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.

'Clarity 2020'

Superintendent León calls on Newarkers to help shape his plan for city’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy to improve the district at Central High School on Wednesday.

Newark Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy for transforming the school system at a community forum Wednesday, the first of several meetings where residents will be invited to help shape the plan.

The strategy, dubbed “NPS Clarity 2020,” calls for closer cooperation among schools and between them and the community. The strategy’s premise is that schools must challenge students academically while also attending to their physical and emotional needs.

Over the next few months, officials said, the district will turn the strategy into a detailed, three-year plan with help from families, students, and partner organizations, who will be invited to planning sessions in each of the city’s five wards. The final plan will be released in June.

“How are we going to do this? Everybody in here — all of you,” León said to hundreds of mostly invited guests at Central High School. “There’s a lot of hard work we’re about to do, and we’re not going to be scared about it.”

While Wednesday marked the start of public feedback on the strategy, León has been referencing his plan at meetings for months. Some leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka and a few board members, have previously urged León to publicly share his plan, along with specific goals he hopes to achieve.

Baraka, who was Central’s principal when León was an assistant superintendent, made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s event to lend his support to León’s vision. He said the two have been working in particular on a plan to get local universities to enroll more Newark Public School graduates.

“I just want people to know that the superintendent and I are on the same page,” said Baraka, who famously clashed with León’s state-appointed predecessor, Cami Anderson. “And it hasn’t been that way for a very long time.”

Baraka is also part of a new advisory committee that will provide input on the plan. The 24-member committee includes teachers, principals, and advocates, along with business, higher-education, and philanthropic leaders.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark residents wrote down challenges and opportunities in the district during Wednesday’s forum.

The district hosted a similar series of public forums in 2016 under Superintendent Christopher Cerf, which led to the district’s current three-year roadmap.

The district has hired a Newark-based consultancy, Creed Strategies, to lead the current planning process. The firm’s founder and president, Lauren Wells, is a former advisor to Baraka and previously helped spearhead a high-profile reform effort in Newark called the Global Village School Zone.

Started in 2010, the program lengthened the school day and added extra support services at seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School. It also brought the schools’ teachers together for joint trainings and made sure their courses were in sync so students could easily progress from the elementary schools to Central. However, Anderson abruptly ended the effort in 2012.

Now, Wells is helping incorporate elements of that program’s approach into León’s strategy. At the forum, Wells described some tenets of the strategy: recognizing and addressing poverty’s effects on students; helping schools work together rather than in isolation; taking advantage of the resources that families and local organizations have to offer schools; and measuring student success on a variety of scales.

“They will be risk-takers, they will be sought-after,” she said. “They will pass assessments — and not just the PARCC, but the bar.”

Attendees were also given a document with an elaborate diagram representing the “Clarity 2020” approach, which district employees received at an August conference where León previewed his plans. The diagram features a dozen “keys to 2020,” such as higher education and social services, and six “game changers,” including alumni and internships, but provides no details beyond those broad headings.

The district has not yet posted the document online or announced dates for the forums in each ward. León declined to be interviewed after the event.

Several attendees said they were energized by Wednesday’s forum, which included small-group brainstorming sessions where participants listed challenges and opportunities in the district.

“You don’t usually have a superintendent that asks questions,” said Nitia Preston, the community engagement specialist at Peshine Avenue School. “He’s asking, ‘What change do you want? What strengths do you have?’ I love that.”

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has faced calls to share more details of his agenda. On Wednesday, he unveiled his "NPS Clarity 2020" strategy.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”