Education

South Orange Maplewood School District Superintendent Investigating Alleged 'Sloppy' Columbia H.S. Attendance Make-up Practices

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SOUTH ORANGE AND MAPLEWOOD, NJ -  An investigation into what is being deemed “sloppy” procedures related to some Columbia High School (CHS) student attendance requirements is being conducted by South Orange Maplewood School District Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra, who said it could affect “tons of students.”

“We’re going to issue a report on that soon, I have people looking into that,” Ficarra said Wednesday night when asked at a community meeting related to the district's long range facilities and integration plan. “We should have a policy that says this is what I have to do. I found that it is not consistent.”

Ficarra, who has been serving as acting superintendent since August 2017, said he was told of the concerns a week ago and hopes to have an internal report by Friday. 

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At issue is the procedure for students who have achieved passing grades in a subject through tests and assignments, but have missed too many school days and face failure due to the lack of attendance. Ficarra said there is a procedure in place for them to make up that missed time through “credit recovery,” in which they must spend a set amount of time in a classroom with a certified teacher in order to regain the lost attendance. 

“They have extra time in the classroom with a proctoring teacher to study for exams and make up the hours they missed,” Ficarra explained. “The concern here was confusion. We need more clarity on it.”

He said most districts have a panel that reviews each student’s case and approves the credit recovery plan and approach, but CHS does not have such a system: “That seems to be missing here.”

Because of that, procedures were not based on a districtwide standard and varied from case to case: “It seemed like it was left to teacher discretion and there are pretty simple ways of calculating it,” he explained. “You might have done one thing using your discretion and the next teacher might have done another thing using his discretion when the right thing would be for the superintendent and the board to sit down and say ‘here is the formula.’”

One of the concerns of some parents, according to sources, is that the credit recovery sessions were not overseen by properly credentialed teachers who are certified in the related class being recovered. 

But Ficarra stressed that none of the issues at CHS involved improperly changing grades, which has been an allegation at the New Rochelle, N.Y., school district where former South Orange Maplewood Superintendent Brian Osborne now works, recently announcing his resignation effective at the end of the next school year.

In that case, claims have surfaced that grades were wrongly inflated for online classes and an internal review launched.

”People are interpreting what happened in New Rochelle as what happened here, and that is not the case,” Ficarra said. “People think that because Osborne was here that is going on here, but it is not.” 

He later added that “there have been wild accusations” about CHS grades because of the New Rochelle issues, but “it is nowhere near that. Some sloppiness, yes. But here you are dealing with primarily on the surface that a student passed the grade, completed the assignments, but was absent.”

Ficarra also said many of the issues are related to cases in which a student switched classes in the middle of the semester, often from an honors class to a lower-level course, but the final credit was not properly given.

“Some people said we need an outside review, my contention is we have an outside review: it’s called me,” Ficarra said about whether a more independent review should occur. “I’ve never been here for a credit recovery, it’s called an acting superintendent, an assistant superintendent who has never been here for a full school year, and an acting director of guidance who hasn’t been responsible for the current system either – we’re looking at it.”

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