Last Thursday, an Albuquerque High School senior failed his English final exam, meaning he would not graduate with his class.
That same day, an Albuquerque High counselor suggested he take a class at Southwest Secondary charter school, which offers online courses for a fee of $200 per semester credit.
The student took the class over the weekend and showed up Monday with a transcript, showing he had completed senior English through the Northeast Heights charter school with a “C” grade.
That means the student will get to walk with his class Friday afternoon. And he appears to be one of hundreds of APS students who have earned online credits from the charter school.
“It sounds like a total scam. It’s the equivalent of me getting a three-year law degree on a 10-day Carnival cruise,” said APS board member Martin Esquivel, whose district includes Albuquerque High School.
“There is no way you can take that level of high school English in a weekend. It’s impossible. But more importantly, it’s undermining our school, it’s undermining our teachers who prepare curriculum and prepare their students.”
Although this student was from Albuquerque High School, Superintendent Winston Brooks noted that most APS students who earn credits through Southwest Secondary are from La Cueva and Eldorado high schools in the Northeast Heights.
“This is predominantly occurring in our more affluent high schools, and it’s not happening in some of our poorer high schools, which makes me worry about equity,” Brooks said. “So if you can afford the $200 you can buy your credit, and if you can’t, then you don’t. That seems to be hugely unfair and inequitable.”
Antonio Gonzales, the assistant principal at Albuquerque High who documented the incident, said it was frustrating for the student’s English teacher, who had worked hard with him and his parents to help him pass English and graduate on time.
“I think the best way I can articulate this is, this is the wind being taken out of our sails,” Gonzales said. “These teachers come in good faith to work every day to prepare students and when these kinds of things happen, it’s very demoralizing.”
Gonzales said he was immediately suspicious of the credit, and investigated whether he would have to accept it. But since Southwest Secondary is an accredited charter school, APS schools have no choice but to do so.
Brooks said he will look into whether the Albuquerque High counselor knew how quickly the class could be completed.
“If the counselor said, ‘there is a quick and dirty way that you can do this over the weekend,’ then that’s wrong, and we will deal with it,” Brooks said.
He said he plans to remind teachers, counselors and principals to steer students toward legitimate ways to make up credits.
Scott Glasrud, head administrator at Southwest Secondary, said the student’s situation is unusual, and that a weekend does sound like too little time to finish a semester’s worth of work.
However, Glasrud pulled up the student’s record and found he was logged into the class for 56 hours and 41 minutes over the course of the four days he was enrolled. Glasrud said he still thinks a weekend is too quick, but that the student did complete the essays and quizzes required to pass.
He added that 56 hours isn’t much less than a traditional semester class, and that the student had probably picked up some concepts in the traditional class he failed.
“When you look at real instructional time, the kid spent almost as much instructional time in this course, and this was the second time through,” Glasrud said.
This year, 289 APS students took 387 classes from Southwest Secondary. Brooks said he is concerned many of those students may be earning credits in just a few days or weeks.
In a letter Wednesday to state Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, Brooks wrote of his concerns.
“We are concerned about the ethics of granting a diploma to students who may not have met the academic standards required of all New Mexico high school graduates,” Brooks wrote.
“We are also questioning the legitimacy of students moving back and forth between charters and comprehensive high schools in an effort to quickly earn credits.” The letter calls on the Public Education Department to investigate the situation.
In response, PED spokesman Larry Behrens released this written statement:
“With thousands of students taking the time to work hard for a diploma we take seriously the responsibility to make sure that diploma is earned. We’ve been clear from day one we expect a high bar for every student at every level. Having only heard of these concerns today, we will be looking into the situation immediately.”
Glasrud’s school provides “extended learning” services, which means it allows students to take classes at any time of year. Students from any school can take a class without actually enrolling at Southwest Secondary. Glasrud said this is the same as charter school students enrolling in APS summer school programs, or public school students taking summer programs offered at Albuquerque Academy. He said the $200 per semester charge goes toward paying for the teachers who monitor students’ progress, and for the costs of licensing the online learning software.
Glasrud and several APS administrators confirmed that APS and Southwest Secondary once had a verbal agreement that the charter would not enroll any seniors after March 31, unless those students already planned to graduate late. The agreement was intended to prevent last-minute credits like the recent Albuquerque High incident.
Glasrud said he still abides by that agreement and that the student’s enrollment was an oversight failure on his part.
But other principals said the Albuquerque High student’s story is not isolated.
Martin Sandoval, principal of Eldorado, said he had students this spring who registered for Southwest Secondary classes after spring break and completed them in time to graduate. He said he had another student who completed three classes in four weeks.
Sandoval said students at his school often use credits from the charter school to stay eligible for athletics, which requires a grade point average of 2.0.
“We have students who want to become eligible to play athletics; they failed a course, and so they go over there and they do the class quickly to regain their eligibility,” Sandoval said. He said he is concerned about the legitimacy of the classes because of how quickly they can be completed.
“I don’t believe they are getting near the instruction and knowledge they would be getting in a face-to-face class,” Sandoval said.
“They don’t have the seat time, the interaction with the teacher, the feedback. And again, I don’t see how you can adequately cover the standards and get the full curriculum in that short a period of time.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal