Failed Denver Public Schools students getting a pass, former teacher says

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DENVER -- A former teacher at a troubled Denver high school has stepped forward with allegations that failing students are getting their semester grades raised to a passing mark through a new administrative process.

FOX31 Denver reviewed class test scores and transcripts which appear to back up that teacher’s claim.

Physics teacher, Justin Twardowski, resigned from Collegiate Preparatory Academy (formerly known as Montebello High) in January for what he labeled “a hostile (work) environment.”

He says his principal pressured him to raise grades for failing students and when he refused on moral grounds, the students' grades were improved he says “by someone up the chain of command” to give them credit he believes the students did not earn.

Twardowski told FOX31 Denver investigative reporter Chris Halsne during an on-camera interview, “When I posted my grades at the end of semester one, I documented what my students received. When I looked later, I saw that my students' grades that I had posted - the ones specifically that had received Fs had nearly all been changed to Ds.”

FOX31 Denver reviewed final semester grades for those nine students in Twardowski’s physics classes. The records were time-stamped December 19th, 2014. That is three class days before the Christmas holiday break. All nine students had combined assignment, test, and final test scores below the 60 percent fail/pass threshold.

Semester totals showed scores of 13.26%, 21.46%, 32.50%, 34.03%, 35.94%, 40.41%, 44.47%, 46.43%, and 52.96%.

His teacher comments for the failed students submitted to the district ranged from “lots of potential” to “missing work” to “no final exam.”

FOX31 Denver also reviewed copies of those same students' transcripts when school started back up after the break in January of 2015. All nine received Ds instead of Fs on their official report cards.

Twardowski says he could not believe it, telling Halsne, “It`s egregious. Honestly. The first thing when I saw that I felt (pause) I don`t even know how to describe it. It`s a degree of violation professionally that I never experienced. I didn`t even know what to make of it. It rattled me to my very core. If I fail a kid, that kid is not meeting the standard after receiving quality instruction.”

The Denver School District refused to answer questions regarding the grade changes, choosing instead to send FOX31 Denver a statement, which reads:

"Collegiate Prep Academy students who demonstrate mastery of a course’s requirements through the school’s credit recovery program have the opportunity to receive a passing grade for that course. Allegations that grades have been changed arbitrarily or inappropriately are false.  Students who earn improved grades via credit recovery must clearly meet all requirements and expectations outlined in the school’s program."

DPS also sent FOX31 Denver emails which asked the station “destroy any copies of records” which contained confidential student data. FOX31 Denver has taken measures to not use any personally identifiable student information in its reports.

Due to poor student test scores and below average on-time graduation rates, Collegiate Prep (and in prior years, Montebello High School) has been labeled by DPS as a “turnaround school.”

A Denver school board member described CPA as one which has long had issues with leadership and student discipline.

State and district financial records show Collegiate Prep has received extra grant money to address its deficiencies. DPS provided records which show additional funding for 2014-2015 to be in the range of $314,000.

Other than providing the statement, the district refused to speak on the record about Twardowski’s allegations, so FOX31 Denver approached Collegiate Prep’s principal, Martha Gustafson to get her explanation.

Gustafson took over as principal at the start of this school year. Her resume includes being named 2011 Middle School Principal of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Gustafson declined to say who changed the physics grades, but told Halsne, “We are launching several initiatives here to help kids do unit recovery, credit recovery, assignment recovery and able to realize successes on a body of evidence level with proficiency and grade alignment with standards-based grading.”

When asked if a student needs to get above 60 percent to pass a class, Gustafson again declined to directly answer, stating, “They need to show proficiency levels.”

Shortly after speaking with FOX31 Denver last week, Gustafson sent a letter home with students which said in part:

A former CPA teacher is making claims to KDVR that our school leadership has unjustly changed student grades from an F to a passing grade. This is absolutely not the case. Any grades that have been changed are done so via our school’s credit recovery program.

Even if a failed student did somehow meet the principal's standard of "show(ing) proficiency" in physics over the two-week holiday break, Collegiate Prep`s policy on grade changes requires the teacher to initiate any change.

The CPA student handbook states, "Faculty members must initiate all grade changes ... Principals, Counselors, or other administrators will not arbitrarily change grades issued by faculty members."

Teacher Justin Twardowski

Teacher Justin Twardowski

Twardowski says, “I do not know who has the authority to change that or who would have. All I know is someone did. I was not consulted. Nobody ever talked to me about it.”

We asked him “if it was possible the nine students did some kind of extra credit or course (work) without (his) knowledge over Christmas break?"

He answered, “Very highly unlikely ... I don`t see how a kid with a twenty-something percent could have possibly turned that around in two weeks. Especially when he didn`t even have his report card yet. For me that raises a lot of questions.”

Public records show Twardowski is one of 38 teachers who resigned, quit, or was fired from Collegiate Prep High School in the past two semesters. That turnover rate is well over half the classroom educators.

FOX31 contacted other teachers (and an administrator) on that list.

One teacher, who spoke on-the-record, but asked we withhold his name from this report, says he also resigned, in part, due to administrative interference with grades.

In his resignation letter, reviewed by FOX31 Denver, that teacher wrote to Principal Gustafson:

“Here is an example of what is unethical. When I tell a student they are not passing and that student complains to your management team that he will miss a football game the next day you walk into my classroom with a formal LEAP Evaluation like its weapon.”

(LEAP evaluations are a relatively new way of assessing how a teacher performs in a classroom. Low scores during these evaluations could lead to dismissal and have future implications for the teacher’s state license.)

Using the Colorado Open Records Act, FOX31 Denver requested DPS release the number of times grades have been raised from Fs to Ds by administrative process.

The district responded saying "they don't keep such records."

The Colorado Department of Education says any investigation of improper grade changes needs to start with the school district, but if the district fails to do so, CDE would “take appropriate action to follow-up on the situation.”