Bad Principle

TAPCO principal yanked after wide inquiry finds many abuses

New York City’s top-ranked high school two years ago achieved its lofty score under a veil of academic improprieties that ranged from fudged student records to inflated test scores, according to a lengthy report released today by the Department of Education.

After a sweeping, 17-month investigation into Theatre Arts Production Company School, investigators concluded that the school’s leader, Lynn Passarella, was directly responsible for much of the misconduct.

Substantiating nine of 19 allegations against her, the investigators also concluded that under Passarella’s watch student transcripts were falsified, school funds misused, and non-credited staff were assigned to teach a loosely defined “Wellness” class that replaced physical education requirements.

They also concluded that Passarella had personally marked students present when they had been absent — altering a metric that factors into schools’ progress report grades. TAPCO received the highest score among all city high schools in 2010, insulating the school from criticism and guaranteeing Passarella a hefty bonus even as allegations about improprieties began to pile up.

The Department of Education removed Passarella from TAPCO this morning and will move to fire her. Chancellor Dennis Walcott issued a statement saying that Passarella’s behavior was “dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities.”

Even when the investigators did not formally substantiate allegations, they often concluded that improprieties might well have taken place.

For example, they decided that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Passarella had pressured teachers to inflate or even change students’ Regents exam scores and course grades. But an analysis of Regents exam answer sheets found that nearly 200 answers had been changed, more than 80 percent from incorrect to correct. (Students told GothamSchools last year that their math teacher had instructed them to change incorrect answers on a 2010 exam.) The investigators also found that just 3 percent of course grades were failing, compared to 20 percent of high school course grades issued citywide.

Similarly, they found they could not conclude that many teachers left TAPCO because of Passarella’s behavior. But they found ample evidence that teachers felt intimidated by her and also calculated that teachers left TAPCO twice as often as teachers at other schools.

Investigators interviewed 45 current or former staff members and 11 current or former students in compiling their 110-page report. In one instance, a teacher told investigators that when he expressed doubt that all of his kids would pass the Regents exam, Passarella replied, “Go watch ‘Stand and Deliver.'” She referred to the classic film about a Los Angeles teacher who propelled poor students to success on college-level math classes.

Passarella also put in place a system that ensured that the school’s student attendance rates would never suffer. Whenever attendance dipped below 92 percent on any given day, staff members who tallied the data were required to notify Passarella, who would change the sheets, according to interviews from the report.

“Oh, I saw that student,” Passarella would comment before making the changes, according to a secretary who worked at the school.

TAPCO students interviewed for the probe told investigators that they could not recall taking some of the physical education classes that appeared on their transcripts. The students instead had taken a class called “Wellness,” which appeared as physical education credits on their official transcripts and was little more than a free period.

Teachers credited to teach every other subject but physical education were recruited by Passarella to teach the class and given free reign in creating a curriculum. One teacher cited in the report said he spent an entire period teaching students breathing exercises. One student’s Wellness experience was called “game club” and included playing Connect Four, Uno, Checkers, Chess, and other board games.

The investigation also revealed that Passarella generated deep resentment from her staff. Assistant Principal Demetri Nicolopoulos called her “evil” and “vindictive.”

The investigation began in 2010 after the Department of Education received two anonymous letters, one sent by 10 anonyomous authors.

Teachers at TAPCO were told that Passarella was removed immediately after school ended this afternoon but were not given a reason. Students were given a letter to bring home to their parents. A longtime Bronx administrator, Ron Link, will take over on Monday.

Former and current teachers we spoke to this afternoon who were named on the report all agreed that Passarella should have been removed, but they expressed a range of reactions.

“I think she had a clear overall vision of what she wanted the school to be, but did not know how to implement it in any way,” said one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I’m happy,” said a former teacher who was among the unusually large number of teachers to leave in recent years. “I believe in karma and I think these things happen for a reason.”

A spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators said, “We are reviewing this extremely serious and lengthy report on Principal Passarella; we are prepared to give her full and fair representation; and the burden rests with the Department of Education to prove any allegations brought against her.”

“The scandal at TAPCO – formerly the number one school by the DOE’s own measure – raises serious questions about the credibility of the Progress Reports and the methodology the DOE has used to close dozens of schools,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.

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To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.