makeup work

Use of "credit recovery" in city schools varied widely, data show

City schools ranged widely in how often their students took a controversial fast track to making up failed classes, according to new Department of Education data.

“Credit recovery” offers students the chance to make up failed classes without having to repeat the entire course, often through online assignments or packets of worksheets. The option was designed for rare occasions, but critics of the Bloomberg administration say pressure to boost graduation rates caused the practice to be abused.

Education officials countered allegations of abuse by citing the fact that credit recovery accounted for just 1.7 percent of all credits earned citywide in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years.

But that figure masked the fact that many schools did not have any students earn credits through credit recovery, while dozens relied heavily on the practice, according to the new data, made available for the first time in response to Freedom of Information Law requests.

A GothamSchools analysis of the data found that at schools that used credit recovery at all, one in every 40 credits earned, or about 2.6 percent, came through the practice.

About a quarter of city high schools — 129 — did not award any credits through credit recovery in 2012, officials said.

That same year, 39 schools awarded more than 5 percent of their credits through recovery. At nine schools — mostly transfer schools and schools that were closing — that figure was above 10 percent, according to the city data.

At Mott Hall V, a Bronx school that expanded to high school grades in 2010, nearly half of the credits earned by ninth-graders in the 2010-2011 school year came through credit recovery, a fact that its principal attributed to staffing issues and students who took advantage of the program.

“They had no problem failing courses when they should have been doing what they had to do,” Peter Oroszlany said of some students who enrolled in credit recovery.

Oroszlany, who founded Mott Hall V as a middle school in 2005, said his budget was stretched so thin when the school expanded that he couldn’t hire enough teachers to handle all the incoming freshmen. Some students, he said, earned credits through a credit recovery course before ever taking and failing a traditional class, in violation of longstanding regulations.

“I did not have enough funding,” added Oroszlany.

Oroszlany said he was able to add more teachers the following year, and the school’s credit recovery rate dropped to 26 percent — still the third highest in the city.

Though Mott Hall V was an outlier, dozens of high schools still had credit recovery rates above 5 percent, about triple the city’s average, the data show. Some of the schools are transfer schools, or schools the city was phasing out due to poor performance. Those schools, which tend to serve very high-need students, have less ability to require students to retake entire classes.

At Franklin K. Lane High School, for instance, which shuttered in 2012, more than one in four credits that year was earned through credit recovery. At Bronx Regional High School, a transfer school that serves overage students who have failed at other schools, 27 percent of credits in 2011 were awarded through the practice.

Some schools with high-need, low-performing students leaned much less heavily on credit recovery. At West Brooklyn Community High School, a transfer school, just 11 out of more than 2,000 credits awarded in 2011-2012 came through credit recovery.

Many of the schools that used credit recovery sparsely or not at all were selective schools, where students tend not to fall behind often. At Brooklyn Technical High School, the specialized school that by far awards the most credits each year of any city school, just 12 credits out of more than 70,000 were earned through credit recovery in the 2011-2012 school year.

Despite rebutting allegations that credit recovery had proliferated inappropriately in many city schools, Department of Education officials announced in February 2012 that they would crack down on the practice as part of a broad set of policy changes designed to guard against graduation rate inflation. The changes followed an audit of crediting and graduation data at 60 high schools.

Starting last year, students can’t make up more than three core academic courses through credit recovery. They also are required to attend 66 percent of the class they failed in order to be eligible to take a credit recovery class. And students can now take credit recovery classes only in the same year as they failed their course.

Although the new policies did not take effect until the 2012-2013 school year, many schools used credit recovery less often in 2012, according to the city data. Oroszlany said knowing that the restrictions were coming influenced his use of credit recovery at Mott Hall V.

Another person said that as a principal, he made changes to his credit recovery policies more to stay out of trouble and out of public scrutiny than in the best interest of his students.

“We felt that if we didn’t find ways to keep up we would get killed on the P.R.,” said the principal, who declined to give his name because he did not want to discuss department policy publicly. But he added that the new restrictions were important because the “rules were ambiguous and people created their own interpretation.”

Some schools saw their credit recovery rates rise in 2011-2012, lending credence to anecdotal reports that some schools were encouraging students to make up missed credits before the new restrictions took effect. The Preparatory Academy for Writers in Queens awarded less than 1 percent of credits through credit recovery in 2010-2011 but used the practice for more than 7 percent of credits the following year, for example.

Some educators have complained that principals used credit recovery to inflate their graduation rates. That’s what seems to have happened at A Philip Randolph High School, where graduation rates soared by 30 points in 2009. A guidance counselor at the school later told GothamSchools that she was instructed to enroll dozens of failing seniors into online credit recovery courses just weeks before the school’s graduation day so that they could earn their diploma on time. The principal at the school, Henry Rubio, resigned that year amid an investigation into the school’s credit recovery practices. In 2011 and 2012, the school’s credit recovery rates were well below the city average.

Critics of the Bloomberg administration say the school’s story has been all too common.

“In a good credit recovery program, students who need to catch up on material they haven’t mastered would work on solid research and writing assignments, or conduct experiments in a science lab,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “But once the DOE decided to count credit accumulation as part of a high school’s grade and a principal’s rating, in too many schools the answer to this problem was to have the kids spend a few hours plugged into a computer.”

This story was originally published on Sept. 23 at 11:19 p.m.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.