Inconsistencies in the administration of absence and credit recovery policies at Columbia High School are leading the South Orange-Maplewood School District to give students amnesty who have have received grades of “NC” in the past.
“NC” means a student has a passing grade but does not get credit for a class because they had too many absences (5 are allowed for a one-quarter course, 9 for a semester course, and 18 for a full year course).
The creation of new consistent absence procedures are underway in the high school and a new credit recovery program will begin in January, according to Interim CHS Principal Dr. Kalisha Morgan who took over as building head in July.
Morgan and Director of Counseling Scott White presented a draft report on the “Attendance & Grading Audit-High School” to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on November 19. Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra had ordered the audit in June after “concerns about credit recovery and grading policy and procedures at Columbia High School have reached the point where the South Orange-Maplewood School District is looking to hire an outside consultant to review the situation.” (The report is not yet available to the public.)
Both Morgan and White were very direct in their assessment of the situation — and it was withering.
Although a policy was in place, Morgan said it had not been applied with consistency. White called the procedures or lack thereof surrounding the issuance of NCs “improper,” and said, “I was pretty aghast at the inconsistencies when I came to the school” (White started at CHS in April).
Morgan reported that 577 students had received NCs in the 2017/19 school year — a fact that at least one BOE member asked her to repeat later as they appeared taken aback by the number. Approximately 2,000 students are enrolled at the high school.
The presentation pointed to inconsistencies in administration of the policy: while some students had NCs because of serious illnesses, others had NCs possibly due to inconsistent attendance-taking practices. During their presentation, Morgan and White indicated that it was often unclear who was marking and categorizing absences — teachers or the central office.
Morgan reported that new processes are beginning and that the new credit recovery program is beginning in January. “We want to catch them early so that we can get credit recovery started,” she said.
She noted that teachers no longer had the ability to use the NC grade. “We felt that this is something that should be done by administrators only,” said Morgan.
Morgan reported that no student hand book had been published since 2015. She said that the hand book has been updated online (see absence policy and credit recovery information starting on Page 10) and that revisions are underway to ensure consistency. She noted that parents are being updated online about absence policy and about monitoring Powerschool related to absences.
When asked how far back the audit had gone, Morgan and White said to the 2015-16 school year — when current seniors were freshmen.
White pointed out the there was a demographic disparity in the number of students being issued NCs; he reported that students of color were receiving NCs at a rate of 3 to 1 over white students.
BOE member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad called the demographic imbalance of the NCs “very concerning” and suggested restorative practices to address the issue. She said that the audit represented a “great opportunity” and also noted “we have very specific people who were involved in this.”
When Morgan noted that fixing the problem was still a work in progress, she said, to BOE President Elizabeth Baker, “I can give you a timeline at the end of this marking cycle,” and added, “It took it to the end of this marking cycle to discover everything.”
BOE member Johanna Wright questioned whether students had graduated who should not have — due to lack of credits. Morgan replied, “I don’t know but I did hear from students that there were students with 30, 40, 50 absences who graduated.”
Morgan also lamented the fact that there is only one attendance official in the high school: “It’s a lot for one person.” She said she would recommend another person in the attendance office for “a school of our size” and mentioned having four people in the attendance office in a previous situation.
The question of assigning blame and naming names publicly was alluded to throughout the presentation and questions from the BOE. Wright asked whether cutting the dean positions impacted the administration of the policy. She also stated, “The people who are responsible need to be held accountable. … This is one of the darkest days [in this district] and I’ve had plenty sitting in this horseshoe.”
However, when asked if the issue should be reported to the state, White said, “I don’t think there’s anything untoward going on. … There was no malfeasance. It was more incompetence.”
White did, however, sound a conciliatory note about the issue: “We’re not unique,” he said, and explained that he wrote 60-page report when he left Montclair High School documenting and addressing issues around students cutting classes there. “Kids don’t like school. If you give them the opportunity, they will cut class.” He added, “There’s educational oversight and there’s management. Management is boring. But I see it getting done now.” White called the former situation at Montclair at “disaster” and said that when they had a QSAC report “the principal was gone in two weeks.”
Late in the meeting, Beth Johnson, an ELA teacher at CHS, took to the microphone during public speaks to say that, “in fairness,” there was a “well-intentioned” effort to try to make the credit recovery process less stringent and more fair to students. Interim Superintendent Dr. Ficarra told Johnson that she should “not go home thinking that teachers were being blamed.” Johnson also noted that those students who had graduated — even with all the cuts — would have, by definition, passed the courses as NC grades are assigned to those had passing grades but had too many cuts to earn credits. She seemed to be addressing a statement by Wright earlier in the evening that students were being sent out into the world and college unprepared.
BOE President Baker said that the district would work to make sure that the “infrastructure was in place so that this doesn’t happen again.”
Baker also said she was interested in following up with Ficarra on the conversation of deans vs. assistant principals “going into the budget process.”
Wright asked that the audit be made public.
Baker said, “I think we have it in draft and it has to be finalized and vetted for personnel issues that can’t be made public.” After a brief discussion with counsel, she added, “There’s a desire to have it and have transparency and Dr. Ficarra will work with all the administrators to get it done.”