Juan Torres plans to leave behind Detroit’s Pershing High and nasty Michigan winters to study to become a nurse at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida.
The 18-year-old senior paid the registration deposit and said the college is ready to award him financial aid. There’s just one hold up: For weeks Juan has not been able to find out when his Pershing transcript will be sent to the college. Records at the school have been a mess – students were given third quarter report cards just last week, nine days before Graduation Day.
“They are so unorganized,” Torres said of Pershing staff. The school, located on Detroit’s east side, is operated by the state reform school district, the Education Achievement Authority.
Torres is among an unknown number of graduating seniors who complained of unavailable or inaccurate transcripts from state-run, EAA high schools, with some telling Bridge they were told only days before commencement that they lack the necessary class credits to graduate. EAA leaders acknowledge the delays, blaming much of it on working out the kinks of a new district data information system.
Torres said he went to Pershing last week to inquire again about his transcript and meet with staff to ensure he was graduating. He said that’s when he was told he was missing credit for two required classes, English and Geometry, which he said he had taken and failed – English in 9th grade at Hamtramck High, and Geometry in 10th grade, when Pershing was still part of the Detroit Public Schools.
As Torres recounts it, he was then taken to a room and given two exams – English and Geometry. It was an unconventional way to prove he met standards for the classes, but it beat not graduating.
He said the tests were graded on the spot. Torres said he got an A on each test and was told he was a Pershing grad.
History of problems
Pershing is one of 15 schools – nine elementary and six high schools – stripped from the Detroit Public Schools district in 2012 and turned over to the EAA, the state reform district for schools considered among the state’s lowest performing.
Pershing was in the news in recent weeks after an overwhelmed teacher broke up a student fight with a broom.
With his graduation set for Friday, Torres returned again to the school this past Monday as instructed to finally get a transcript. He was met there by a Bridge reporter. He exited about 20 minutes later empty-handed.
“Am I missing out on financial aid the longer they take to give me my grades? I don’t know. If I don’t get the financial aid, I think my chances of going to the school I want to go to is slim to none.” – Pershing High student Juan Torres
“They said it would be ready shortly,” Torres said with a sigh.
Would it be printed in an hour? Emailed to the college in a week? Surely by the Florida school’s Aug. 1 deadline to claim his financial aid?
“I don’t know. They just said ‘shortly,'” he said. After months of frustration at Pershing, he said he doesn’t trust the school to report his grades in time.
“Am I missing out on financial aid the longer they take to give me my grades? I don’t know,” Torres said. “If I don’t get the financial aid, I think my chances of going to the school I want to go to is slim to none.”
When the school year began, the EAA reported 773 students in 12th grade in its six high schools – Torres was among 109 at Pershing, according to the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information.
It is unclear how many other EAA seniors have had trouble getting their academic records – EAA officials told Bridge on Wednesday they don’t know themselves. EAA staff confirmed a new record-keeping system, counselor shuffling and school-level disorganization caused problems for seniors, most noticeably at Pershing and another school, Henry Ford High.
The students’ complaints are the latest example of internal problems since the EAA began operating troubled Detroit schools in fall 2012.
This week, the EAA’s chancellor, John Covington, resigned as district officials presented a budget that projects a 10 percent decline in student enrollment in the fall and fewer private donations.
The state-run reform district has run into problems almost from the moment it was created in 2011, including low state test scores, high teacher turnover, declining enrollment and controversies over discipline, transparency and profligate travel spending by administrators and teachers.
And through it all, EAA’s future has become less certain – a bill that would codify the EAA’s financial structure and expansion has been stalled in Lansing for more than a year. In February, the state school superintendent announced he was rescinding the EAA’s status as the only entity that can take over and reform Michigan’s failing schools.
Slow times at EAA High
On Wednesday, Mary Esselman, the EAA deputy superintendent, said problems with student records this year are rooted in the implementation of a new student records system as well as ongoing problems with obtaining records for transfer students.
“I wouldn’t say there haven’t been challenges,” she said. “In terms of students knowing what they had to pass to graduate, is there room for better communication? Yes. But I think most students who conferenced with teachers and were teetering on the edge were aware.”
Because of problems with the new information system, school counselors have had to manually input and update student records, Esselman confirmed.
Early this spring, for instance, Henry Ford and Pershing had problems printing report cards with third-quarter grades. Staff at Ford had to create a custom grade report and manually add grades. Pershing’s third quarter report cards had wrong data. Each of the schools reprinted the third-quarter report cards in the days leading up to graduation, the EAA confirmed.
“We should’ve had those a long time ago,” said Shakia Curley, 17, a Pershing senior who plans to go to cosmetology school. “I could’ve been failing and not known what to work on.”
Delays at Henry Ford
Jada Earle, 18, had bigger problems.
She went to the Henry Ford High graduation rehearsal on Monday. She got her cap and gown. Later that evening, she received a robo-call telling her to report to school the next day to discuss her grades. She did, and was told she is not graduating until August because she has to take World History and 11th-grade English, classes she said she passed last year.
“My mother is in a wheelchair. She came up here multiple times to talk about my grades and why they keep making me take the same classes over that I already passed,” Earle said. “They kept saying, ‘We’ll get back to you.’”
She said she spent two days this week pleading with teachers to write letters to confirm she passed the classes and begging school staff to update the system to show the grades she says are on a year-old version of her transcript.
“I wouldn’t say there haven’t been challenges. In terms of students knowing what they had to pass to graduate, is there room for better communication? Yes.” – Mary Esselman, the EAA deputy superintendent
On Wednesday, a day before Henry Ford’s graduation ceremony today, Earle said she was told she can walk across the stage after all. She, too, plans to attend cosmetology school.
“The whole experience was a whole bunch of confusion and unorganized things,” Earle said. “The computer is not up to date, it’s missing grades.”
Other Ford seniors who were told they were graduating - then not graduating - this week are scrambling to complete assignments and online classes, school and EAA officials acknowledge. Those who miss the mark may be able to graduate in August.
In all, 62 Henry Ford seniors are supposed to graduate at the ceremonies today.
EAA officials said problems with senior student records are not widespread, but they could not provide specific numbers on Wednesday. They said poor communication between the district and students and their families may have contributed to some students not graduating on time.
Officials said EAA staff reviewed seniors’ grades in the spring to identify students who needed to take online credit recovery classes to graduate on-time. Another audit was conducted last week.
“The Office of Accountability notified principals during the first week in April and directed them to communicate the findings to the parents and students involved,” Mario Morrow, spokesman for the EAA, said in a statement. “While the letters were sent out, the level of follow-up in some cases left parents uninformed about the final disposition of their childrens’ status.”
Morrow’s statement said new Interim Chancellor Veronica Conforme “learned about this issue Wednesday and immediately dispatched a group of senior leadership officials to the schools involved to resolve the matter.” Conforme also made clear, the statement to Bridge continued, that her assessment “will include an examination of what took place.”
Officials have until June 30 to unravel the issues with seniors’ transcripts. The graduates must be reported to the state to determine the EAA’s official graduation rate. Last year, the EAA graduation rate was 61 percent compared to a state average of 77 percent.
Not the norm
Patrick O’Connor, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said it is typical for schools to audit seniors’ grades in the third and fourth quarters, especially for students who have previously failed courses. But accurate records are needed to avoid last-minute shock and disappointment leading up to graduation.
“The audit process is one that should be repeated several times - assuming you have comprehensive records,” said O’Connor, assistant dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills.
Shawn Bultsma, past president of the Michigan School Counselor Association based in Grand Rapids, said students and their schools should start an education development plan as soon as the seventh grade. Counselors ideally should check seniors’ progress in the middle of each quarter, but there is no standard way to track them.
“I think we need to make sure we’re communicating with home,” he said. “Students certainly need to be warned.”
In cases like Juan Torres’, where a student needs a transcript, final grades are often not available until right up until graduation, Bultsma said.
EAA graduates should be able to get their official transcript the day of or day after graduation, district officials said this week. Torres said he is waiting.
Bridge staff writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.