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Grade-changing is raising questions

A North Philadelphia principal overturned the failing grades of dozens of students, angering some faculty members at the school, who said the practice eroded student accountability, the district confirmed yesterday.

A North Philadelphia principal overturned the failing grades of dozens of students, angering some faculty members at the school, who said the practice eroded student accountability, the district confirmed yesterday.

The district launched an investigation into the practice at William Penn High School, at Broad and Master Streets, after The Inquirer asked about reports from three teachers who complained that their students' grades, ranging from a handful to more than a dozen, were altered.

The principal violated district policy that requires grade changes to be reported to a superior, said Al Bichner, the district's deputy chief academic officer. The principal should have reported and justified the grade changes to her regional superintendent, he said.

"There was a breach of protocol and it has to be corrected," Bichner said. ". . . We want to make this right."

The principal, Patricia Randzo, acknowledged changing the grades of 90 of the school's 1,016 students but said some of those occurred because teachers failed to follow district policy and document the reasons for the failure or show that they had contacted parents and provided support.

"We have to make sure students have all the interventions they need to pass," she said. "Students need to be given enough time to make up their work and improve their grade."

The issue exposes a long-standing tension between the teachers' union and the district over the requirements that teachers document the reasons for the failure and their efforts to provide tutoring, contact parents and offer other help.

The investigation has yet to show exactly how many grades were changed or whether the grade changes complied with the district policy that teachers document failing grades.

A source familiar with the administration at William Penn put the total number of grades changed last rating period at 160.

But Randzo, who is in her first year as principal at William Penn, said 90 grades were changed. She said some of those changes were for students who successfully had made up work in an after-school "credit recovery" program and others were cases in which teachers agreed to the changes.

She said the 90 changes affected six teachers, some of whom had large numbers of failures in their rooms.

"I had one teacher who failed everyone but one student in a class," she said.

She said that she was not aware that she was required to report grade changes to the regional superintendent, but that she would do so in the future. She also will notify teachers in writing of changes, as required under the union contract, she said.

The district established the requirement that principals report grade changes to their supervisor a year and a half ago after another incident, in which an Edison High School teacher complained that his principal overturned failing grades. District officials wanted oversight so that grades given by teachers would not be arbitrarily altered.

Bichner said the investigation, which began Monday, has not yet shown why specific grades were changed, but concurred that Randzo appeared to be acting in the best interest of students.

"This was a first-year principal, so anxious to do the right things for students," he said. "I don't think there was any malice or ill intent."

Bessie Young, the regional superintendent, said Randzo held a special meeting at the school yesterday to discuss the issues with staff "to talk about the practice she's going to implement to rectify this problem."

Young, who praised Randzo's overall leadership at William Penn, added: "She's being proactive, trying to reach out, to make sure it is resolved to the satisfaction of everyone involved."

Bichner declined to say whether Randzo would be disciplined, citing personnel reasons.

"Pat Randzo has done some great work at Penn," he said.

One teacher, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation, said the administration changed more than a half-dozen of her failing grades, some of them even though she provided the required paperwork. She was most upset about one student who refused to even pick up a pen in her class, she said.

The previous rating period, she said, she succumbed to pressure from the principal to change the failing grades on her own unless she could provide documentation within 24 hours.

"So a student that I never ever even met got a 65," she said.

Another teacher said that more than a dozen of his grades were changed for students who had less than a 50 percent average in his class. In at least some of the cases, he said, he followed the district process for failing a student.

"It limits my credibility," he said.

But some staff members, including Lori Riggs, a teachers' coach, supported the principal. She said some teachers were failing more than half of their students.

"If you're failing that many, you need to look at what you're doing in your class. I think some teachers have lost focus of why they went into the profession to begin with, and she's trying to bring them back to reality," Riggs said.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the union has opposed other cases of grade changing and is looking into the case at William Penn.

"Teachers are professionals and should be treated as professionals. When they evaluate students with whom they are with every day, and the students' performance is not passing, then it's their responsibility to give the child an honest grade," he said.

Jordan complained about district requirements on documenting reasons for failure.

"Teachers are drowning in paperwork in the school district," he said. "One wonders if the purpose of the paperwork is to force teachers into taking the easy way out. I admire those that don't. If the youngster isn't doing well, why would you give the youngster a passing grade? You're really not helping that youngster."

The pressure on principals is acute, as well, said Michael Lerner, who heads the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the principals' union.

"The school district has charged administrators to be certain that procedures are in place for students who are in danger of receiving a failing grade, and they've directed the administrator that unless these procedures are in place, they may not be given a failing grade," Lerner said.

Bichner said he has not had any other complaints of grade-changing.

Several other regional superintendents said they had no or few cases of principals reporting grade changes. There have been other isolated cases of grade-changing in the past, but not such a large number, district officials say.

The North region earlier this year looked into a case that was flagged by a principal after a long-term substitute teacher gave the entire class A's. It was a special-education class of 15 students.

Most of the grades were changed after the matter was reviewed, said Maria DiMarco, the region's director of instruction.