Thursday, June 21, 2007
APS Grade Change Gets an F
By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
The state has weighed in with its findings; the Albuquerque Public Schools and the teachers union have signed off on a deal.
But repercussions of a decision by top school district administrators to change a student's grade continue to roil APS.
N.M. Public Education Dept. Report on the Rio Grande H.S. Grade Change Incident
Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt apologized for the district's role in changing a Rio Grande High student's failing grade a decision she concurred with at the time;
The state Public Education Department said the teacher and Rio Grande officials followed procedures, that the parents were given adequate warnings and that the grade should not have been changed;
The state investigation found that Elsy Fierro, the cluster leader most directly involved, exerted undue influence and would be referred to face possible ethics charges;
Fierro said the school's principal didn't provide her with all the pertinent information and that she consulted with Associate Superintendents Susie Peck and Nelinda Venegas before ordering the grade change.
"I think I've been the one that's been set up," Fierro said;
School board member Marty Esquivel said there should still be an independent probe and predicted the fallout from the scandal could have long-term implications for APS when it comes to bond elections and other matters;
The student, the son of County Commissioner Teresa Cordova and former APS board member Miguel Acosta will keep his diploma, Everitt said.
Cordova led the effort to have the student's grade changed, arguing he should have been allowed to turn in makeup work.
Everitt addressed the issue during a board meeting Wednesday after the state report was made public.
"We do take responsibility," she said. "Yes there was a mistake. We'll probably make mistakes again. Hopefully not that one again. And I do apologize to our community. It's been a very difficult time."
Everitt earlier Wednesday defended Fierro, calling her an individual with a long-successful career.
"The teacher did what she thought was right, the administrator did what she thought was right. And somewhere in between all that lies some truth."
The Public Education Department report credited the boy's teacher with exceeding her requirements to try to help him pass.
And it said the parents were provided with at least five notices their son was failing English, "two of these specifically stated that failing a class could result in a failure to graduate."
Everitt and APS officials had defended the grade change by arguing the school didn't do enough to notify the parents and provide the student a chance to address problems.
The teacher told the Journal it felt "really good" to have an outside person exonerate the school's decision not to change the grade.
She said other students in her class didn't get a passing grade, either.
"There were some other kids that didn't graduate," Anita Forte said. "I didn't fail them; they failed themselves."
Who was involved
Esquivel renewed his push for an independent investigation, saying it was poorly handled by the administration.
He also questioned the personal relationships between the parents, Everitt and Venegas.
"I think that this is not a decision Elsy Fierro made in isolation," he said. "That's the biggest question I have in the report. I believe other top administrators, including Dr. Everitt, were involved in this grade change. Elsy Fierro does not need to be the fall guy here."
Fierro has been referred to the Educator Ethics Bureau for action on her licensure.
"Dr. Fierro exerted undue influence when she directed the administrative team at Rio Grande High School to change a student's grade," the report said.
"This undue influence was based on the authority of her position and clearly resulted in determining professional decisions concerning a student's final grade. In addition, incomplete and inaccurate information was provided to the superintendent and the associate superintendents in an apparent attempt to gain support for the grade change directive."
'Information pops up'
Fierro said Wednesday she would not have changed the student's grade if Rio Grande Principal Al Sanchez had provided APS with the same documentation given the state.
"Al Sanchez was asked specifically for this documentation," she said Wednesday. "He still didn't have this information. All of a sudden this information pops up. The PED didn't talk to the parent when they were investigating to verify the validity of this information."
She also talked about her dealings with Venegas and Peck.
"I didn't take the grade change lightly," Fierro said. "I really needed to make sure I consulted with these experienced administrators to help me review that information and make the decision."
The state had conducted the investigation at Everitt's request, with a "very narrow" scope of whether APS followed their own processes for the grade change and whether there was a potential ethics violation.
"Whatever APS chooses to do with the report, obviously it's their prerogative," State Secretary of Education Veronica Garcia said.
Penalties for Fierro could range from no action, to a letter of reprimand, or a suspension or revocation of the administrative license.
Fierro ordered the grade changed at Cordova's request and after having another teacher re-evaluate the student's makeup work.
Rio Grande teachers protested the decision, arguing it was influenced by powerful parents. The Albuquerque Federation of Teachers filed a grievance on behalf of Forte, who refused to change the student's grade after makeup work was turned in weeks late.
The state report said Forte had provided the student with "opportunities not afforded to other students" by allowing him to take two final exams and by modifying the written final to include only questions from previous tests."
"APS did in fact have policies guiding this area and the policies were followed," the report said.
Fierro said Sanchez didn't want to make the decision so he passed it on to her because "it was suicide" no matter what was decided.
"I think the principal withheld information. Why, all of a sudden, is it coming out?"
The information, Sanchez said, was presented orally to Fierro by the teacher and the Rio Grande attendance officer and the teacher's records were only withheld after the grievance was filed when the grade was changed.
Later Wednesday, Everitt and teachers' union president signed off on an agreement resolving the grievance.
The document said APS agrees with the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers that the grade was properly assigned.
It also said the district and union agreed parent notification and attendance requirements should be followed and clarified but not add additional work for teachers.
The agreement said future grade disputes that cannot be resolved by the school would be heard by the superintendent and union president.
Forte who said she could finally speak publicly because the grievance was over said she has rules for her class, though she has been lenient sometimes when "life happens." She said she didn't think her class was that hard.
"Show up, participate, turn in your work and pass the class. I don't see any difficulty there."
She said she was not aware of who the boy's parents were and they did not tell her until one of the Rio Grande assistant principals told her the week before grades were released.
"That administrator knew he was going to get a failing grade and wanted to make sure I knew the ferver it was going to cause and didn't want to change my mind," she said.
Journal staff writer Juan-Carlos Rodriguez contributed to this report.