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.

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.