partial credit

Pace seniors hit the gym after school's P.E. crediting oversight

Pace High School's Chinatown school building

Until last week, Tejiana Lee, a senior at Pace High School, didn’t have to start her day until 10 a.m. After three years with a heavy course load, she was enjoying the late start her two consecutive free periods were giving her.

But now she must arrive at the school 45 minutes before the regular day begins to log time in the weight room.

Lee is one of dozens of second-semester seniors whose schedules were jolted last week when they found out the school had not required them to take the correct number of gym courses. State and city regulations require high school students to be enrolled in physical education classes for seven semesters, but Pace had scheduled them for only four semesters and still counted the requirement as complete.

Simply put, “the school granted students more credit than allowed,” said Marge Feinberg, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

So until the recent schedule change, most seniors were not actually on track to graduate in June. Now, they are scrambling to enroll in a variety of P.E. classes – and creative alternatives – that began this week.

Some, such as Lee, are enrolled in P.E. classes before and after the school day. One student, Chrystal, said she’s making up one P.E. credit through her part-time job as a dance instructor and plans to earn another by joining Pace’s flag football league in March. Another senior, Michael Thompson, said he’s getting credit by going to his local gym and showing up to school on Saturdays.

“We’re mad, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I just have to put on my tough face,” Lee said.

Compared to other crediting scandals that have emerged across the city in which students were given credits for minimal work or even for courses they did not actually take, the P.E. crediting snafu at Pace might seem innocuous. Students I spoke to seemed more annoyed at the schedule changes than anxious that they might not graduate on time.

But the dustup points to a longstanding tension between autonomy and oversight in the city’s high schools.

Pace, which opened in 2004 under a partnership with Pace University, was one of the city’s earliest “empowerment” schools, which meant that Principal Yvette Sy was granted unprecedented autonomy in exchange for greater accountability. The principle of empowerment now undergirds the entire school system: In theory if not always in practice, principals are free to make decisions about how to deploy time and resources, as long as they post results. But if their performance slips, they face steep consequences — up to and including seeing the school closed.

Since it opened, Pace has posted scores that blow similar schools out of the water. At least 80 percent of each class has graduated in four years, and the city’s most recent statistics show a 91.5 percent four-year graduation rate for students who entered in 2007. Pace students take courses at Pace University and complete a higher-than-average number of college-level courses, according to the city’s statistics. On its most recent progress report, Pace did better than 76 percent of city high schools, a significant accomplishment for a school is not allowed to screen students for admission and has many poor students.

The improper crediting of gym classes undermines much of that data, even though no student suggested that similar problems had been detected in academic courses.

That’s because seemingly small adjustments in the progress report data can have far-reaching implications. Pace did especially well when it came to how many credits in academic courses students picked up each year, beating not only the citywide average but also a smaller group of schools with similar demographics. Schedules with fewer physical education classes allow for more time in academic courses that carry more credits, making Pace students more likely to meet the credit accumulation standard.

Each semester of physical education classes carries just .58 credits. So a student who is enrolled in English, math, science, history, foreign language, and gym classes all year would rack up 11.16 credits if she passes them all. But if she fails an academic course, she would earn just 9.16 credits for the year — falling short of the 10 credits required to earn the school credit on its progress report. But if she had taken another academic class instead of P.E., she would have the 10 credits even if she failed one class.

Students said the school had long been light on gym requirements, suggesting that at least some graduates had received diplomas without completing all required courses.

Thierry Bonnet’s daughter is a senior at Pace and said she now had to take P.E. “several times a week to meet graduation requirements.” He said that she was surprised by the announcement, but “completely fine with it.” He praised the school for its strong leadership and teaching staff, which he said has prepared his daughter for college.

It’s unclear what directly prompted school administrators to change their credit policy in the middle of the semester and potentially after years without intervention. Sy declined to comment.

At Jane Addams Career and Technical High School in the Bronx, a midyear crediting clean-up effort followed revelations that the principal had given students math and social studies credits for taking courses in cosmetology and tourism.

Other schools are potentially preparing for the release of results from a broad audit of more than 50 schools’ data, including how they awarded credits, that city officials have said are set for this month. Feinberg would not say whether Pace was among schools whose data were audited.

Schools were selected for the audits if they had posted strikingly large swings in their performance. In 2010, Pace saw a 30-point jump in its progress report score at a time when high schools overall posted a slight decline. Last year, its score fell again, even as its graduation rate rose.

DOE spokesman Matt Mittenthal declined to specify if Pace was part of the audit. Feinberg said only that Pace had made a mistake and fixed it.

“There was a correction that was made,” she said. “Students on track to graduate will have the requisite credits.”

Thierry Bonnet, whose daughter is a senior at Pace, praised the school even as he said the news about missing gym credits came as a surprise. He said his daughter now must take P.E. “several times a week to meet graduation requirements” but is “completely fine with it.”

“It does annoy me, but I’ve got to do it to graduate,” said Queen Haggins before she attended her first early-morning weightlifting class of her new class.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.