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.”
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.
"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 different 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."
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."
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