City principals required to validate that graduates met requirements

Officials confirm slippage in graduation requirements in at least one school

May 31, 2012

In an effort to quell doubts about the city school system's graduation rate, school officials said this week that the district has ordered principals to take an extra measure this year to validate that all graduating seniors have fulfilled state requirements to obtain a diploma.

"We are very, very conscious of making sure that everyone is abiding by [state regulation]," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "So the high school validation process allows principals to be very, very specific about ensuring that seniors are meeting requirements.”

The revelation about the new policy -- which requires principals to sign off that they personally know their seniors are eligible for graduation -- came amid a Baltimore Sun inquiry about graduation requirements being met at the National Academy Foundation high school, where officials confirmed that nearly half of the senior class was found to have not completed graduation requirements.

Since March, 40 of the 90 seniors slated to graduate from the school have been making up classes through online courses and other out-of-classroom methods allowed by law. 

When asked if classes or grades had been misrepresented on transcripts at the school, Edwards denied that that had happened. She said there was a systemwide issue about graduation data, but said that the validation process is intended to be a safeguard.

“We know that people question whether we are doing this work legitimately and we are," Edwards said. "We just want to make sure we have strong protocols in place to validate the data."

She said the process was built on "lessons learned" from the district's decision to place monitors in every school that administered the Maryland School Assessments amid a series of cheating scandals. 

She added that the validation measure was also to “protect principals and help principals to be very knowledgeable about every single student.”

“We’re holding ourselves to a higher standard than many other districts are willing to do,” she said.

School officials said that is not unusual to review student records in the winter as the second semester approaches and find that students are missing requirements. This can happen, Edwards said, when students change their high-school tracks or when classes are dropped. 

“It's part of a normal review process that happens in every high school across the district,” she said, "where principals recognize that there are courses that the seniors needed in order for them to graduate.”

A number of options then emerge for the seniors, Edwards said. The state's graduation law, called COMAR, allows for students to make up credits through methods like tutoring, college courses, projects and independent studies.

At NAF, a school that opened about five years ago and whose principal, Karen Webber-Ndour, was appointed to city schools CEO Andres Alonso's cabinet in December, it was discovered that seniors had primarily missed a foreign language requirement, Edwards said. 

The issue was discovered by the new principal, Tammatha Woodhouse, when she arrived in January. She immediately asked school officials to investigate after she conducted a credit check of NAF seniors.

Webber-Ndour said that the timing of her departure allowed for requirements to slip because the mid-year credit check came later than normal. She said that normally high schools check seniors' credits at the beginning of the year and the beginning of the second semester --- when she departed her principal post.

"Had I been there, this would have been caught much earlier and this wouldn't be an issue," Webber-Ndour said. "There are issues that occur that we deal with throughout the year, that's how high schools roll. In this particular situation, the timing was really [difficult]. I'm very appreciate that Ms. Woodhouse found that there was this discrepancy and that the district was able to correct it."

Woodhouse could not be immediately reached for comment.

Edwards said that in addition, the school underwent crucial staffing changes that contributed to the problem.  The school's longtime principal, Karen Webber, was promoted to oversee the system's office of safety and support. School officials said also that the school endured critical budget cuts that resulted in a loss of staff.

“It was a huge moment of influx for the school," said Edwards. “It’s not the ideal situation for the school or the ideal situation for the district.”

Edwards said that the magnitude of the NAF situation is unique, and that in a recent spot check of 12 high schools, officials found no issues with graduation records.

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