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.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”