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.

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.”