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.
North High School
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.
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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.
On May 23, more than 100 seniors graduated from North High. But, current and former North teachers wonder, how many of them are equipped for life after high school?
North's Engagement Center comprises four classrooms in a less busy wing of the school. On a May morning, just a week before graduation, between five to ten students were sitting quietly at computers in each classroom. In one, the students worked on math quizzes with the help of a roaming teacher.
"What credit recovery is about is, let's not wait until a kid has failed for two or three years in a row. We need to put that kid on a path to be successful," says Wilson, who toured the center that day, "whereas before, maybe they're hanging out with their group of friends over here and their friends say, 'Hey, let's skip period five.' They're asked to make certain choices. Here there are no distractions...the students are able to focus on their work.
"It's a school within a school," he adds.
DPS currently uses a system supplied by Apex Learning, a Seattle-based company that also produces online curricula for Advanced Placement classes nationwide. The district had 4,000 Apex "seats" this past year; one seat gives one student access to as many Apex courses as he'd like to take. District-wide statistics show that increasing numbers of high school students in all grades are signing up. As of April 22, DPS says, 3,625 students had taken credit recovery courses during the 2010-2011 year, up from about 2,400 last year and approximately 600 in fall 2008.
Graduation rates, meanwhile, have varied. Fifty percent of DPS seniors graduated in 2008. In 2009, that number jumped to 53 percent. But in 2010, it dipped slightly to 52 percent. The decrease can perhaps be attributed to a new statewide system for calculating graduation rates. Now, instead of counting all students who graduate, the state only counts students who graduate "on time," four years after they start as freshmen.
North's Engagement Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and students can attend in the daytime or the evening and learn at their own pace using online lessons. Many zip through classes more quickly than they would in the traditional classroom.
"In the Engagement Center, it's not about seat time. It's all about how quickly they're able to master the material," Wilson says. "A regular course is eighteen weeks. But here they can master it in six weeks. We tell [the] administration to make sure they're doing everything to help these students be successful. They don't waste time."
But several people familiar with last year's credit recovery program say that wasting time was the main thing students were doing.
Credit recovery "was sold as a way to meet kids where they were and to be more flexible," says Blair Brown, who taught chemistry at North for three years before leaving at the end of last year to go back to school in another state. But, she adds, "it was hastily implemented. There wasn't a lot of forethought and there wasn't a lot of afterthought. It was just a way to push people through and get them out so they wouldn't have to keep them in class."
But oftentimes, students saw credit recovery as a shortcut. "It was commonplace for them to say, 'Oh, I don't need to do well in here because I'll just go take it in credit recovery and then I will pass,'" says Brown. "Every single student who ever came in my room was capable of passing my class, given the right amount of support. It makes me really sad that there's this easy option."
Documents obtained by Westword show that as graduation approached in 2010, more and more students used that option.
During the first semester last year, 154 North students were enrolled in a total of 185 Apex courses, according to a meticulous, color-coded spreadsheet kept by the former staff member in charge of the daytime credit recovery program. The spreadsheet shows which courses students were taking and whether they'd passed. Those 154 students, it shows, only managed to pass a total of 57 classes, a rate of about 30 percent.
That number jumped dramatically in the second semester of the school year. According to the spreadsheets, 225 students were enrolled in 425 courses during the second semester — and they passed 317 of them, which put the pass rate at 75 percent.
North wouldn't permit Westword to talk to any students. But current and former staff members say they doubt all of those students passed without cheating, in part because the students didn't take the credit recovery courses seriously.
"It was very common for me to go around, and a student would have their iPod on and they'd be cruising the Internet," adds Frank Jones, a 77-year-old grandfather and volunteer at North who helped in the credit recovery lab last year for several hours a day; his granddaughter had attended North a few years ago. "I would normally say, 'The policy here is that you don't use that in the classroom.' Normally, I'd just get the one-finger salute, and there's nothing I could do about that."
But the staffer who oversaw the daytime lab did want to do something about it.
On February 10, 2010, he wrote an e-mail to Stefanie Gurule, then DPS's director of student re-engagement, who worked under Wilson. He was following up on a conversation he says they'd had a month earlier about students cheating.
"Since we talked about 4 weeks ago, students have been able to use the Internet to get more and more answers," he wrote. "If we could get a couple of websites completely blocked this would be really helpful. The students are not learning the way the program is meant to teach them."
When Gurule wrote back, she copied Werkmeister, the assistant principal, saying, "I believe you can block these by working with your technology person at your school...During the learning process having the students access these sites may be turned into an opportunity, but only if they are blocked from the tests during testing."
But the websites don't appear to be teaching tools. One, www.myalgebra.com, spits out answers when users type in algebra problems. When the students figured this out, the former instructor says, they would copy and paste the questions into the site. Many Apex tests feature multiple-choice answers, and once the website solved the problem, he says, the students would simply click on the correct answer.
Cheryl Vedoe, the CEO of Apex Learning, says Apex courses feature several safeguards to protect against cheating, including randomized test questions so no two tests are exactly the same, a "closed book" feature that blocks students from going back into the lessons while taking a test and a feature that prevents students from unlocking the tests themselves. However, she says, "there is a relatively limited amount that Apex can do to prevent students from utilizing the web to go look up answers."
Werkmeister decided not to prevent it, either, and declined to block the sites. "The students will have the opportunity to use those sites," she wrote in an e-mail, "but for the final exam, it must be completed on paper — hard copy — and the students must be monitored..."
This, she reasoned, would allow them to continue to research online about the subjects — from American history to English lit to algebra. "This will cut down on our work and the students can continue to research their answers," Werkmeister continued. "They will have to read them and learn them no matter how they obtain them."
On March 23, Werkmeister called a meeting to clarify what she referred to as "credit recovery issues," according to an e-mail obtained by Westword. Afterward, she sent a summary to the school counselors and credit recovery staff members.
"We have given the students the opportunity to demonstrate success in a failed class by allowing them to take the final exam from Apex," she wrote in the e-mail. "This needs to go through Nancy first," she added, referring to herself.
Apex keeps meticulous records that show when a student logs in, how long they spend on the computer and their grade for each quiz and test. Most courses include six units with six quizzes each, as well as one final exam.
But Werkmeister's e-mail implied that students wouldn't have to complete that coursework or take the quizzes as long as they passed the final exams, which were given only in night school, where Matt Larson, now North's assistant principal for the Engagement Center, oversaw students taking credit recovery courses.
"If the student passes with 80% or better, the student will earn credit for that class," wrote Werkmeister, who declined to comment for this story.
As one current North teacher says, that would be analogous to allowing a student to ditch class all year and then show up for the final and pass the class. "The students are responsible for almost nothing," says the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. "They get endless chances to test and retest." The effect, the teacher says, is to "artificially raise low grades so the school's numbers look better."
As time ran out at the end of last year and graduation grew closer, more and more students were allowed to just take the final in a mad dash to grant them credit, according to documents.
"It was crazy last night," Larson wrote on May 7 in an e-mail to the daytime credit recovery staffer. "Admin approved about 12 kids taking the final."
How some of them did it, though, is a mystery.
One student — Ashley — needed two semesters of English to graduate and was enrolled in two Apex classes: British Literature and Composition, Semester 1 and Semester 2. Records show that Ashley spent 29 hours and 13 minutes on Apex from January 19 through May 3 of 2010, in which time she completed nearly all of the Semester 1 coursework, stopping partway through Unit 5. Records show she did no work — zero minutes and zero units completed — on Semester 2.
But on May 4, she was given full credit for British Literature and Composition Semester 2. And on May 5, she was given credit for Semester 1. Her transcript includes this note beside each course: "GRDS FR CREDIT RECOVERY NW." Former staff members say NW stands for Nancy Werkmeister, denoting that she entered the credits.
Four other students' records indicate similar patterns. One senior only made it partway through the coursework for Unit 1 of British Literature yet passed the final with an 82 percent. The other managed to make it halfway through Unit 4 before passing the final with a 96 percent.
Another student spent the month of April working on a geometry course. He made it partway through Unit 2 before passing the final with an 82 in early May.
The most egregious example, one staffer says, is a student who did zero minutes of coursework in British Literature but passed the final with an 80 percent. After taking the test, the student told him the exam had been about "something British. I just wrote anything." The student graduated last year.
Wilson says Apex records don't tell the whole story. In credit recovery, students adhere to a "blended learning" model that includes both online coursework through Apex and tutoring or classroom instruction. Students pass classes by mastering each individual skill or academic standard the class is designed to teach, he explains.
"If a student obtains an 80 percent or better on the assessment for any given standard, then the student is considered 'proficient,' meaning the student has knowledge to pass the standard and move on to the next standard," he says.
In other words, it's possible that the students did the remaining coursework with a tutor or a teacher. As for allowing students to take the finals without completing their coursework, Wilson doesn't see a problem with it. "The purpose of a final is to measure a student's mastery," he says. "If we have students who have the ability to master the final but who don't have the ability to earn credit for that, I'd question the logic of that."
Principal Salem adds that many of the students at North are failing because they are missing class rather than failing tests. In fact, in 2009 he decreed that only students with 85 percent attendance records could participate in graduation ceremonies. (See Patricia Calhoun's "Send North High's principal to detention," May 14, 2009.) That policy is no longer in effect.
And Wilson also points out that regular students are allowed to pass with a grade of 60 percent, while credit recovery students must earn an 80 percent on an Apex final.
"If a student gets an 80 percent on an algebra final but we don't give them credit, that seems illogical," Wilson says. "I know people might say, 'But what about the assignments they were supposed to do?' The assignments are practice. The assessment is the test of their knowledge. In terms of preparing them for college, we're not preparing them to know how to do homework. I know when I was in college, I didn't have a lot of homework. It was about being able to produce papers and take exams."
But data suggests that North's students aren't prepared for college.
A recent report by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education shows that in 2010, 72 percent of North graduates needed to take at least one remedial class in college. The four Denver high schools with the highest number of graduates taking remedial classes in college — North, Montbello (72 percent), Abraham Lincoln (79 percent) and West (91 percent) — all have credit recovery Engagement Centers.
This spring, the number of North students on track to graduate seemed to be in constant flux. In mid-April, 48 were on track to graduate, according to school officials. Forty students were failing one class that was required to graduate, according to minutes from an April meeting of the North Collaborative School Committee (CSC) and another twenty were failing two required classes. Thirty more in the Engagement Center were also on track to graduate.
Those statistics prompted Jennifer Draper Carson, the chairwoman of the CSC, to write an editorial for the North Denver Tribune questioning what it would take to attract more students to North and make the school successful. "With graduation scheduled for May 23, school administrators reported this week that only 48 of 123 seniors are currently on track to graduate," she wrote. "Yes, you read that right — 48 out of 123. How many of those graduating seniors will have the skills needed to avoid remedial courses?"
Three weeks after she wrote the piece, which ran on April 21, Draper Carson says she was told by administrators at North that the number of students on track to graduate had increased to 92. "They didn't tell me why there was such a big jump," she says. Their explanation, according to Draper Carson? "They just made up their credits."
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Late last week, North reported that the number had jumped again, to 111.
While no one is arguing that more students graduating high school is a bad thing, current and former North employees worry that the process set up to help them do so is doing more harm than good.
"What sucks is that there are kids working their butts off for a diploma to mean something and there are kids getting diplomas from North who have earned every single credit on there plus more," says Brown. "Then a bunch of other kids get the same diploma, and it devalues it."
She adds, "I'd hate for...people to look at a transcript and say, 'Oh, they went to North? They'll give a diploma to anyone.'"