Farina announces reforms in wake of grade-fixing allegations at Bryant HS

By Bill Parry

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is implementing tough reforms that will hold schools accountable and ensure compliance with academic rules just days after a blockbuster report in the New York Post said a former student at Bryant High School in Long Island City claimed she was graduated with failing grades. Department of Education officials say the aggressive new approach comes after years of “sporadic allegations regarding academic integrity.”

The changes will include the first-ever permanent task force to provide oversight as well as new training and resources to ensure all schools comply with rigorous policies and standards. An independent third party without ties to the DOE will also sit on the task force, and evidence of inappropriate conduct will be brought to the Special Commissioner of Investigation.

“Schools violating our academic policies are not giving students the education they deserve,” Fariña said Tuesday. “By creating a Regulatory Task Force on Academic Policy and forming dedicated teams to monitor any concerning trends, we are once again sending a clear message that violating academic policies will not be tolerated.”

The Special Commissioner of Investigation has launched a probe into allegations made by Melissa Mejia, 18, who told the Post that she regularly skipped her government class, had scored failing grades of 55 and missed her final exam, yet she was awarded a passing grade of 65 that allowed her to graduate. In a follow-up article, the Post reported her teacher, Andrea McHale, admitted that she and other teachers at the school felt a “tremendous amount of pressure” from Principal Namita Dwarka to graduate students.

Dwarka has refused to comment, according to the Post. One DOE official said the Post’s account was “blown way out of proportion.”

The new Regulatory Task Force on Academic Policy, which will be led by Phil Weinberg, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, will report directly to the chancellor and produce biannual citywide reports on how well schools are implementing DOE guidelines. Their reviews will include an analysis of issues such as credit recovery and graduation requirements.

The task force will also identify areas where schools may need more support and training. If any office becomes aware of inappropriate actions, it will refer them to the SCI, officials say.

The new approach will also include added supervision, as well as training and ongoing support. Schools that are struggling to implement policies correctly must develop corrective action plans to address and remedy the issues, which must be approved by the superintendents. Superintendents will be accountable for ensuring that schools follow their corrective action plans.

Principals at these schools will be mandated to attend academic policy trainings and the DOE will be providing more trainings to schools so they are clear about expectations and policies, officials said.

“Swift action appears to have been taken by Chancellor Fariña to address these recent allegations,” City Council Education Committee Chairman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said. “Cheating is an unfortunate but almost predictable outcome when student test scores are used inappropriately to evaluate everything from school grades to teacher evaluations. I am glad the chancellor is taking steps to nip this in the bud by creating a task force to further investigate this issue.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.