Walbrook graduates learn their status

Some diplomas may be invalid because of unmet requirements

July 29, 2004|By Laura Loh and Scott Waldman | Laura Loh and Scott Waldman,SUN STAFF

Armed with report cards and transcripts, recent graduates of Walbrook High School Uniform Services Academy trickled in one by one yesterday to learn whether they were among more than 100 students whose diplomas may be invalid because city school officials did not realize -- until now -- that they had not met graduation requirements.

Officials announced Tuesday that they are investigating the West Baltimore high school's records, after problems were uncovered in hundreds of student transcripts. Nearly a third of the 396 students who received diplomas may not have fulfilled course requirements, and hundreds of other Walbrook students may have been improperly promoted to the next grade.

Staff members at Walbrook have been working late hours to contact students, starting with recent graduates who may be going to the military, college or work and need to be told of diploma problems right away.

School board President Patricia L. Welch praised administrators yesterday for reacting quickly. "We really don't want our students to become the victims," Welch said in an interview. "I'm glad we uncovered this now rather than in October."

The school's errors have disrupted the lives of even high-achieving students who believed they had done everything necessary to succeed.

Charles Morris, a senior with a 4.0 grade-point average who was ranked No. 1 in last month's graduating class, emerged from the school yesterday afternoon with tears streaming down his face.

"I was kissing my diploma and everything," said Morris, 18, whose plans for summer work and college are in limbo because he could not get his diploma certified. "And my diploma ain't worth nothing."

The school brought in a dozen guidance counselors yesterday to meet with students to go over transcripts and plans to make up missing requirements.

By late afternoon, a few dozen students had shown up. School officials said they had not called everyone and were relying partly on the news media to get the word out.

"It was very under-subscribed," said Frank DeStefano, director of high schools.

The apparent lack of urgency yesterday from many Walbrook students and parents seemed to contrast with the efforts of officials -- including police officers who rushed into to the school Tuesday afternoon to seize some records.

The counseling sessions are to resume today and tomorrow from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. at Walbrook. On Monday, the school will be open for students to register for an emergency summer-school session that will begin Tuesday.

School officials did not know how many students would sign up for the makeup courses, which are to be held free online. Other city high school students making up credits this summer are being charged $150 per course.

"We felt it was absolutely necessary that we provide that service free of charge," DeStefano said, so students are not penalized for the school's errors.

Officials have also begun a review of student records at the rest of the city's 39 high schools. They will be reviewing every transcript at comprehensive schools and testing samples of records at citywide schools, a process that should take about two weeks, DeStefano said. Another high school that has been checked, Southwestern, did not have any discrepancies.

Many of those who visited Walbrook yesterday were accompanied by parents who were either angry about the confusion or confident that their children's records would be set straight.

Plenty of families received good news. But there were exceptions.

Nathan Madison, 18, said a counselor called his home to tell him his diploma was in jeopardy because he was missing a required history class.

"I'm mad, but I don't know what I have to do," Madison said, adding that he plans to return to the school with his mother today. He said he does not have plans for college but needs the diploma to find work.

Things went better for Bryan Burrell, 17, who did a few dance steps after counselors confirmed that his transcript was complete.

"I'm good," he said. "I'm going to college now."

Burrell stopped to console Morris as the top-ranked student sat on the school's front steps digesting the bad news he had received.

Counselors told Morris that they could not certify his diploma because the school did not have a record that he had passed the state's functional exams -- basic skills tests that have been replaced by the Maryland High School Assessments and will not be a graduation requirement for anyone beyond the class of 2004.

"They [were] easy," said Morris, who said he passed two of the exams in middle school and the third last year. "Fifth-grade tests."

Morris' mother, reached by telephone at home, said she felt helpless when her son told her what had happened.

"My baby looked at me and said, `Momma, my life is screwed up,'" said Virginia Morris Mitchell, a former teacher who home-schooled Charles and his brother for several years. "It cuts your soul."

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