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L.A. district weighing graduation of students who failed class

After three seniors failed a class, made it up in a few days and graduated, teachers criticized the turnaround. But officials say they worked within the system.

June 29, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • A student reads in 2008 at Helen Bernstein High School, whose campus also contains STEM Academy.
A student reads in 2008 at Helen Bernstein High School, whose campus also… (Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles school officials are examining whether three students who flunked a required course should have been allowed to make up the class in a few days at another campus and then return to graduate with their classmates.

Several teachers criticized the quick turnaround as inappropriate, saying it made a mockery of academic standards. They also questioned whether the well-liked students had received favorable treatment.

Local administrators, however, insisted that the students instigated the transfers themselves and worked within the rules of the system to make up credits.

The students withdrew from STEM Academy of Hollywood as late as June 13, a Wednesday, attended the adjacent Alonzo Community Day School the next day, and checked back into STEM to graduate that Friday.

STEM Academy, with about 320 students, is located on the Helen Bernstein High School campus in Hollywood. The small school had 93 seniors; 77 graduated.

The three seniors had failed economics or history classes taught by Mark Nemetz.

"I would like to formally protest students who have failed one or more classes at STEM being allowed to graduate with their class," Nemetz wrote to fellow staff members in an internal staff online message group. "This is a disservice to the students and damages the credibility of STEM."

"Why should next year's seniors make a serious effort next year if they know they have this option available to them at the end?" wrote teacher Julio Juarez.

Other teachers expressed similar views in interviews. Nemetz declined to be interviewed.

STEM Principal Josie Scibetta said the students checked out before their departure was called to her attention.

"We were upset that it appeared so easy for them to get credit," Scibetta said. Still, "if they come with signed, sealed, official transcripts from an accredited school, we're obligated to take that. I'm not saying our system is right, but the kids didn't do anything wrong."

Scibetta also described the grading policies of Nemetz as "rigid" and said she had concerns about them. The three students had not failed required classes taught by other teachers, she said.

Alonzo, the alternative school, is intended for students who are at risk of dropping out. Although it has a traditional school day, it measures credits only by work completed, not the time the students spend in class, said Principal Victorio R. Gutierrez.

It's difficult and rare, but not impossible, for a talented student to complete in two days material that another student might need a year to master, Gutierrez said. He added that his school's rigor does not necessarily match that of a regular high school, but his instructors teach the required material, and students have to produce work and pass quizzes to demonstrate their knowledge.

Gutierrez said the three students had a window to salvage their graduation because they could withdraw from STEM and still receive credit for courses they were passing within the last two weeks of school.

The three worked hard on campus and at home and fulfilled the course "contract" without special conditions, Gutierrez said. A district regional administrator reviewed the students' work after complaints arose, he said.

Allowing students to make up classes in a couple of days at the end of the year would be uncommon and possibly inappropriate, said Gerardo Loera, the Los Angeles Unified School District's executive director of curriculum and instruction. It's "not even an option we particularly provide," he said, adding that the episode remains under review.

One of the students, Javier Chacon, 19, knew about Alonzo because his sisters have attended it, according to district staff. But the first to enroll was Priscila Vela, 18, who started Monday or Tuesday of graduation week. Chacon enrolled about a day later, followed by 17-year-old Pietro Ruggiero.

His father, Pedro Ruggiero, who sits on STEM's governing council, said he was unaware of any issue until 15 minutes before graduation.

"They told me at the last minute — they said the problem they had was solved," Ruggiero said. "I had no idea what it was.... I didn't know that the other school existed. Now I'm learning more."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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