Are high school seniors Googling their way to graduation?

In 2008, North High School had the lowest graduation rate among Denver's eleven traditional public high schools. Just 46 percent of its seniors managed to graduate that year. And the problem was nothing new.

North has been the target of reform efforts for years, prompted by low test scores, a shrinking student body and the abysmal graduation rate. Denver Public Schools has tried one improvement strategy after another, including changing principals, firing teachers and switching out its academic program and grading structure.

In 2006, DPS instituted a new program called "credit recovery," which allowed students who'd failed core courses such as geometry and literature to retake them online in a computer lab overseen by staff members. The program is now in all of Denver's high schools and will be added to any new schools next year. North was a prime candidate for the program and began using it in 2008.

And it seemed to help: In 2009, North's graduation rate jumped to 58 percent, the second-highest increase in the district. In 2010, it rose to 64 percent.

But two former North staffers say there's a darker side to those rapidly increasing numbers: They claim that seniors in the credit recovery program were allowed to cheat on computer-generated tests in order to graduate last year and that they were encouraged and even helped by an administration desperate to improve graduation rates.

They also say the students learned to game the system on their own. Some used Google or other websites to look up answers. Others took multiple-choice tests over and over again in order to figure out the answers by process of elimination. Once they did, the two staffers say, the students would pass the information on to their friends.

And since North allowed students to get credit for an entire semester simply by taking a single final exam, the staffers question whether they really learned anything at all. One of the staffers — who worked in the credit recovery lab and asked for anonymity because he fears retribution from DPS — says he tried to raise the issue with the district and with North assistant principal Nancy Werkmeister but was rebuffed.

Both staffers' stories are backed up by other North employees and volunteers, who describe a culture of complacency and disrespect in the classrooms and a desire on the part of the administration to improve graduation numbers without improving education.

"[Credit recovery] quickly began to feel like a giant Band-Aid. Is the sweetness of immediate gratification worth the long-range consequences of maybe you can't survive in the real world?" asks former North counselor Pat Salas. "Teenagers tell me the credit recovery classes are extremely easy, and going through the lessons is just the punishment. The finals on most of the classes are so easy that your average kid could do that — and that any kid, with the help of their friends, could do it."

District officials and outgoing North principal Ed Salem insist that the credit recovery program is rigorous. So, too, are the district's graduation standards, they say.

"We are committed to setting a high bar for our students and making sure they have the support and access to educational programs needed to reach and exceed those expectations," says Antwan Wilson, assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness at DPS. "The district is also absolutely committed to holding all of our schools and their staffs accountable for serving their students well and maintaining a high level of academic integrity in every single classroom."

But Wilson adds that in light of the concerns raised by former staffers through Westword, the district is auditing the transcripts of every student who graduated from North over the past two years. "The district places the highest priority on the academic integrity of all of its programs," he says. "If we determine that any employee has compromised that integrity, we will act immediately."

Salem, who deferred most questions to Wilson, recently announced that he was leaving North to become principal at Abraham Lincoln High School this fall. But shortly thereafter, he backed out of that job, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Nicole Veltze, the principal at Skinner Middle School, is slated to take over at North; she'll be the school's fourth principal in six years.

This past year, North made several changes to its credit recovery program, including limiting to once the number of times a student can fail a test before it locks the student out in an effort to encourage him to re-read the lesson before retaking the test.

The biggest change is that North has gone from hosting credit recovery in a single computer lab with a single staff member to having a full-blown "Engagement Center," where 150 full-time students are overseen by ten teachers or other employees.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar