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.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”