Three staff members at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School say policies designed to help struggling students graduate are actually hurting some of them.
The three — guidance counselors Truby Pete and Kathy McGatlin, and history teacher Sheila Gavigan — have filed complaints with a regional state education agency and with Tacoma Public Schools alleging wrongdoing by members of the Lincoln administration.
The counselors say they were directed to refer students who were behind on credits but working to catch up, out of Lincoln and into a downtown school district program called the Re-Engagement Center. The center, headed by a former Lincoln co-principal, was established in 2013 to serve students ages 17 through 21 who have dropped out or are in danger of doing so.
The Lincoln educators — each of whom has been at the high-poverty school for more than a decade — allege that the school is attempting to jettison struggling students to boost its graduation rate and image. Lincoln only recently made its way off a state watch list of schools with low graduation rates.
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But school district officials including Lincoln Principal Pat Erwin say the critics are wrong.
“We adhere to district policy by supporting students and finding options for them to graduate,” Erwin said. Besides the Re-Engagement Center, options include the district’s smaller alternative Oakland High School, as well as partnerships with community colleges.
“We don’t order,” Erwin said. “We recommend that they talk to these kids about the Re-Engagement Center.”
He and others in the school district say the choice is always up to the student and his or her family.
But the counselorspoint out that Lincoln kids and families, many of whom speak English as a second language, may be too intimidated to protest a school recommendation.
Pete said one of her senior students last year was behind in credits but doing well in her first semester. She said administrators told her to refer the girl to the Re-Engagement Center.
“She went to the Re-Engagement Center,” Pete said. “But they couldn’t keep her. She hadn’t failed enough.”
Consequently, Pete said, the student became confused and failed to complete some core requirements at Lincoln because she thought she would be getting those credits through the center.
“This is a student that they thought didn’t have motivation,” Pete said. “She came in every morning to meet with a teacher and do independent study. She got there every morning at 6:45.”
School district spokesman Dan Voelpel released a written statement this week explaining the role of the Re-Engagement Center. His statement noted that a new state law enacted two years ago prompted the formation of these types of programs. He said there are about two dozen around the state.
Center guidelines say students must have failed at least 25 percent of their classes to be eligible. The center offers students what’s known as blended learning: a combination of teacher help and online course work. It’s open during evening hours.
“Our school board adopted this approach and a commitment to graduate at least 85 percent of students by 2020,” the district statement said. “We are committed to serving all students and not leaving behind those students who continue to fail in the traditional setting.”
Lincoln has sent more students to the Re-Engagement Center than any of Tacoma’s other four mainstream high schools.
Erwin said that before the Re-Engagement Center opened, struggling students were sometimes referred to Oakland but didn’t always enroll there.
“If the kids were not making it at my school, and if Oakland wasn’t a match for them, they became dropouts,” he said.
He said only students who meet established guidelines are referred to the Re-Engagement Center. He said there may have been some confusion about which students were to be directed there as the new center was getting off the ground.
The counselors also said administrators withdrew some of their students from required classes at Lincoln after the counselors had already drawn up their schedules. They say administrators then prohibited them for a time from adjusting schedules — a task counselors say is one of their crucial job duties.
The counselors, through their attorney Joan Mell, offered copies of emails from administrators that they claim improperly targeted students for referrals outside Lincoln.
The counselors say struggling students should have a chance to stay at Lincoln — even if that means another full year at the school. Under state law, students have until age 21 to complete requirements for a diploma.
Erwin said that in some cases students do return for a fifth year. But he said older students can lose interest. And there are other considerations as well.
“The idea of having 20-year-olds in my school with 14-year-olds doesn’t work particularly well,” he said. “If after a period of time it’s not going to happen for a kid, we need to find them a better alternative.”
A series of August 2014 emails from Assistant Principal Rosemarie Burke discusses class sizes, which classes are full and which can accommodate more students. One message cautions counselors not to make changes in upperclassmen schedules. But it also says the reason for the caution is due to “FTE issues,” an apparent reference to the number of full-time equivalent teaching positions available.
Another email refers to “29 class of 2015 (students) that need/should seriously consider going to the Re-Engagement Center and consider other pathways to a diploma.”
The emails also mention that more than 200 students received waivers from required classes such as health and Digitools, a technology class required for graduation.
The counselors say they were unfairly blamed for the waivers. They point to a form letter that was placed in 81 student files attributing the situation to “counselor errors” and calling it a “disservice received by this student in academic advising.”
School district attorney Shannon McMinimee said the letters did not single out which counselor or adviser was responsible. Rather, she said the notations remain in student files to explain why a student received a waiver — for example, a college might want to know why a student didn’t take all his required classes.
While counselor mistakes were cited in this case, Erwin said waivers aren’t uncommon and there are many valid reasons for granting them. For example, students who have schedules heavy with electives such as foreign languages and ROTC are sometimes unable to fit in all requirements. And he said students still must achieve the 23 credits Tacoma currently requires to graduate.
Students are often scheduled into classes such as health and Digitools in their first years of high school. Erwin said that if substantial numbers of upperclassmen still need to take the classes to graduate, they could displace freshmen and sophomores. Waivers can help alleviate the capacity problem, he said.
“We are just trying to make sure the schedule works for all kids,” he said.
Mell said her clients want a thorough investigation of what’s happening at Lincoln. And she accuses the school district of “attacking them for expressing their concerns.”
She said their right to express concerns should be protected by district whistleblower policies. Instead, the counselors say they have received negative performance evaluations for the first time in their careers.
McMinimee said the district has instructed the counselors to take concerns about their job reviews through proper channels.
“The goal is to resolve issues at the lowest level,” she said.
She denied that the district is attacking the counselors. She said they were called to a meeting with district officials at school Wednesday because the school district was concerned that they may have released confidential student records to outside parties without parental consent. She was unable to say Wednesday if the educators would face any disciplinary consequences over that issue.