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.

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”