December 4, 2013
TO:      Board of Trustees, Friendship Public Charter School
cc: District of Columbia Public Charter School Board

FROM: Caleb Rossiter, recently resigned teacher

RE:       A Fundamental Question about Friendship Technology Preparatory School

I recently resigned from a position as a ninth grade Algebra 1 teacher at Technology Preparatory because of unremitting pressure from the administration to alter failing grades and the return to my classroom of two students whose actions threatened the safety of other students.  These issues are related to a fundamental question about Tech Prep’s mission: can it successfully implement a college preparatory, let alone a STEM, curriculum for the ninth grade when a significant minority of that grade has math skills that are below the third grade level or consistently exhibits disruptive behaviors that keep both this minority and their peers from achieving? 

There appear to be strong institutional pressures on administrators to achieve high enrollment figures, pass rates, and scores on grade-level standardized tests.  These pressures flow down to the classroom, where they collide with the reality of severe academic and behavioral deficits, creating the sort of situations that led to my resignation. 

The administration pressured me to raise failing grades for the first quarter to grades that students had not earned.  I was told by a supervisor that my intention to report 30 percent of my students as having earned a failing grade -- due to low rates of doing class work and homework, which led to poor performance on assessments – “cannot be.”  I was told that this would be “bad for the school” because it would have to be reported to the Public Charter School Board as evidence that students “were not on track to graduate” and that it also would be “bad for me.”  I was asked to raise grades, or to change the weighting of the different categories of grades listed in my syllabus that had been sent to parents so that the grades would rise. 

The pressure was not successful with me, but I know that it was with teachers of these same students in other courses who had similar provisional failure rates.  This casts into doubt for me all the grades reported for the ninth grade.  When the second quarter started, the supervisor met with me and continued to press me to raise grades, including suggesting that failing students who completed one homework assignment in a week of five of them be given credit for all of them. 

At this point I decided that the emphasis on “crunching the numbers” (as the supervisor called a review of the homework, class work, and assessment grades reported each week) to improve students’ grades artificially would predominate in our planning over finding proper placements for students who cannot, or will not, work on a ninth-grade curriculum.  I began to reconsider whether I could be successful in this environment.

The condition of an unsafe classroom arose soon after, when the administration ordered me to take back into my classroom two students who had thrown over heavy desks, in one case hitting another student.  The administration insisted in writing that this was not dangerous behavior.  The two students have Special Education status (because of emotional and behavioral challenges rather than learning disabilities) and have been on “Behavior Improvement Plans” since the previous academic year.  The incidents occurred after these two students were informed that they were failing the first quarter.  They came into class in a disruptive fashion and were assigned detention for disrupting others’ learning.  At this point they erupted with yelling and cursing, as they often had previously in this and other classes and school settings, but escalated the behavior by throwing over desks. 

I asked that they not be returned to class without a meeting with me, them, parents and administrators, but the administration placed them back in class without such a meeting.  It responded to my request at that point for assistance in preventing dangerous behavior in the future by these students by advocating “planned ignoring” of their behavior, so as not to irritate them and lead them into disruption.  At this point I decided to resign, because I lacked the authority to provide a safe environment for my students.

The fundamental question: Both of my reasons for resigning arise from a failure to address a fundamental question about Technology Preparatory.  What are the criteria for students to be enrolled and to remain enrolled in a college preparatory high school?  I realize that both enrollment and dismissal are governed by complex legal standards.  However, even if the law requires Friendship to accept and retain all students, no matter how poorly prepared for a college preparatory curriculum and no matter how disruptive their behavior, Friendship must decide if they can be educated in the same classroom as students who are ready to take on ninth-grade work.  

Skill level: I tested my incoming 9th graders with a grade-level assessment tool, and found that the mean level was third-grade.  This conclusion is consistent with their mean performance on the first of six “Achievement-Net” standardized tests for the year, despite the administration’s decision to provide teachers with not just practice tests to guide the curriculum, but the actual test.  Given the presence of a significant number of seventh grade levels and a few ninth-grade levels, this necessarily means that many the students were at the second-grade level on skills.   This group does not appear to lack the intelligence to handle grade-level work; rather, for a variety of reasons, its members consistently arrive at school without school materials and homework, and are disproportionately late and absent, unwilling to attempt and complete assignments in class, and disruptive of others’ learning. 

When I reported all this to my administration, it agreed with my assessment of the six-year deficit in math skills, which it blamed on the DC Public Schools, even though many of these students have been in the Friendship system for years.  I also reported my belief that these students must have been given passing grades for years without mastering grade-level content in math, including in the previous year, when many failed, but then passed a summer school course with no required exit exam.   

Disruptive behavior: I have followed the school’s behavior code, which calls for, in order, a warning, a phone call to a parent or guardian, a detention after school, and finally removal from the classroom to a “focus room” where a staff member counsels the student.  These steps are called “consequences,” as all the students know – even turning the noun into a verb (“He consequenced me!”).  However, there really is no credible consequence for some students, because there is no number of detentions or referrals that results in a student being removed from the classroom or the school.  If you look at the detention lists for this month, 14 weeks into the school year, you will see over well 100 students, up to a third of the school, listed on many days.  This means that hundreds of hours of instruction are being lost each week for the students who are not engaged in disruptive behavior.

Can Technology Preparatory fulfill its mission of preparing the majority of ninth-graders who are ready and able to work on a college preparatory curriculum when it retains in the same classrooms the significant minority who are not?  My answer, after 14 weeks of effort, was no.  I hope you will rethink the model you are using.  I am eager to talk with you about any of these issues.   

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