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.

West principal Irene Jordan doesn't make an issue of Fs if absences are the cause, she says, but she has inquired about other cases. "When we fail a kid, in a sense, we're failing ourselves," she says. "If a kid had very few absences and still failed the class, I'd ask the teacher why."

When C'de Baca first raised the grade issue at a school board meeting two months ago, he was met with icy stares and expressions of disbelief. A DCTA official told the Denver Post that she hadn't received any complaints from teachers that officials were trifling with their academic freedom. But some teachers tell a different story--about receiving memos questioning their grading practices and about teachers who have wound up on "hit lists" based on the number of Fs they've doled out.

"Every teacher in the DPS, especially in the high schools, knows that this is happening," says Lincoln's Gary Apel. "But the union president says she doesn't know anything about it. Maybe she doesn't have a clue. I, for one, would never call [union officials], because I don't see them as having any power to do anything."

One memo sent to a teacher at West three years ago--unsigned, but evidently from that school's administration--refers to a series of meetings among administrators and the fifteen teachers who had the highest percentages of failing grades in their classes. "I strongly suggest that you analyze your current methods of delivering instruction and assessment practices," it states. "The percentages of your unsatisfactory grades are unacceptable." The teacher who received the memo soon received one of those administrative transfers to another school.

In some cases, it may make sense to urge teachers to adapt new methods. The ethnic makeup, family background and general cultural orientation of the DPS student body have changed dramatically in the past twenty years--particularly in the wake of forced busing and white flight to the suburbs--and veteran teachers probably can't get by with the same old teaching strategies any more than they can rely on out-of-date textbooks. But teachers say that there are only so many "assessment practices" available to them and that the underlying assumption of memos such as this one is that student failures are the teacher's fault--even if the student doesn't attend, refuses to do work or lacks the necessary skills to perform the coursework.

"Math is like a foreign language--you have to know the prior material to advance," notes one recently retired DPS high-school teacher who says she was frequently castigated by principals for giving too many Fs. "I can teach anyone math, given enough time, but we never had that kind of time--especially not when the students were unprepared or absent."

Teachers who are challenged about grades quickly realize that it's better to capitulate. That, at least, was the lesson learned by a bilingual teacher who was at one of the west-side high schools last year. During the first grading period, she says, she gave "a lot of Fs" to students who missed tests or were performing well below even the "third-grade work" she was handing out to ninth- and tenth-graders.

"After that, I had someone in my room, breathing down my neck, almost every day," she says. "I couldn't figure out what was going on; they wouldn't tell me why they were there. They even brought in a retired principal who didn't speak Spanish. Then people told me that when you give too many Fs, they monitor you to see what you're doing wrong. When that next six weeks came around, if someone had an F, I bumped it to a D. If someone had a C, I gave them a B."

"After you're called in three or four times, they don't have to put pressure on you to give Ds," explains retired teacher Don Amburn, who still works as a substitute teacher in the district. "You're going to do it just to keep from getting called in."

The practice is hardly new, Amburn notes. He recalls being quizzed by a principal about giving out "the second-highest number of Fs" when he was teaching at Thomas Jefferson in the late 1980s. Amburn told the principal the students who got Fs weren't doing their homework. "Her words to me were, 'Don, you ought to re-evaluate how much you count homework,'" he says.

Retired teacher John Garcia, who also substitutes in the district, says that although teachers who try to hold the line may not get much support from their principals, they get even less from parents. "Anyone who teaches in the Denver schools today and gives a lot of low grades is a fool," says Garcia, who's allied with C'de Baca's Hispanic Education and has his own grievances with the recent restructuring of his former school, Valdez Elementary. "You put yourself in harm's way. Parents are demanding that their kids be given high grades, and teachers take the easy way out. Why hassle? What principle can you uphold if parents are pushing you to give good grades?"

Bemoaning grade inflation has long been a favorite pastime in Denver's schools, but teachers say the problem is compounded by a wide variation in attendance policies--each school's community "collaborative decision-making" team sets its own rules, some of which appear to be quite lax--and by a pervasive atmosphere of lowered expectations for minority students. In the long run, they argue, it's the students who get penalized by being passed on from grade to grade.

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