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Did Juarez cook the books to earn the Arne Duncan visit? The question is no longer whether, but how much deceit was involved

Months after a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supposedly highlighted a "miracle" improvement in attendance at Chicago Benito Juarez High School, investigations are finally producing public knowledge that the real question has never been whether the books were cooked -- but how much and by whom. Duncan's December 16, 2013 visit to Juarez was because of a claim by the school's administration that Juarez had produced miraculous improvements in student attendance -- from 57 percent to 90 percent -- in a short time.

Despite attempts to bring out the truth at the time, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (far right above) went to Chicago's Benito Juarez High School on December 16, 2013 to praise the schools for its miracle gains in student attendance, without bothering to ask how the Chicago-Style miracle had been arranged.As usual, Duncan didn't bother to check out the claims behind the facts, because his interest in the visit was to push similar "gains" without checking the integrity of the claims. From the beginning, whistle blowers at Juarez were angry. Despite attempts by CPS officials to cover up the scandal at Juarez High School, the story is coming out thanks to persistent teachers, students and parents -- and the final willingness of some CPS officials to tell the truth despite pressure from the administration of Barbara Byrd Bennett to continue to cover up.

The problems facing the teachers and students at Juarez have been widely known for months. Despite efforts by Juarez administrators and some local politicians to silence critics of the corrupt grade awarding policies of the school, a significant group of teachers, led by Chicago Teachers Union delegate Manny Bermudez, persisted in demanding that the corrupt practices be ended. One of the reasons for the passion of the teachers who stood up and opposed the simplistic corruption is that they are fiercely committed to Juarez, to its students and history, and to the school's community. Awarding attendance credit for not going to school not only undermines the integrity of the entire academic program, more than one teacher has told Substance, but it a threat to the community as well. Teenagers who believe they can be outside the school during school hours are more likely to be involved in local community problems, including gang problems, than those who stick to the rules.

One of the reasons why the cover up of the scandal has been allowed to continue for so long is that the administration of Chicago Public Schools, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd Bennett, has corrupted the meaning of education itself by demanding a simplistic "bottom line" for so-called "matrices" like "attendance." Just as corporate scandals have periodically challenged the integrity of the nation's economic system, especially since the "Dot.com" bubble that began the century and the "Real estate bubble" that burst almost fatally in 2008, so the fierce push by corporate leaders and the Obama administration to measure academics by simple-minded numbers has long threatened the integrity of public schooling in the USA in ways that are unprecedented.

This has been especially true in Chicago, which since 1995 has led the nation in the vicious privatization experiments that have been taking place, first aimed at urban school districts serving the poor and now being utilized, under the U.S.Department of Education and Arne Duncan, against virtually all of the nation's public schools. One of the local aspects of this problem has been the refusal of the members of the Chicago Board of Education to hire educators for administrative positions. Although this problem began under the first administrations of corporate "school reform" during the 1990s (when Paul G. Vallas became the first non educator to head CPS), it grew greatly under Arne Duncan (the second non-educator, who was CEO of CPS from 2001 through 2008) and has become almost a charictature of corporate bufoonery since the inauguration of Rahm Emanuel in 2011.

Although the current CEO, Barbara Byrd Bennett, routinely repeats the mantra about how she was a "teacher and principal and mother and grandmother..." she has long been one of America's most effective corporate school administrators, thanks to here work with the Broad Foundation. Prior to being selected to head Chicago's schools in 2012, she was in charge of destroying the Detroit public schools. Since she became chief of Chicago's schools, Byrd Bennett has appointed more than 50 top ranking administrators at salaries of more than $100,000 per year across Chicago's vast school system. Most of those are either non-teacher corporate executives (such as the current chief of security Jadine Chou or the current "Chief Innovation Officer" Todd Babbitz) or carefully screened corporate reform people from outside Illinois.

The members of the Chicago Board of Education, likewise, focus on the dullest spreadsheet versions of reality, rather than acknowledging the complexity faced by real public schools, principals, teachers, parents and students across the vastness of Chicago. Board members have acted in concert to reduce public participation to the absolute minimum since their May 2011 appointment by Rahm Emanuel, and are usually viciously against anyone who tries to bring criticisms of their policies to the Board or the public.

DNA INFO Chicago is breaking part of the story on the morning of May 6, 2014

PILSEN A dramatic jump in attendance at Pilsen's largest high school, Benito Juarez a boost that helped the school escape probation for the first time in a decade was one of the reasons U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the school in December, when he praised the school's "markedly better results in a short amount of time."

But DNAinfo Chicago has learned attendance rates at the school, as well as other undisclosed issues, are now under investigation by Chicago Public Schools' inspector general.

Chloe Riley talks with DNAinfo Radio about attendance issues at Benito Juarez:

Current Juarez teachers confirm they recently have been in contact with the office of the CPS watchdog, Jim Sullivan.

In interviews, the teachers charge that student attendance records were altered by the school's administration, and they say they felt pressured to bump up students' grades.

Attendance sheets used by some teachers at the predominantly Hispanic school in recent years show that multiple students had documented absences changed to say they were at school. In one case, a student who missed nearly 100 days his junior year was still allowed to become a senior, and other students who missed 45 to 56 days were allowed to either graduate or be promoted with a B or C average, the records show.

Over the last two years, teachers have filed more than a dozen formal complaints with CPS, claiming attendance records had been altered by administrators, according to John Kugler, the Chicago Teachers Union representative for Juarez. The resolution of those complaints is still pending, Kugler said.

You have students with very, very low attendance miraculously passing all their classes and graduating, said Enrique Romero, a Juarez social studies teacher who's been a CPS teacher for 30 years. It's really extremely unfair to the kids who come every day and do all the work, because then they have comparable grades.

Benito Juarez students on campus Thursday DNAinfo/Chloe Riley

CPS officials declined to comment on the inspector general's investigation or the formal complaints.

But officials at Juarez said the charges are coming from a small group of teachers who they say misunderstand the school's relatively new grading system, called benchmarking, which was implemented in 2011. The system allows students to make up missed classes or days and take missed quizzes or tests after school, during lunch, or at the end of the year. If students can demonstrate they learned the material and meet certain academic benchmarks, they can still pass their classes.

Juarez is one of just two CPS schools that uses the grading system for all of its subjects, although six others including Senn and Amundsen use it for math or reading or both. "We give the students here multiple opportunities to demonstrate skills mastery. And that makes sense because students have different learning abilities, different styles," said Juarez Principal Juan Ocon. "And so benchmarking allows for that type of knowledge acquisition to take place without the constraints of a traditional system."

Last November, CPS announced that Juarez, which has 1,600 students at its campus at 2150 S. Laflin St., had been removed from academic probation for the first time in over a decade.

Juarez's boost from a 83.7 percent attendance rate in 2011 to its current rate of nearly 90 percent was part of what led the school to escape probation. Other factors including the school's improved freshman on-track rating and a graduation rate that jumped from 59.5 percent in 2012 to 71.6 percent last year also contributed to the school's probation removal.

At the time, Ocon said the progress was an indication of incredible work on the part of Juarez teachers and called the high school one of the premier neighborhood schools.

A month later, Duncan a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who now serves in Barack Obama's Cabinet visited the school and praised Juarez's achievements, including its attendance leap.

This is the same students, same family, same neighborhood, same building, very difference set of expectations, very different leadership, very different culture," Duncan said. "What you are seeing are markedly better results in a short amount of time."

A big reason the school was able to make up so much ground, teachers say, was the changeover to the benchmarking system.

Under benchmarking, students who miss or do poorly on quizzes or tests during the year can take them later at "benchmark recovery sessions" during lunch, after school or "extreme benchmark recovery" at the end of the year. They can also complete homework or other assignments at any time before the end of the year.

During the year, teachers are not allowed to give students a D or F grade; instead students are given a "/" a mark that Ocon said "indicates that the student is in progress of mastering the skill set." However, if they don't meet certain standards, they can get a failing grade at the end of the year.

But Romero said the system results in teachers feeling they have to pass a student even if they are doing poorly, and school officials frequently talk to teachers, asking them to do what they can to help the students pass.

"[Benchmarking] becomes a pressure cooker for teachers to pass their students," Romero said. "Look at the numbers prior to the benchmarking system. We had a substantial failure rate."

Manuel Bermudez, who's taught at Juarez for 14 years, agreed.

"There's a lot of pressure to change grades. [Administrators] are constantly emailing teachers who are not passing students" asking what kind of makeup work the student can do in order to pass, Bermudez said.

'That's not right'

In addition to giving students a chance to boost grades, the system allows them to receive credit for attendance even if they miss class.

Spanish teacher Margarita Deluna first noticed her absences were being altered in 2012, when she went to call a student's parents after the student had consistently missed first period dozens of times.

But when she later checked the student's attendance in the school computer, DeLuna noticed that many of the student's absences had been changed to say the student was tardy or on a school field trip. A note on the side of her attendance sheet said the student served detention during lunch or after school, which allowed the attendance to be changed.

And I was like, 'That's not right,' said DeLuna, who's been teaching at Juarez for 12 years. Well, now it looks great. It looks like she's never absent, she's just late to school. But she never comes to class.

The policy allows Juarez administrators to change the student attendance records originally documented by teachers if students who missed class later attend the recovery sessions, Ocon said.

Ocon said to his knowledge, there was no limit on the number of days a student could miss and still advance to the next grade.

CPS' promotion policy states that students aren't allowed to pass a course if they have unexcused absences on more than 20 percent of class days.

But CPS officials said Juarez is well within district guidelines to credit students who miss class for attendance if they come after school to make up their work.

"Chicago Public Schools provides its principals with the autonomy to make decisions that are in the best interests of their students and their academic success," said CPS spokesman Joel Hood.

Teachers said they were skeptical that students who had been absent from so many classes attended enough of the recovery sessions to truly make up all the time they missed.

But Juarez principal Ocon suspects that the reason some instructors are complaining about the system is the "increased rigor" required of teachers in the classroom.

"When you are focusing on truly the essentials in education ... the rigor and the dynamic in the classroom changes," Ocon said. "Teachers must make their instruction truly individualized to meet the needs of these students."

He added: "Benchmarking is not a perfect system, obviously. We continue to have conversations with many of our teachers, because we are always looking to improve the system."

'I wouldn't have graduated on time'

Daniel Fulgencio was one of the students who benefited from benchmarking last year. A transfer student who was born in the U.S. but spent some of his childhood in Mexico, the 19-year-old missed 72 school days last year.

Still, he ended up graduating with five grades of C, one D and one F.

Fulgencio, who lived with various relatives after returning to the U.S. without his parents, worked a full-time job at night during his final year at Juarez. He said the benchmarking system offered him a chance to catch up with his classmates.

If it wasn't for the benchmark makeups, I wouldn't have graduated on time, said Fulgencio, who has since moved to Houston.

Proponents of benchmarking say the system is designed to help students like Fulgencio kids who struggle with issues at home or other outside factors.

"In the regular grading system, who it works well for are kids who get A's. For everybody else, the regular grading system has really questionable value," said Camille Farrington, a research associate at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

"There's all kinds of things that can make you fail a class that have nothing to do with whether or not you've mastered the material," said Farrington, who's also the author of a book, "Failing at School: Lessons for Redesigning Urban High Schools."

Still, missing 100 days out of the 181 days in CPS' school year would be significant for a student, Farrington said.

"Absence is a huge thing, and missing 50, 60, 70 days of school is a lot of school. That's like crazy a lot," she said. "Under a regular grading system, you'd have almost no chance of passing a class if you'd missed that much school."

But ultimately, benchmarking systems would not necessarily cap the number of days a student could miss and still graduate or pass a class, she said.

One Juarez sophomore missed about 30 days of school last year due to emotional troubles stemming from a childhood sexual assault. The student, 16, said that being able to go after class to make up work helped her get through her freshman year with two A's, one B, one C, one D, and two F's.

"It's really helping me. It helps me brings up my grades faster, and it also helps me to understand more," she said.

The school's flexibility in letting her daughter cope with the abuse helped lead to a change in her daughter's behavior this year, her mother said.

"Last year, she didn't want to wake up and go to school; she would wake up crying," the mother said. "She's doing a lot better this year. She goes more regularly this year."

Mixed messages

Ocon declined to comment on whether the benchmarking system sends a mixed message to students who are encouraged to attend school daily and turn in homework on time, saying he needed to look at individual kids at the school.

Other students, however, said the system is unfair since they are expected to attend all their classes and turn in work on time.

Joey Leon, 17, said the system is "unfair for students who are working hard all year."

While some students use the system to take more time to learn subjects, for others, "It could just be laziness on the part of the people who wait until the last minute to do their work," Joey said.

Jacob Sanchez, 17, said while the system has helped him recover if he fails, he's not sure it will be helpful later in life. "I agree that it helps you learn; however, it doesn't prepare you for college," he said.

Added Maria Torres, 18: "I think we'd be better off without it. It's not fair for the students really trying the first time."

CBS NEWS report on May 6, 2014 follows below here:

Dana Kozlov

Dana Kozlov is a general assignment reporter for CBS 2 Chicago. She... Read More

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CHICAGO (CBS) CPS is investigating Benito Juarez High School over questions surrounding attendance numbers and grading policy at the school. The investigation comes six months after the Pilsen school was taken off of probation.

CBS 2s Dana Kozlov reports concerns about changing attendance numbers were brought to officials attention last spring, but it wasnt until now that CPS confirmed the investigator general is looking into it.

Juarez teacher Manny Bermudez is glad some questionable practices at the high school are now under investigation.

I am tired of our administration telling lies, said Bermudez.

CPS officials confirmed schools Inspector General Jim Sullivan is looking into allegations Juarez officials are changing attendance numbers marking students present when in fact they were absent. CBS 2 obtained a letter to investigators from a Juarez teacher stating it happened to her. She writes, where I marked absent, someone had gone in and changed it.

And shes not the only one who wonders. A couple of other teachers had the same problem, said Bermudez.

An attendance spike is one reason Juarez was taken off probation last year. But Bermudez says theres another concern an accepted grading practice called benchmarking. It allows often-absent and failing students a passing grade if they meet teacher established criteria. A spring 2013 school newsletter stated 730 students were a slash or not passing. Thats almost half of Juarezs student population. Still, probation was lifted.

CPS spokesperson Joel Hood responds, CPS is aware of the allegations made by teachers at Juarez and is cooperating with the Office of the Inspector General on its investigation.



Comments:

May 6, 2014 at 6:28 PM

By: Bob Busch

Education

Benchmark

I have been in a school where this was done. The administration used all the jargon,

bells and whistles to kick the kids down the road. But nowhere in these miracle improvements

did I ever hear an administrator mention the words, Did the student learn the subject matter.

May 7, 2014 at 1:03 AM

By: John Whitfield

Grade changing

Juarez is under investigation for changing grades.

May 7, 2014 at 11:15 AM

By: Rod Estvan

Consortium on Chicago School Research and Juarez

If this investigation proves that the allegations are correct one of the biggest losers in all of this will be the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research. Just last month the Consortium released its report "PREVENTABLE FAILURE: IMPROVEMENTS IN LONG-TERM OUTCOMES WHEN HIGH SCHOOLS FOCUSED ON THE NINTH GRADE YEAR"

The report holds up Juarez as one of the most improved high school's in the city. Stating:

"The dramatic improvements in on-track rates in Chicago provide an opportunity to answer these questions. A subset of 20 high schools showed substantial improvements in on-track rates as early as 2008 and 2009, so that sufficient time has elapsed to allow us to explore whether increases in ninth grade on-track rates have produced increases in high school graduation rates downstream. The report separately examines two groups of schools: 1) primary movers, three schools (Juarez, Kenwood, and Steinmetz) that showed large improvements in on-track rates in 2008. . ."

Mark Twain (among others) is reported to have used this phrase "there are Lies, damned lies, and statistics." Data is not worth much if it turns out to be falsified. But researchers including those at the University of Chicago have to by nature be skeptical of significant improvements occurring over a relatively short period of time at any school.

Part of that process is being on the ground and talking with staff, students, and parents at schools on a confidential basis to verify the integrity of data to the extent a researcher can. I know when I was a court appointed monitor looking at special education data for schools I attempted to do this whenever possible, which was not as frequently as it should have been done.

After the scandal in Atlanta it would seem that some level of on the ground data verification needs to be done by all researchers.

Rod Estvan

May 7, 2014 at 1:06 PM

By: John Whitfield

Univisio`n TV Report in Spanish

The grade changing report under investigation at Benito Juarez High School was reported on Televisio`n Univisio`n.

May 9, 2014 at 1:02 AM

By: John wayne

Benito Juarez high school

I think if administration has nothing to hide, then they should come on TV and defend themselves and stop hiding behind walls. Tell the community who is waiting on answers from administration on why benchmark and how this benchmarking system works. You only look more guilty for staying silent! This question is for the principal. Do your kids go to Benito Juarez? If this benchmarking system is promising for under achieved students why isn't this system at every school? I read all the articles about these allegations and to be honest I don't feel this system is fair to all students especially those who work hard the first time around, also to those that take advantage of turning in school work late. It shows those students that it's ok to be late. Where and when are the students going to take responsibility for their own actions! Isn't responsibility something that is learned in high school? If you can honestly say that this is preparing them for college well I'd like to know how their doing fours after they graduate!

May 16, 2014 at 2:37 PM

By: Theresa D. Daniels

Nothing New About Changing Grades and Attendance

Since I started teaching in 1973, teachers were always under pressure from the principal to fail the least number of students (not just pressure about athletes). Teachers who failed "too many" were called in for conferences, as happened often during the years and some teachers felt they had to go to ridiculously low standards and tricks to to pass students. Several times in the early and mid-'90s, we had administrators from CPS (or whatever they called themselves then) come to give us "inservices" on how to maximize student attendance. This included all the ways this article deals with, as well as tricks that they tried to impose on teachers like the following: The division teacher in high school might have 28 students in division as well 140 more or less in his classes, but s/he was told to never mark a student as absent for the day in division for the monthly attendance report if s/he had not researched whether the student had appeared in any of his classes that day--an impossible task which could easily have caused some less scrupulous teachers to rarely mark a student absent from division which in those days signified whether or not he was absent from school. Cuts from classes were not computerized then. This was important, we were told, so that CPS would not lose state monies. Now it's important so the principal could be considered to be doing well and the school would not be turned around or closed.

May 19, 2014 at 1:14 PM

By: John Whitfield

Then Juarez like in 'Stand and Deliver?

Since it appears that the investigation of Benito Juarez High School, the premier Bilingual/ Bicultural Education institution, came about after a substantial rise in test scores, is the other side of this coin the possibility, that is a re-run of the movie 'Stand and Deliver?' That is, where the advanced placement students at Garfield HS in Los Angeles were forced to retake the exams, only to come out smelling like a rose once again. A different scenario, needless to say.

May 20, 2014 at 5:57 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

It's about attendance, not test scores!

Everyone who has been reading the articles here about the scandals at Juarez High School knows that Juarez is being investigated for fraudulent increases in attendance. That's also why Arne Duncan stopped by, and why the "Juarez Model" for attendance cheating is dangerous -- anyone can get away with it if the computers are controlled by a handful of administrators, and teacher (and even student) attendance information is disregarded.

"Stand and Deliver" was one of the many examples of Hollywood propaganda aimed against teachers and unions, but a Republican propagandist (Jaime Escalante) who was also an energetic math teacher. I don't understand why some teachers (and former teachers) still march to the "Stand and Deliver" beat when it is so clearly in the long silly tradition of teacher bashing and union busting movies that began in the 1980s, with Chicago's Marva Collins story ("Welcome to Success") and has continued unabated through "Waiting for Superman" and "Won't Back Down" (along with dozens of other teacher-as-hero nonsense that almost always slips in an attack on the union and on public schools)...

Next thing you know, someone will be talking about "Chicagoland" as if that were a valid version of the reality we are facing in Pothole and Gangbanger city. The Hollywood propagandists who create these fantasy worlds are not our friends, and their propaganda has to be called out for the attacks on us that it is.

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