Bronx high school changed grades to graduate more students

Teachers are accusing a Bronx high school principal hired with a $25,000 bonus to improve the school’s academics of instead transforming the school into a “diploma mill.”

Transcripts given to GothamSchools by current and former teachers show that in the last year, dozens of students at Herbert Lehman High School have been given credit for courses they failed or never took.

In some instances, a student failed a class, passed the Regents exam by a slim margin, and then had his failing grade overturned. In others, students were given two credits for a class they passed once, or for classes that never appeared on their schedules.

Changing students’ grades is commonplace in the city’s schools and is often done by principals and teachers for legitimate reasons. In some cases, students are given credit recovery, meaning they complete a project, make up work, or re-take part of a class in order to get a passing grade. Other times, students who are on the cusp of passing a class can receive a boost from a Regents exam they passed by a substantial margin.

But teachers said that at Lehman, students are getting credit without doing any work. Dozens of students have had their failing grades overturned without their teachers’ knowledge.

“The Office of Special Investigations is investigating allegations of grading improprieties at Lehman,” said a spokesman for the Department of Education, David Cantor. “We’ll comment once we have findings.”

Lehman’s principal, Janet Saraceno refused repeated requests for comment.The four current and former Lehman teachers I interviewed for this piece spoke on the condition that their names not be published. One still works at Lehman, while the three who left have new jobs teaching at district or charter schools. The teachers approached GothamSchools after some of them had submitted the same transcripts to the Office of Special Investigations, but had not heard back for months and assumed the investigation was dead.

Robert Leder, the former principal, spoke on the record about the changes, which he says he has heard in reports from distressed teachers over the last year.

Under Pressure

Long considered to be one of the city’s best remaining behemoth high schools, Lehman has had a checkered past. At the end of the 2007-08 school year, Lehman’s veteran principal Leder resigned after investigators found that he had paid two assistant football coaches overtime wages while they were at home.

Leder’s replacement, Saraceno, arrived the next fall from the High School for Media and Communications, where she was principal. As part of a Department of Education program to lure principals to the city’s most challenging schools, she was given a bonus and the title “executive principal.” At the time, this perplexed more than a few parents and teachers, who told the city’s daily newspapers that they couldn’t understand why a school with a “B” on its latest report card needed to offer its new principal an extra $25,000 a year.

According to current and former teachers, Saraceno methodically set about increasing the school’s 47 percent graduation rate by changing students’ grades from failing to passing over the objections of their teachers and, in some instances, in violation of state regulations.

“Leder was not a perfect human. We had hoped that anybody would have been better,” said a current teacher. “It turned out his replacement was much much worse. She has changed Lehman into a diploma mill.”

Grade changing is not an entirely foreign phenomenon at Lehman. Teachers who worked under Leder said he sometimes asked them to change student athletes’ grades if their grade point average slipped below the minimum required for them to play, or if a student was mere points away from passing a class. But that process involved conversations with teachers in which Leder persuaded them to sign the paperwork, they said. Today, failing grades disappear from transcripts without warning, teachers said.

“Leder’s corruption was at least confined to a cohort of 50 kids,” said a former teacher who was one of eight math teachers to leave Lehman last year. Former and current math teachers said their department has borne the brunt of the grade changes, as it has the lowest pass rate within the school.

“Saraceno is actually worse. It’s sickening that I would take him over her,” said the teacher, who now works at a charter school.

Not long after Saraceno came to Lehman, “CRs” — Department of Education jargon for credit recovery — began popping up on students’ transcripts, replacing failing grades, several former and current teachers said.

In one case, a student failed a math class in the spring of 2006. More than two years later, in the fall of Saraceno’s first year as principal, the student’s grade was changed from a 55 to a “CR.”

Documents show that the reason given for the change was that the student had passed his Regents exam with a score of 69.

According to state education guidelines, a passing Regents score can counteract a failing course grade. But not just any passing Regents score can pull up a failing course grade; a student’s two grades are averaged together, with the Regents score counting for a third, and the student only passes if the final product is above 65.

In this case, the 69 Regents exam score was not high enough to boost the 55 course grade.

A former teacher said that when she protested the grade change, Saraceno said she’d never seen the document and that her signature was only a stamp.

“She came in and said she was going to make it an A school,” Leder said. “Part of that kind of comment would lead one to believe that maybe she felt the pressure to do that and ergo got involved in this kind of grade changing nonsense.”

Giving Credit Where Credit is Not Due

Transcripts obtained by GothamSchools show other ways students were given credits they didn’t earn. In one case, a student’s report card showed that he took three English classes in the fall of 2008, passing all of them. However, on his transcript, he was given credit for having taken six English classes that semester. Next to the three courses that never appeared on his report card and that he never actually sat in were three “CRs.”

This same student failed English 6 and then retook the class, passing it the second time. While this was done in accordance with department guidelines, what happened next was not: The student was given two credits, as though he had passed two different classes.

“I’ve seen myself over a hundred transcripts that had CRs where the kids didn’t do any work or even knew they were getting those credits,” said a former math teacher.

A list of grade changes provided to GothamSchools also shows that students who were constantly truant had their grades changed to passing ones or “CRs,” with reasons like “teacher’s request” or “home instruction” given. Leder said that while he was principal, no student with a grade of 45 — meaning the student was almost never in school — was eligible for credit recovery, but that has changed in the last year.

“It’s a sham,” Leder said of the grade changes. “You’re talking to a loose constructionist. I would bend over backwards to help a kid or a teacher. But why would a person think it’s acceptable to take a 45 and make it a 65?”

Transcripts also show that Lehman students were given credit for taking after-school classes, which are a common way for schools to offer credit recovery. But at Lehman, records show that some students were given credit for taking after-school classes that teachers say the school never offered. In one case, two students were given credit for taking an after-school math class. Two math teachers who worked at Lehman that year said the class was never taught after school, though they could not produce documents to substantiate the claim.

“A lot of the changes that have happened under the current principal are a real shift away from running Lehman as a place where academics were more of a priority to what the current principal wants it to be — a place where making the numbers look good is more important than doing the work behind them,” said a former math teacher who left Lehman at the end of last school year.

Former math teachers said Saraceno also changed their department’s grading policy, making it so that 25 percent of a student’s grade came from special assignments and projects. Previously, projects could only count for 10 percent. Teachers said students quickly caught on and would come to them, begging for projects.

The exact effect of Saraceno’s efforts to boost Lehman’s graduation rate will not be clear until November, when the DOE unveils the school’s graduation rate in its annual high school report cards.

But in a memo Saraceno sent to Lehman teachers on October 1, she congratulated the staff on the school’s results from a preliminary progress report. “We made modest gains in the graduation rate, but increased credit accumulation for first-year, second-year, and third-year students by 8-10%,” she wrote.

A spokesman for the DOE, Andrew Jacob, said the department has not made a final decision about whether to withhold Lehman’s progress report, as is sometimes done when a school is under investigation.

“We would obviously revise a school’s Progress Report as necessary as a result of any investigations,” Jacob said.

Out of a population of 4,000 students, “all you need is 300 or 400 credit recoveries to get 8 percent,” said a current teacher at the school.

A Changed School

Lehman teachers say the school is now wrapped in a gloom its students and staff hadn’t experienced under Leder, who served as principal for 29 years.

After seeing a student’s transcript with 19 “CR” notations, a teacher created a blog called “19credits” where the school’s staff routinely criticize the administration. In mid-October, an anonymous Lehman blogger created a rival blog “19stepsahead,” offering a more positive spin.

“What we would also like to see here are reports of things that are going well at Lehman, that we might be able to reproduce these successes,” the blogger wrote.

“Leder cared. He knew everybody’s name — everybody, and it’s a big school,” said Jermaine Jones, a senior at Lehman. Saraceno “knows like 10 kids names. She gives attitude to people, like if you ask her a question, she acts like you should be giving somebody else a message to give to her.”

“With Leder everyone was more comfortable going to talk about their problems with school,” Jones, 18, said. “Now a lot of people don’t come to school.”

Josh Swainson is 16 years old and is trying to pass the ninth grade for the third time. Leder “is why I used to like Lehman. Now I don’t really go to school,” he said.

A former math teacher who now works at another Bronx high school returned to Lehman recently and found it a changed place.

“The hallways are just sad and depressing,” she said. “No one is making anything, putting up any work, and the bulletin boards are all empty and the classrooms are not neat. It felt like a different place. The kids were like dude, you don’t even know.”