Diploma disasters

July 30, 2004

TO SEE TEARS roll down the face of this year's top-ranked graduate of Walbrook High School Uniform Services Academy is to know tragedy multiplied. Charles Morris, first in his class, told reporters Wednesday that guidance counselors auditing school records cannot verify his graduation.

Missing from school and school system records was proof that he passed the reading, math and writing tests that the state required for graduation; he says he took two of the tests back in middle school, and one at Walbrook last year. But unless documentation can be found, the fancy certificate that he thought was a diploma is worthless.

He's one of hundreds of kids from Walbrook whose promotions or graduations may be invalid, and now depend on the cross-checking of school and system records and frantic searches for old report cards and documents, made necessary by allegations of rotten bookkeeping. The district has launched a review of student records at all 39 high schools, but initially the ugly spotlight is on Walbrook.

It matters little whether the discrepancies result from sloppy record management or illegal grade-changing, or documentation lost by the district during its transitions between computer systems, or alleged conspiracies to boost graduation rates, or pressure put on administrators at year's end to retest and advance students to reduce the need for summer school - or simple typos.

Speculation is rampant, and frankly, we've heard enough, because the damage is the same any way the story turns out: The students get hurt. Somehow the administrators up the chain failed to catch the mistakes by double-checking the most important documents in a student's career before it was too late: Now plans for jobs and college are potentially affected.

Former Walbrook Principal Andrey Bundley, sidelined on administrative leave until the investigation is complete, said in a one-paragraph statement that the records audit is being orchestrated to humiliate him because he challenged the mayor in the last city primary. That sounded arrogant, and so much more like a politician than an educator. Even if, as is very possible, he didn't create the problem and has been burned by it, he should be apologizing to the students for any failures of grades documentation that occurred in his administration and on his watch: They are the real victims here.

City school officials must determine what went wrong and what recordkeeping procedures must be put in place to ensure that it never happens again. And when it's over, they'll still need to help the young people pick up the pieces of the broken trust.

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