sold on credit

With stricter credit recovery policy comes a push to do more

An impending crackdown on how students can make up failed classes has some schools scurrying to help students rack up missing credits this spring.

Many schools allow students who are missing credits—either because they failed a class, or because circumstances kept them from attending or completing required work—to receiving course credit for completing extra assignments through a practice known as “credit recovery.” The practice, which accounted for about 1.7 percent of credits earned last year, offers students the chance to pick up narrowly missed credits without having to repeat classes, but it has also been criticized for devaluing academic credits because the make-up assignments are often less in-depth than those required in the regular classes.

Last month, following an audit that found errors and possible evidence of cheating at 60 high schools, the city announced that it would begin restricting credit recovery access to students, in part by capping the number of credits students may receive through credit recovery, limiting enrollment to students who attended at least two thirds of class they’re making up, and allowing students to make up credits only in the months immediately after they fail a course.

The new policies take effect July 1 — giving schools a four-month window to help students rack up credits before the restrictions kick in. Teachers and students at many schools said last week that they hadn’t heard about the looming policy changes. But some of those who did said the news had motivated a credit recovery spree among students missing credits—a response Department of Education officials say is inappropriate.

Students at a small school at the Lower East Side’s Seward Park Campus, said administrators had individually told students who are missing credits that now is the time to finish credit recovery.

Since the February announcement, a senior told me, “The principal went up to the students who need credits and said, ‘Talk to this teacher, she’ll give you an assignment to do, and you’ll get the credit.’ He talked to everyone that needed the credits.”

A teacher at a mid-sized Brooklyn school said the push for credit recovery has been pervasive. “We’ve had grade-wide assemblies with the students to talk about what it means,” said the teacher. “And [students] had meetings with their guidance counselors. They told them: Either get the credit now, or understand they might be in high school for another year or two, or at least another semester.”

Ninth-graders who haven’t yet fallen behind didn’t react strongly to the news, but “the upperclassmen seem to get it, and there’s a push to try to get them as many of their credits as we can accrue before June,” the teacher said. She added that next year, her school is likely to add evening classes for students who need to make up work.

Another teacher at a Bronx school said administrators have been pressing many students who were counting on credit recovery to finish that work now, saying this might be their last year to do so. In addition to capping the number of earnable credits, the new rules require students to complete more rigorous assignments, log more time in class, and obtain approval of their credit recovery work from the teacher who failed them.

Teachers from schools around the city said they doubted they would be able to get students to graduation on time without allowing them to make-up classes. The Brooklyn teacher said her school sometimes resorts to credit recovery because it would be near-impossible to re-teaching course content to struggling students who have entered high school far below grade level. Schools are penalized on city assessments when students do not graduate in four years.

“It looks so bad, but the system is so gamed to begin,” she said.

A student at Long Island City High School said teachers told students about the policy change in class last week, but did not urge them to change their practices, according to a sophomore.

“They said, whoever is behind on credits isn’t going to graduate on time,” said the student. “They were just putting everybody down. Everybody was pretty ticked off about it.”

She said most students at the large Queens school used credit recovery, but she could understand the sentiment behind the new policy. “One teacher told me they shouldn’t even be using credit recovery at all — that it’s just an excuse for kids to slack off during the year.”

Ken Achiron, Long Island City’s teachers union chapter leader, said teachers at his school were bracing themselves for the added challenge of preparing students for graduation with narrowed credit recovery options. But he said the change was a long time coming.

“Credit recovery has been an open door up until now to allow kids to work through graduation without having to worry about what they did in the classroom. It’s a sham,” Achiron said. But he also said teachers might have a good reason to try to juke their schools’ performance statistics: “Why would teachers be doing [credit recovery]? So that they won’t be put on a list saying that their school is going to close,” as Long Island City could at the end of this year, under a city proposal.

Department officials said the new policies are meant to ensure that credit recovery is used only when it is in dire need or when students are working hard but need extra time to demonstrate understanding. A spokesman also said the department would root out schools that abuse credit recovery once the new policy takes effect.

“The letter and spirit of our new policy are clear, and we will be aggressively monitoring schools to make sure it is appropriately followed,” said the spokesman, Matthew Mittenthal.

D.C.

What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said

dreamers

‘I fought to be here.’ Amid national debate, Newark students share their immigration stories

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Hawkins Street students read their work at the book launch.

Today, Yorleny is a sixth-grader at Hawkins Street School in Newark’s Ironbound section. But not long ago, she was a young immigrant making a treacherous journey to the United States in pursuit of a better life.

“My story of how I came to America to find the American dream is a very hard one,” she wrote in a personal essay about her journey. “I gave up so much to be here. I fought to be here.”

At a time when many immigrants to the U.S. are beset by fear and uncertainty after thousands of children were recently separated from their parents at the border, Yorleny is part of a group of students and teachers at her neighborhood school, which includes prekindergarten through eighth grade, who are speaking up about their own immigration stories. More than 70 of their reflections are collected in a new, self-published book called, “The Hispanic American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

The project began long before the current border crisis and President Trump’s claim this week that people trying to enter the U.S. “could be murderers and thieves and so much else.” But in that context the book has gained new significance — a way to remind the students of their own dignity and tenacity, and their right to live and dream in America.

They need to know they have a voice,” said Ana Couto, a Spanish-English bilingual teacher at Hawkins Street who led the project. “This is not a time for us to shy or hide away. It’s a time for us to show that they’re strong.”

Read excerpts from the book by the principal, a bilingual teacher, and a fourth-grade student.

The book chronicles the students’ family histories, which often entail voyages north from Central and South America, and their aspirations — to master English; to become doctors, police officers, dancers; to one day visit the countries their parents left behind. Harrowing references to violence and poverty in their past — “We came mostly for our safety because people right now are eating from trash cans,” writes a boy from Venezuela, where food shortages have been endemic — are followed by descriptions of their new lives juggling schoolwork and friendships.

In Yorleny’s case, she left behind her mother and siblings in Honduras, according to her essay, which was translated from Spanish. Traveling north with two cousins, she walked for hours at a time and slept on floors. Along the way, they were “grabbed” by immigration officers and detained for three days.

Finally, Yorleny made it to the U.S. and connected with her father. Now, she is focused on studying hard and learning English — but she still longs to spend Christmas with her family and to be reunited with her mother, who used to give her a kiss each morning before school.

“I need those kisses and hugs from my mother,” she wrote, “but someday I will have that with me.”

After Trump was elected in 2016, following vows to crack down on illegal immigration, Newark city and school officials spoke out in defense of the city’s foreign-born population, who make up nearly 30 percent of residents. Mayor Ras Baraka said Newark would remain a “sanctuary city” for immigrants who are living in the country illegally or under a temporary protected status, while the school board passed a resolution reiterating immigrant students’ rights and the district hosted an informational fair for undocumented students and families.

On Tuesday, amid the latest immigration flare-up, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order to prevent state resources from being used to support federal authorities in separating children and parents as they attempt to cross the southern border. The following day, in response to the growing backlash, Trump ordered families to be detained together rather than split up.

But even as New Jersey leaders signal their support for immigrants, it falls on individual schools to comfort students who are distraught by recent events. At Hawkins Street, many students are immigrants and 36 percent are still learning English — the highest percentage of any elementary school in the city. Incoming Superintendent Roger León, whose parents came to Newark from Cuba, attended the school.

After the presidential election, many Hawkins Street students felt like their new lives in the U.S. were threatened.

“We had students in crisis,” said Principal Alejandro Lopez, who organized class discussions about the election and provided some students with counseling. “They were literally having breakdowns because they felt that they would be deported, that their parents would be targeted.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Ana Couto, the bilingual teacher who led the project, handed out the published books to students.

The idea for the book came later, when the school held an Hispanic Heritage Month event this past November. Couto’s fifth-grade students wanted to sing or dance, but she convinced them that they would have a greater impact by telling their own stories.

The students stood on stage wearing black T-shirts that read, “Thanks to our parents, we are living the Hispanic American Dream.” One by one, with their backs to the audience to focus attention solely on their words, the students read their personal essays.

Hilary, whose family came from the Dominican Republic, talked about teaching English to her mother “who faced discrimination in getting a job” because she spoke only Spanish.

Steven recalled planting corn and beans with his father in El Salvador, before his family left to escape violent crime. Now in the U.S., his father is a cook who “makes pizzas, hamburgers, fries and salads.”

Andrea did not say where her family came from, only that her parents left because it was too dangerous.

“Now we feel safer,” she wrote in her essay. “This is now my family’s country.”

Couto, who is in her third year teaching but only her first as a bilingual instructor, decided to collect the essays in a book. She invited students from across the school to submit essays, and interviewed second-graders to get their thoughts. A team of students helped type the submissions, while a group of teachers — and Couto’s sister — helped edit.

Some staff members also contributed essays.

Principal Lopez wrote about being the child of undocumented immigrants who left the Dominican Republic when they were still teenagers. Couto, whose family is Portuguese but grew up alongside Spanish-speaking immigrants in Newark’s North Ward, wrote that she identified with the “never giving up-survivor fire” in her bilingual students.

Two teachers, Jennifer Palumbo and Catherine Moore, shared their remarkably similar childhood stories. Both were born in Bogota, Colombia in the same year and placed in an orphanage before being adopted by American parents. Both were given new names and spoke only English at home. And both would later study Spanish and try to learn more about where they came from.

“Young children think that we don’t understand what they’re going through,” said Moore, who teaches fifth and sixth-grade science, “but we may understand a lot more than they think.”

On Monday, the student authors filed into the school library for a launch party. The books, which the school’s parent-teacher organization had paid about $500 to have printed, were concealed under a Puerto Rican flag. Celebratory cookies and muffins were arrayed on a long table.

Standing at a podium, Lopez congratulated the students for sharing their stories and defying a stereotype of immigrant students as quiet and meek. Couto said she was in awe of the students’ strength as they made new lives in America even as they longed for the family and friends they’d left behind.

“We use the word ‘grit’ every day here at Hawkins,” she told them. “And now that I know you better, I see that you all have a lot of grit in you. You’re warriors, and I just lack the words to tell you how proud I am of you all.”

Then Couto handed out the books, which the students asked her to sign. A few read their contributions, including a girl whose essay will go in the collection Couto is already planning for next year — “The African American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

Near the back of the room sat a fifth-grader named Adamaris. She had written about staying with her sister in the U.S. so she could continue her education, even though her mother lives in Honduras. She described how badly she misses her mother — especially on Christmas and Christmas Eve, which is also her birthday.

But now she had the summer to look forward to, when she would visit her mother and show her the book.

“I’m going to read it for her,” she said. “She’s going to be proud of me.”