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Changed Grade Stirs Backlash

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    An Albuquerque Public Schools administrator changed the grade of a former school board member's son to allow him to graduate from Rio Grande High School today.
    The decision by Rio Grande cluster leader Elsy Fierro, who changed the student's grade from an "F" to a "D" after the school's principal refused to do so, has touched off a furor.
    Albuquerque Federation of Teachers President Ellen Bernstein said the union planned to file a grievance today on behalf of the English teacher who refused to change the grade.
    On Monday, nearly half of Rio Grande High School's teachers met with school union representatives. Many signed a petition criticizing Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt.
    They talked about other ways of protest, including wearing armbands at graduation or changing grades of other failing students.
    APS and school officials refused to identify the student or his parents.
    However, it was confirmed by several teachers and the boy's parents— former school board member Miguel Acosta and current Bernalillo County Commissioner Teresa Cordova.
    Fierro said she will be changing grades for another five students.
    The grade changes angered teachers.
    "It's absolutely unfair to the other 40 kids who are not graduating," said journalism teacher Albert Martinez. "... They're going to have to come to summer school."
    Cordova, who said her son's privacy had been violated by anyone who identified him, said she didn't pressure anyone or felt she received special treatment.
    "I hope I opened up the door for other parents," Cordova said. "And I hope I have called attention to the problems of graduation rates at Rio Grande High School."
    The sequence began when one of the parents approached the school, complaining it hadn't given enough notice the student was in academic distress.
    APS is reviewing records for all 41 Rio Grande seniors who had been told they couldn't graduate with their 275 classmates today, Fierro said.
    She said there are patterns of certain teachers who have failed to notify parents of academic problems or refused to allow makeup work.
    "Right now we're struggling and looking at this massive list of kids," she said. "... It's more than one student at this high school."
    Although teachers targeted Everitt in their petition, she said she wasn't directly involved.
    Everitt said she didn't meet with the student's parent or review the work, although Fierro shared the information with APS administrators after making her decision.
    APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said the district gets about 10 calls from parents every spring asking for grades to be reviewed for seniors. He said he did not know how many of those were changed.
    Principal Al Sanchez said he and an assistant principal met with the parent and a teacher about the teacher's refusal to accept a student's makeup work that was "41/2 weeks" late and "past due." He said such decisions are left up to teachers, and other teachers make exceptions.
    "I told the mother I feel very uncomfortable changing the grade or forcing a teacher to accept makeup work when she was following procedure," he said. "The teacher allowed him to take a final. He did, but he still didn't pass."
    Sanchez said each year he reviews seniors individually who are "close" to graduating and asks the teacher if there is a possibility for makeup work, but he has never told a teacher to change a grade.
    "Some do allow that makeup work and there are some that don't," he said. "There are some that are of very strong mind that (students) can't make it up (anymore). They had their opportunity and they failed."
    He said he referred the parent to Fierro.
    Chavez said a different teacher graded the student's make-up work and said it was OK to change the grade. Fierro told Sanchez to make the change.
Notification issue
    "Did they notify the parents in a timely manner or were they notified in a timely manner to make up any work assignments if they failed the class?" Fierro said. "That's the kind of ruling I was asked to make. The teachers might be upset about that, but I'm acting in the interest of students."
    She said if a student is failing, parents should be notified as to how low the scores are and an improvement plan should be put into place for that student, "not wait until the last minute to be told they're not graduating."
    "We have a responsibility as educators to make sure everyone succeeds," she said.
    Bernstein said assigning grades is a contract issue for teachers.
    "My concern is that it's a teacher's role and responsibility to assign grades," she said. "They base their grades on criteria that's public, and overturning a grade is no small matter. It was not overturned by the school principal. It was overturned at a district level."
    She questioned whether students at other schools would also be able to have grades overturned in the same manner.
    "As a parent, you're telling your kids you really ought to go to school and you really ought to follow the rules," Bernstein said. "I think what the teachers are saying is what does this mean as a teacher? What does this mean if I don't get to give grades?"
    Everitt said she is ordering a review of practices in the Rio Grande cluster for notification of parents for failure and absences and making sure processes are followed.
    "The whole issue is we want these kids to stay in school," Everitt said. "We want them to legitimately earn that diploma. Unless parents are given that information, it's very difficult to guide their children."
    She said Rio Grande has a system that exists to help students make up work and in this case the student wasn't referred by the teacher for help.
'Failure to communicate'
    Acosta, whose school board term ended March 1 after he did not seek re-election, said his family found out in the last two weeks that his son was failing English and would not graduate.
    "There was a failure to communicate around what work was missing and what his scores were," Acosta said.
    He described his son as "a good student" who went through some personal crises in the last year, including the suicide of a friend, but said the family had been keeping in communication with teachers.
    He said the school had sent out a progress report indicating his son had some problems in a math class, and he was able to correct the deficiencies for graduation. However, Acosta said, there was no contact made in the English class.
    "There were about 40 kids that fell through the cracks; my son was one of them, when you ask the administration why, they don't know what they failed," Acosta said.
    Rio Grande activities director James Chavez took a different position.
    He said he was frustrated and teachers felt the parents had exerted "political pressure" to get their child's grades changed.
    "What good is a Rio Grande teacher's grades?" Chavez said. "If we're all qualified instructors, basically they've undercut us."