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.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.