credit without doing any work. Dozens of students have had their failing grades overturned without their teachers’ knowledge.

“The Office of Special Investigations is investigating allegations of grading improprieties at Lehman,” said a spokesman for the Department of Education, David Cantor. “We’ll comment once we have findings.”

Lehman’s principal, Janet Saraceno refused repeated requests for comment.The four current and former Lehman teachers I interviewed for this piece spoke on the condition that their names not be published. One still works at Lehman, while the three who left have new jobs teaching at district or charter schools. The teachers approached GothamSchools after some of them had submitted the same transcripts to the Office of Special Investigations, but had not heard back for months and assumed the investigation was dead.

Robert Leder, the former principal, spoke on the record about the changes, which he says he has heard in reports from distressed teachers over the last year.

Under Pressure

Long considered to be one of the city’s best remaining behemoth high schools, Lehman has had a checkered past. At the end of the 2007-08 school year, Lehman’s veteran principal Leder resigned after investigators found that he had paid two assistant football coaches overtime wages while they were at home.

Leder’s replacement, Saraceno, arrived the next fall from the High School for Media and Communications, where she was principal. As part of a Department of Education program to lure principals to the city’s most challenging schools, she was given a bonus and the title “executive principal.” At the time, this perplexed more than a few parents and teachers, who told the city’s daily newspapers that they couldn’t understand why a school with a “B” on its latest report card needed to offer its new principal an extra $25,000 a year.

According to current and former teachers, Saraceno methodically set about increasing the school’s 47 percent graduation rate by changing students’ grades from failing to passing over the objections of their teachers and, in some instances, in violation of state regulations.

“Leder was not a perfect human. We had hoped that anybody would have been better,” said a current teacher. “It turned out his replacement was much much worse. She has changed Lehman into a diploma mill.”

Grade changing is not an entirely foreign phenomenon at Lehman. Teachers who worked under Leder said he sometimes asked them to change student athletes’ grades if their grade point average slipped below the minimum required for them to play, or if a student was mere points away from passing a class. But that process involved conversations with teachers in which Leder persuaded them to sign the paperwork, they said. Today, failing grades disappear from transcripts without warning, teachers said.

“Leder’s corruption was at least confined to a cohort of 50 kids,” said a former teacher who was one of eight math teachers to leave Lehman last year. Former and current math teachers said their department has borne the brunt of the grade changes, as it has the lowest pass rate within the school.

“Saraceno is actually worse. It’s sickening that I would take him over her,” said the teacher, who now works at a charter school.

Not long after Saraceno came to Lehman, “CRs” — Department of Education jargon for credit recovery — began popping up on students’ transcripts, replacing failing grades, several former and current teachers said.

In one case, a student failed a math class in the spring of 2006. More than two years later, in the fall of Saraceno’s first year as principal, the student’s grade was changed from a 55 to a “CR.”

Documents show that the reason given for the change was that the student had passed his Regents exam with a score of 69.

According to state education guidelines, a passing Regents score can counteract a failing course grade. But not just any passing Regents score can pull up a failing course grade; a student’s two grades are averaged together, with the Regents score counting for a third, and the student only passes if the final product is above 65.

In this case, the 69 Regents exam score was not high enough to boost the 55 course grade.

A former teacher said that when she protested the grade change, Saraceno said she’d never seen the document and that her signature was only a stamp.

“She came in and said she was going to make it an A school,” Leder said. “Part of that kind of comment would lead one to believe that maybe she felt the pressure to do that and ergo got involved in this kind of grade changing nonsense.”

Giving Credit Where Credit is Not Due

Transcripts obtained by GothamSchools show other ways students were given credits they didn’t earn. In one case, a student’s report card showed that he took three English classes in the fall of 2008, passing all of them. However, on his transcript, he was given credit for having taken six English classes that semester. Next to the three courses that never appeared on his report card and that he never actually sat in were three “CRs.”

This same student failed English 6 and then retook the class, passing it the second time. While this was done in accordance with department guidelines, what happened next was not: The student was given two credits, as though he had passed two different classes.

“I’ve seen myself over a hundred transcripts that had CRs where the kids didn’t do any work or even knew they were getting those credits,” said a former math teacher.

A list of grade changes provided to GothamSchools also shows that students who were constantly truant had their grades changed to passing ones or “CRs,” with reasons like “teacher’s request” or “home instruction” given. Leder said that while he was principal, no student with a grade of 45 — meaning the student was almost never in school — was eligible for credit recovery, but that has changed in the last year.

“It’s a sham,” Leder said of the grade changes. “You’re talking to a loose constructionist. I would bend over backwards to help a kid or a teacher. But why would a person think it’s acceptable to take a 45 and make it a 65?”

Transcripts also show that Lehman students were given credit for taking after-school classes, which are a common way for schools to offer credit recovery. But at Lehman, records show that some students were given credit for taking after-school classes that teachers say the school never offered. In one case, two students were given credit for taking an after-school math class. Two math teachers who worked at Lehman that year said the class was never taught after school, though they could not produce documents to substantiate the claim.

“A lot of the changes that have happened under the current principal are a real shift away from running Lehman as a place where academics were more of a priority to what the current principal wants it to be — a place where making the numbers look good is more important than doing the work behind them,” said a former math teacher who left Lehman at the end of last school year.

Former math teachers said Saraceno also changed their department’s grading policy, making it so that 25 percent of a student’s grade came from special assignments and projects. Previously, projects could only count for 10 percent. Teachers said students quickly caught on and would come to them, begging for projects.

The exact effect of Saraceno’s efforts to boost Lehman’s graduation rate will not be clear until November, when the DOE unveils the school’s graduation rate in its annual high school report cards.

But in a memo Saraceno sent to Lehman teachers on October 1, she congratulated the staff on the school’s results from a preliminary progress report. “We made modest gains in the graduation rate, but increased credit accumulation for first-year, second-year, and third-year students by 8-10%,” she wrote.

A spokesman for the DOE, Andrew Jacob, said the department has not made a final decision about whether to withhold Lehman’s progress report, as is sometimes done when a school is under investigation.

“We would obviously revise a school’s Progress Report as necessary as a result of any investigations,” Jacob said.

Out of a population of 4,000 students, “all you need is 300 or 400 credit recoveries to get 8 percent,” said a current teacher at the school.

A Changed School

Lehman teachers say the school is now wrapped in a gloom its students and staff hadn’t experienced under Leder, who served as principal for 29 years.

After seeing a student’s transcript with 19 “CR” notations, a teacher created a blog called “19credits” where the school’s staff routinely criticize the administration. In mid-October, an anonymous Lehman blogger created a rival blog “19stepsahead,” offering a more positive spin.

“What we would also like to see here are reports of things that are going well at Lehman, that we might be able to reproduce these successes,” the blogger wrote.

“Leder cared. He knew everybody’s name — everybody, and it’s a big school,” said Jermaine Jones, a senior at Lehman. Saraceno “knows like 10 kids names. She gives attitude to people, like if you ask her a question, she acts like you should be giving somebody else a message to give to her.”

“With Leder everyone was more comfortable going to talk about their problems with school,” Jones, 18, said. “Now a lot of people don’t come to school.”

Josh Swainson is 16 years old and is trying to pass the ninth grade for the third time. Leder “is why I used to like Lehman. Now I don’t really go to school,” he said.

A former math teacher who now works at another Bronx high school returned to Lehman recently and found it a changed place.

“The hallways are just sad and depressing,” she said. “No one is making anything, putting up any work, and the bulletin boards are all empty and the classrooms are not neat. It felt like a different place. The kids were like dude, you don’t even know.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”