I’m just going to post these jewels right now. Going to wait and see what else unfolds before commenting too much.
First AJC article and Get Schooled blog post:
TV report by Richard Belcher at Channel 2 News:
Second AJC article and Get Schooled Blog:
FIRST AJC ARTICLE
The transfer track on the way to a diploma
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Just days before graduation for the past three school years, Hall County’s senior class played a curious game of musical chairs.
On those days, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data found, at least 94 students transferred at the last minute out of their traditional high schools and into the district’s Lanier Career Academy, a school with special programs for struggling students.
The seniors took with them an academic millstone that could have been a liability for their former schools: Each had earned a certificate of performance instead of a diploma. Only regular diplomas boost graduation rates, which have become a key measure of schools’ success.
The fact that the transfers may have helped some high schools meet federal academic standards has led some to ask whether the schools were simply manipulating the state’s accountability system. On one local blog, a poster wrote that some students felt “bullied” into transferring.
“One student was even told one month before graduation that they would not be able to graduate with their class. This is wrong!” the poster wrote, saying students were told they made their school “look bad.”
The district defends the transfers as a way to help hard-to-reach students. Seniors who change schools, officials said, can participate in graduation ceremonies at either their original school or at Lanier.
Hall, a northeast Georgia district of nearly 26,000 students, isn’t the first school system to face accusations of roster manipulation. In other districts across Georgia and the country, federal and state accountability rules have spawned creative attempts to make the numbers, some of which have involved strategically shuffling students around like pawns on a chessboard. The goal: to show “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP.
“Any time when you put such a complicated ball game together like AYP, it just opens the doors for lots of interpretations,” said Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
Mathers said her office plans to look this fall at whether districts are misusing state codes related to transferring students. Manipulating the codes can reduce the reported dropouts while artificially raising graduation rates. She said that from what she knows, however, Hall County does not appear to have broken such rules.
Other local districts have come under question for enrollment shifts that could provide shortcuts to achieving the complex set of academic benchmarks established after the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001.
Last year, a contractor who once ran Atlanta’s alternative school said the school district routinely transferred poor-performing students to Forrest Hill Academy just days before the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. Data confirmed the influx of dozens of students in the month before the test.
And in DeKalb County, a principal resigned after admitting that she unenrolled 13 students before the days they were to take the CRCT, then re-enrolled them afterwards to help Rock Chapel Elementary School improve scores.
An email written in May 2009 by the former principal of Hall’s career academy, which later appeared on local blogs, has incited critics.
“It’s time to look at whether you want to transfer any of your COPs to LCA to improve your graduation rate,” the email to administrators at traditional high schools said. “We’ll be glad to do that for you again if you want us to.”
The plan, according to the email: unenroll students from their schools May 20, re-enroll them in Lanier academy May 21 and graduate them May 22.
By 2010, the flow of May certificate of performance transfers to Lanier had dwindled from dozens to 15. But talk of the moves continued, leaving the district’s superintendent, a close ally of new state Superintendent John Barge, vigorously justifying them.
Superintendent Will Schofield said the vast majority of transfers have been voluntary. District officials sent students to Lanier despite the fact that spring classes were wrapping up, hoping they would take summer courses or pursue GEDs there, he said. Forty eventually earned diplomas, he said.
“It’s not gaming the system,” he said. “We don’t have the financial resources to offer at all our traditional high schools the kinds of programs that we offer at the LCA.”
Congress is considering whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act as is or modify it. If nothing changes, schools will be expected to meet targets in full by 2014, creating pressure that has ratcheted up annually for schools and districts.
A range of penalties await schools that repeatedly fail, but few have suffered dramatic interventions for poor performance. Reputations — of schools, districts and their leaders — perhaps provide greater motivation to succeed at a time when public schools face intense scrutiny and competition from private and charter schools.
Barge said Friday that the state will look at Hall’s student data for this school year when it becomes available in July. The state has not performed an analysis similar to the AJC’s for prior years.
Barge said that so far he has been satisfied with explanations from the district. “It’s not like we’re not aware of the situation,” he said. “Based on the information that we have right now from the school system, we’ve not seen any reason for alarm.”
Dozens of transfers
State databases show an unmistakable flow of students from other county schools to Lanier in the waning hours of the 2008 and 2009 spring semesters.
In 2008, three dozen students transferred on May 21 to Lanier. The next year, 43 did so on May 20.
A handful of districts statewide transferred two or three students on a single day in late May during the past three years, data shows, but none came close to moving the number Hall did.
Schofield, the superintendent, said the transfers would have no effect on the district’s graduation rate, which is calculated by counting all graduates. The numbers of transfers, several Hall principals said, were likely also too small to affect the rate for any particular school.
No Child Left Behind, however, mandates that schools calculate more than the overall graduation rate. It requires schools to figure the rate for subgroups of students larger than 40, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or Hispanic.
Because they include just a few dozen, not hundreds, of students, the graduation rates for those subgroups fluctuate more readily.
Missed subgroup targets can cause a school to fail to make AYP in some cases, if students are also struggling academically.
More than half the Lanier transfers — 56 out of 94 — were Hispanic, records show, and likely would have at least dragged down the subgroup’s graduation rate in their schools.
The 2010 census reports 26 percent of Hall County’s 180,000 residents are Hispanic.
State Education Department data reviewed by the AJC does not reveal where the Lanier transfers originated. But blog posts mention Chestatee High, where the graduation rate rose 25 percentage points in three years.
Chestatee principal Chip Underwood said it has comfortably made AYP in recent years and was not in danger of failing. In 2010, it graduated about 200 students. He praised Lanier academy for offering options to those who weren’t on track to earn diplomas.
“We should have done a better job of locating that child earlier in the year where he was not going to be successful,” he said of the late transfers.
The school doesn’t have many, if any, last-minute transfers this year, he said.
East Hall High School principal Jeff Cooper said the transfers were made with the students’ best interests in mind, though a slightly better graduation rate may have been a side benefit.
“I’ve seen a very minimal effect here in my school,” he said, adding that the school may have sent seven or eight transfers to Lanier in a year.
Schofield said the former principal of Lanier “feels terrible” about the email about raising graduation rates for traditional schools.
“All I can say is that was extremely poorly worded,” he said. “The reason students go to the career academy is that they have more opportunities and resources there.”
Schofield said his staff tried to reach the blog poster who complained about students being pressured to transfer, but had been unsuccessful.
Praise for academy
The transfer issue has likely acquired added political sensitivity given that Schofield is the chairman of the new state superintendent’s transition team. Barge served as principal at Chestatee High years before the transfer question arose. The state’s new governor, Nathan Deal, is also from Hall County.
Schofield and other district officials praised Lanier academy as an innovative school for students who aren’t college bound. Schofield said Hall makes a greater effort than many districts to steer students toward GED programs or provide extra test preparation when it appears they will not meet graduation requirements.
Cindy Blakely, Lanier’s current principal, said the school has been ramping up programs for students at risk of dropping out for several years and the last-minute transfers might reflect that. Now, the district tries to identify and help struggling students earlier.
Some students don’t find out they failed a key portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test until late April, Blakely said. The district decided a few years ago it would be better to try to transfer them to Lanier and start test preparation immediately for a July re-test, instead of waiting for them to finish at their original schools.
The 2009 email by the former Lanier principal, however, recommends not transferring students who could pass the graduation test over the summer. The schools, the principal wrote, “might want to keep” those students because “they cannot be returned to you.”
Blakely said the district believes there is another advantage to transferring students even late in the semester: It familiarizes them with Lanier and increases the chances they’ll return for additional programs instead of receiving their certificates and disappearing.
“We’re out there trying to save students,” she said. “Our superintendent and board has always said we will not put AYP over the needs of our students, because it can become a big, old game.”
SECOND AJC ARTICLE
Hall County students pushed to go to a new school
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A Hall County student who transferred to an alternative school just days before graduation last year said this week that the district all but forced him to go and provided none of the extra help administrators had promised.
Dillan Hatcher said officials at Chestatee High School told him he was hurting the school’s chances of meeting federal standards for its graduation rate. Hatcher failed one portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test and, as a result, expected to receive a certificate of performance instead of a diploma. Only diplomas boost a school’s graduation rate.
Hatcher said that when he arrived at Lanier Career Academy the final week of school, educators told him it was too late in the year to enroll in any programs. He said he sat in front of a computer, texted friends and stared at the wall.
“I went for nothing,” he said. “I should have just gone home.”
Hall’s practice of transferring struggling students from regular high schools to Lanier days before graduation has been criticized by some who questioned whether the district simply shuffled students around to game the state’s accountability system. The pressure is much greater on regular high schools to meet graduation-rate standards than on Lanier.
Superintendent Will Schofield has vigorously defended the transfers. Last week, however, he said it is possible high schools had moved students to benefit their graduation rate in a few instances. But he said such transfers are not district practice.
“I would be pretty Pollyannaish if I said that that didn’t happen at some point somewhere,” he said. “But in terms of the whole philosophy of the program, that’s not who we are.”
At one point, West Hall High School was in the running for an award — a Blue Ribbon of Excellence — but missed adequate yearly progress, or AYP, by three students, he said. All the district had to do was transfer the three, he said, but school officials “took our lumps.”
Overall, the district has defended sending students to Lanier, saying the moves are almost always voluntary and allow the district to provide assistance to students in danger of dropping out. Some are studying to retake the graduation test over the summer; others may take GED classes.
Enrollment in Lanier even at the end of the year improves chances students will continue in their studies, officials said.
Pressure to move
The Hall district in northeast Georgia is only the latest school system to face accusations of monkeying with the numbers to try to improve schools’ status under the accountability system built after the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this month that, in the past three years, at least 94 Hall County students who were due to receive certificates instead of diplomas transferred to Lanier in the final days of the school year. A 2009 email by the former principal for Lanier urged other schools to transfer their certificate students to Lanier at semester’s end “to improve your graduation rate.”
Since then, several students who were told by school officials to transfer to Lanier, or who knew students that did, talked with the newspaper about their experience.
The newspaper also performed additional data analysis that showed multiple years in which a small number of graduates made the difference between making and missing AYP for some Hall schools.
Hatcher said that, after he failed the graduation test, Chestatee High officials pulled him into the school office and told him he needed to go to Lanier. They convinced his father the move was good for him.
“They said you’ll learn everything you need at LCA,” said Hatcher, who was reluctant to leave the school he had attended since freshman year.
“When I got to LCA, they said, ‘Get on the computer and do whatever,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘It’s too late in the year; we can’t get you in a program.’ ”
He passed the graduation test re-test anyway. A few weeks later, he received his diploma.
“They threw me under the bus,” said Hatcher, 18, who now works at his father’s landscaping business.
“I don’t believe that to be the case at all,” Underwood said of Hatcher’s recollection he was told he would hurt the school’s effort to meet federal standards. “We use LCA to help kids get graduated. Does it affect AYP? I think it does minutely.”
Another former Chestatee student and friend of Hatcher’s, Christian Beasley, said he, too, felt intense pressure from school officials to transfer the last week of school after he failed part of the graduation test.
“They transferred me before they even told me about it,” he said. “They said they’d transferred my files to LCA and I had to start there on Monday.”
School officials told him Lanier would help him pass the graduation test, he said. “They said it would be a good thing,” he said.
Beasley’s parents, however, objected. They didn’t want him to receive his diploma from an alternative school, he said. He stayed at Chestatee and passed the graduation test anyway. “I don’t know why they wanted to send me off,” said Beasley, 19, who has a job doing maintenance, welding and fabricating.
Schofield said, given that Hall is a district of 26,000 students, a few may walk away not completely satisfied.
“Can you pick up a kid or two that is not happy with our experience? Absolutely,” he said. “But there are an awful lot of positive stories.”
Analysis of state data shows that for some Hall schools, every diploma mattered.
Three of Hall’s traditional schools missed their graduation-rate targets in 2007. East Hall missed by 14 students. Chestatee was off by three students, state data shows. Johnson High missed by one.
Chestatee and Johnson still made AYP because of a second-chance option that allows schools that are close to the targets to use a multi-year average.
During the next two years, when transfers to Lanier soared districtwide, all three schools fared better.
East Hall made its graduation-rate goals by 10 students in 2008 and nine in 2009. Johnson succeeded as well, by 12 students in 2008 and 11 in 2009. Chestatee made the target by 18 students in 2008 and 14 in 2009.
During those two years, Hall high schools transferred a total of 79 students to Lanier at the last minute. State data obtained by the AJC does not show where the transfers originated.
Schofield said that, overall, the district has had great success in boosting graduates. Its graduation rate climbed by more than 11 percentage points, to about 79 percent, between 2007 and 2010. The Lanier transfers would not affect the districtwide rate.
For months, posters on local blogs have criticized Hall’s late-semester transfers to Lanier.
Some traffic was generated by Krysten Campbell, a 22-year-old former Chestatee student who said several students have complained to her about being bullied to transfer to Lanier.
“It’s just wrong what they’re doing to these kids, especially their last week of their senior year,” she said.
Campbell, a student at Gainesville State College, wrote Hall County school district officials to complain about the transfers as part of a class project. She then posted their responses on a local blog.
Hall officials have said that they expected few, if any, late transfers to Lanier this year. Campbell said she suspects that attention to the issue on blogs and in the media may be part of the reason.
“I guess that is kind of what it showed me: If I speak out loud enough, it can change,” she said.
How we got the story
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed databases provided by the Georgia Department of Education for the 2008 through 2010 school years to determine when, and where, transfers were made in Hall County. The databases showed how many students earning Certificates of Performance transferred to Lanier Career Academy after May 1 each year. The state redacted the databases to remove potentially identifying information for small groupings of students, so it is possible that the actual number of transfers was slightly higher. The state also removed students’ names to keep their records confidential. For this story, the AJC also analyzed a second state database that includes information on whether schools and districts met federal standards.
Please discuss below. A lot of material here!