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Teachers allege pressure to pass

At South Phila. High, they said, freshmen will move on lacking skills. The principal touted makeup work.

Philadelphia public schools CEO Arlene Ackerman. (April Saul / Staff Photographer / file photo)
Philadelphia public schools CEO Arlene Ackerman. (April Saul / Staff Photographer / file photo)Read more

Three South Philadelphia High School teachers say they are being pressured to pass all students, even those who can't multiply three-digit numbers or who have 100 or more absences.

The pressure, both implicit and explicit, they say, has come from principal Alice Heller and other administrators in teacher-training sessions, meetings, and an April 27 memo asking them to give students makeup work and credit for fulfilling promises such as showing up on time and wearing a required school uniform.

"It is our strong recommendation that if a student has made and fulfilled their contract, any previously failed report periods will be averaged as 65 for a final grade," the April 27 memo said.

"We have kids passed along in this system that can't do simple arithmetic," one math teacher said. "The attendance is often well below 50 percent, and they're asking me to pass kids I haven't even seen before."

Heller, head of the 1,450-student school at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, said that there was no pressure to pass students but that she had promised all freshmen none of them would have to repeat ninth grade.

She said that she wanted to give students "multiple pathways to success," and that her plan was to have ninth graders make up any failed courses while continuing on to 10th grade.

"It's a good thing for self-esteem," she said. "And it teaches them responsibility. They have to be consumers of their own education."

It's unclear, however, whether Heller will be able to follow through on her promise. On Wednesday, she was informed that she would be removed at the end of the school year. Also ousted were the principals of University City High and four elementary schools, in keeping with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's pledge to raise standards.

In an interview last week, Ackerman said that if there was any pressure to pass students along, "they're not getting it from me. I don't believe you move young people on when they don't have the skills."

Doing so, she said, ultimately hurts children.

"Some of this is history," Ackerman said. "Some of the principals probably are feeling pressure that they meet their targets, but there are no targets around passing kids."

The district declined to comment further on the matter or specify why Heller was being removed.

Heller, who said she planned to fight her removal, would not comment on whether she felt pressure from the administration to pass students.

She stressed that teachers could be misreading her insistence that students get lots of chances.

"The message is: We're providing them with every opportunity to be successful," she said.

In the final marking period, which ends this week, students were given a number of "alternative strategies to help them be successful," Heller said.

Students might sign a contract and complete makeup work to ensure they pass. Or they might make up credits with an online program, take summer-school courses, or receive tutoring, the principal said.

In fact, Heller said, she informed the entire ninth-grade class recently that no one would be left back. If a freshman failed all five subjects, for instance, next year he or she would be assigned a 10th-grade homeroom and have all 10th-grade courses but be responsible for making up ninth-grade credits before graduating.

The math teacher, who fears retribution and asked not to be identified, said that although no one explicitly ordered that students must pass, the message was clear from memos and directives to give even the most lax students a way to make the grade.

Eighty percent of the math teacher's students failed.

The teacher and two other South Philadelphia High teachers said they especially took issue with having students sign contracts and complete packets of makeup work to pass.

"They want them to be able to waltz in, do a dumbed-down packet, and pass," the math teacher said. "That's not fair to anyone in that classroom who's been working."

The packets "in no way make up for a year's worth of work," said another teacher, who also asked not to be identified.

A third teacher claimed to have been told explicitly that too many students were failing the class.

The teacher was asked to pass anyone who passed the final, regardless of previous grades or attendance. That teacher also asked not to be identified, fearing dismissal.

"The system has passed so many of these kids along," the third teacher said. "Otherwise, you wouldn't have a kid with a fourth-grade reading level in a ninth-grade class."

The second teacher said the perceived pressure "puts me in a very difficult position ethically. What do I do? This is my livelihood, my job."

Ultimately, the teacher offered the makeup work, but few students who signed the contracts are making good on them, the teacher said.

Heller said students were offered the chance to do makeup work regardless of past performance. However, they will not pass the class unless they complete the makeup work, she said.

"They have to deliver on that contract," she said. She said she had planned to implement the contract system earlier in the next school year; struggling students would be identified and asked to sign pledges early on.

Her plan stems from the district's initiatives and South Philadelphia High administrators' ideas to help students succeed, Heller said.

As for not leaving ninth graders behind, Heller said the vast majority of high school courses - with the exception of foreign-language courses and Algebra 1 and 2 - are not sequential, so students can succeed in 10th grade without having ninth-grade credits.

"For many kids, the lightbulb doesn't go on until 10th grade. Ninth grade is a rather difficult transition year, and rather than being self-defeating, we're letting them get back on track," Heller said.

The math teacher said that the pressure to pass students was widespread and that most teachers bowed to it. The math teacher is willing to "help a kid who's trying, but I won't pass a kid who's not trying.

The math teacher understands that the students come from tough backgrounds but said it was not right to give them a pass.

In the math teacher's class, half of each student's final grade is derived from a daily quiz that comes straight from homework assignments.

"I don't change a thing," the teacher said. "The kids have my home number. They can ask questions."

But many students rarely do their homework and often fail the quizzes, the teacher said.

All the teachers who came forward said attendance in their classes was poor. The third teacher said that in one class, five students of an original roster of about 30 show up.

That teacher said the class represented what was happening throughout the school: Many students don't come to school at all. Or they enter the building but skip classes. Or they've been transferred to disciplinary schools.

How can those students possibly pass? the teacher asked.

The math teacher worries about job security given the 80 percent failure rate, but that rate will stand when grades go in tomorrow.

"I believe," the teacher said, "you have to earn what you get."