exclusive

Probe underway after staff blows whistle on illicit credit recovery

A Philip Randolph High School is under investigation for credit accumulation fraud. (Credit: NYC DOE school web site)

A high school that posted suspicious swings in graduation rates in recent years is under investigation for giving students credits they didn’t earn.

Teachers and other staff members at A. Philip Randolph High School said they blew the whistle after seeing administrators abuse a practice that allows students to quickly make up credits in classes that they previously failed.

Department of Education officials said the Office of Special Investigations began probing A. Philip Randolph last month after Chancellor Dennis Walcott received several emails earlier this summer alleging illicit use of the practice, known as “credit recovery,” to artificially improve the school’s graduation numbers. After years of mediocre performance, the school’s graduation rate increased nearly 30 points two years ago and was one of the city’s highest.

This year, with less than a week before graduation day, school administrators ordered guidance counselors to enroll all failing seniors into online credit recovery courses so that they could graduate on time, one of the counselors said. She said the courses were crammed into one or two days and often went unsupervised.

When she and the school’s programming coordinators protested to administrators, they were rebuffed, the guidance counselor said.

“I said to them, ‘That is not right,’” she said. “You’re asking us to do something unethical.”

One teacher said he observed a group of credit recovery students huddled around a computer, searching online for the answers to test questions.

Another teacher, Joyce Stena, said one of her students attended her chemistry class so infrequently that the student not only failed the course but was declared ineligible to take the Regents exam.

And although state law requires students to pass Regents exams in order to earn course credits, Stena’s student still managed to graduate because she was enrolled in a credit recovery course.

“It’s frustrating,” Stena said. “What kind of message does that send to the rest of the students?”

Stena’s frustration crystallizes the controversy around credit recovery, an old practice with a new name that went unregulated in schools for years.

When used properly, education officials praise the policy as an opportunity to help students catch up on a few narrowly-missed credits in order to earn a diploma that they might not pursue after their senior year. Many of the courses are condensed and shortened and target specific areas where a student is deficient.

But credit recovery has come under increasing scrutiny as schools have experienced intense pressure to push students toward graduation, and in particular after the city began judging high schools in 2007 based in part on how many credits its students accumulate.

Amid mounting concerns, last year state education officials issued formal regulations for how schools should use credit recovery. Those regulations went into effect during the 2010-2011 school year and for the first time the DOE required schools to track credit recovery courses on student transcripts. Results from that data could be released as early as September, a spokesman said.

The data, which will show how widespread the use of credit recovery is, could challenge the credibility of the higher graduation rates that have taken place during the Bloomberg administration.

Critics of credit recovery say the pressures of accountability have induced widespread abuse of the practice in the city school system. Rather than providing a safety net for the few students for whom speedy makeup sessions would be appropriate, opponents say, the practice has merely allowed principals to inflate graduation rates and graduate students who are not ready for college. Less than a quarter of city graduates are well prepared for college, according to state data released in Feburary.

“This is an official recognition of lowered standards for academic credit,” said David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College law professor who specializes in education policy.

And many teachers, including those at A. Philip Randolph who sounded the alarm about abuses there, say the policy diminishes their work in the classroom.

The investigation into the school came after Walcott publicly invited teachers to contact him directly if they thought cheating was going on in their schools.

Henry Rubio, A. Philip Randolph’s principal since 2006, did not respond to several phone calls and email messages seeking comment.

The DOE is also conducting a larger sweep of audits that began in February. The audits target schools that have shown suspicious trends on its testing and graduation data.

A Philip Randolph, which opened in 1979 on the City College campus, seems to fit that profile. Two years ago, the school achieved a remarkable one-year gain in its graduation rate — climbing 30 percentage points to 86 percent. Last year, the graduation rate plummeted to 71 percent.

What upsets Stena the most, she said, is that students she is accountable for are being passed even if they don’t deserve it.

“If you want to hold me accountable, then you have to leave me alone,” she said. “Not go behind my back and pass students that I fail.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.