North High: How many seniors graduated from school that used credit recovery courses?

"Passing on Education," this week's cover story, questions whether students at North High School were allowed to cheat in online credit recovery courses in order to make up classes they'd failed -- and ultimately, graduate. In the three years that North has used credit recovery, graduation rates have increased. And that appears to be what happened this year, too.

North held its graduation ceremony on Monday night, May 23. The program shows that 168 students graduated. Figuring out how many did not graduate, however, is trickier.

Four days before graduation, on May 19, North principal Ed Salem told Westword that 111 out of 126 seniors on the main campus were on track to graduate, meaning they were not failing any required classes.

In addition, 27 out of 37 seniors were on track to graduate from the Engagement Center, a so-called "school within a school" in which 150 students in all grades attend full-time and do most of their work online. This year was the first for North's Engagement Center, which is open for twelve hours a day and staffed by a rotating cast of teachers. (Montbello, Abraham Lincoln and West high schools also have engagement centers.)

But North's numbers don't seem to add up. According to Salem, on May 19, 138 out of 163 seniors were on track to graduate. Then four days later, the program said that 168 did. Salem explained today that the program is not an official record, and that the 168 names listed include students who "will potentially graduate through summer school, too."

Still, it would appear that all -- or very nearly all -- of North's seniors graduated this year. That's quite a feat for a school that had a 46 percent graduation rate in 2008.

This fall, North will experience several changes. For one thing, Salem won't be back. After helming North for three years, he told staff earlier this spring that he'd taken the principal job at Abraham Lincoln. But a few weeks later, Lincoln announced that Salem had turned down the job to spend more time with his family. North hired a different principal for next year: Nicole Veltze, who was principal at Skinner Middle School this year.

Nancy Werkmeister, an assistant principal at North who oversaw part of the credit recovery program, recently announced that she won't be returning, either. She's retiring, according to Denver Public Schools spokesman Michael Vaughn -- and she says her decision has nothing to do with Westword's story.

Werkmeister declined an interview for the story. But the story quotes from e-mails she sent to credit recovery staffers in which she refused to block websites that students were using to cheat on online tests. In another e-mail, Werkmeister wrote that students who were failing a class would be allowed to demonstrate proficiency (and pass the class) by simply taking the final in credit recovery rather than doing the coursework.

And that lowering of expectations, current and former teachers say, is the real cheat.

More from our Education archives: "DPS English-language program: More than 200 Spanish-speaking parents graduate."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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