Zero for Conduct

Teacher Joseph C'de Baca says Denver's public schools are failing Hispanic students--by passing those who don't deserve it.

"It's a social club that does not provide services for its members," C'de Baca says of the DCTA. "I resigned after they voted to strike without an adequate strike fund. I struck against the strike. I did not walk, and that's not easy for me. I'm a union person."

When he arrived at West in 1996, C'de Baca says, he was looking forward to working with principal Ed Cordova, who had a reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian. But by the December break, C'de Baca was convinced that the administration was going to absurd extremes in its attempts to keep West students in school--on paper, at least--and on track for graduation. That month he received two memos from an assistant principal asking him to "freeze" the grades of two students who would not be returning for the rest of the semester, which ended in January. C'de Baca had never heard of such a thing.

"I won't do that," he says. "Hell, no. That's an F. You can't miss five weeks of the semester and expect a teacher to freeze your grade. That's garbage."

Bernadette Seick, the DPS assistant superintendent in charge of secondary education, says that grade-freezing is not a policy in the district and that the two students mentioned in the curiously worded memos C'de Baca received are the only cases she's heard about. Both students were having disciplinary problems, she says, and the intent was to withdraw the students from class so they could receive a "fresh start" in the second semester.

"It makes it sound as if the students were getting some sort of break, but they were failing anyway," Seick says. "What they should have said was that they were going to withdraw these students."

But other West teachers say they also received requests for grade freezes during Cordova's tenure. And C'de Baca says he's seen other attempts to "pass along" absentee students at West. He says he was having trouble with two girls in a Hispanic history class who were "skipping class and being disrespectful." Consultations with parents hadn't changed their behavior, and they were heading for Fs when a student advisor intervened. "She told me, 'We really need them to graduate. If you can give them Ds, I'll take them out of your class the rest of the semester,'" he recalls. "I thought about it, and I acquiesced. It was wrong. They graduated, but they must have got all kinds of credit waivers."

Seick insists that credit waivers are used "most judiciously." When she was a high-school principal, she says, she may have waived course credits on two occasions in five years. But Seick doesn't know how many credit waivers were issued to graduating seniors in Denver last year; although waivers must be noted on a student's transcript, the DPS hierarchy doesn't review principals' waiver decisions or even collect data on how many waivers are issued. Several teachers, most of whom requested anonymity, told Westword that they believe numerous students received credit waivers at West last year.

One former bilingual teacher recalls a senior student who'd been placed in a required sophomore social studies class and had more than twenty absences. "The girl had an F," she says. "Completely. My teeth dropped at graduation when I saw her walk across the stage. I knew she didn't have even a tenth-grade credit in social studies. I asked the counselor about it, and he said, 'Well, you know the principal can do this; we found credits for this gym class she took.' I was shocked."

Another student, who spoke virtually no English, came to her midway through the semester to tell her he was dropping to half-time status in order to keep his janitorial job at a shopping mall. "I saw him graduate, too," the teacher says. "He never even got the credit, much less a passing grade. I saw a lot of kids that got Fs who were just passed on."

Another West teacher recalls a student who was in a required math class for a total of two weeks. She sat at graduation with two other teachers--both of whom had failed the highly absent student in other courses that year--and watched the student graduate. "They're very proud that they graduate more Hispanics at West than anywhere else, but it's a sham," the teacher says. Before the ceremony, she adds, an administrator told her "that there are going to be some people graduating for reasons the teachers may not understand."

Former principal Cordova, who retired from DPS this year, declined to comment on academic issues at West last year. He plans to respond to C'de Baca's allegations in a presentation to the school board next month. Seick says even half a dozen cases of credit waivers in a single graduating class would be unusual. North High principal Joe Sandoval says he's granted only one credit waiver in the past six years, and that issuing waivers--particularly for required academic courses--simply isn't standard practice among his colleagues. "The people saying this had better get their facts straight," Sandoval says.

Without access to confidential student transcripts, it's impossible to determine the exact number of credit waivers issued to Denver students last year, but teachers suspect that the waivers are being used to override an instructor's refusal to grant credit. "We know it happens," says Gary Apel, a Lincoln social studies teacher who ran unsuccessfully for school board last year. "I had an administrator come up to me last year, on the last day of class for seniors, and ask me to give this kid credit for an American history class that he needed to graduate. He had never been in my class.

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