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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.