As they investigate grading problems, Baltimore school leaders defend system at City Council hearing

Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun
·3 min read

Baltimore City school officials during a City Council hearing late Thursday afternoon defended their handling of an investigation into grading irregularities and attendance issues discovered at a high school nearly two years ago.

The hearing was called after media reports about grading issues at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts that the school system uncovered during the summer of 2019. The system found issues around credit recovery, enrollment and how grades were awarded, school system leaders have said.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the issues at Augusta Fells Savage were not systemic in the district, and she highlighted new efforts to support ninth graders so that they understand what courses are required to graduate from high school and how to plan their career.

A student must gain a certain number of credits to be considered a sophomore, although some families believed their children were in a higher grade despite not having earned enough credits.

City Council members asked what programs were in place to help parents with multiple jobs and challenges to understand how students earn credits and move through high school. Santelises said when schools are designated as community schools, there are more services to help families whose children are struggling.

City school officials said they flag students who are missing too many days of school and contact their families to improve their attendance.

Councilman Zeke Cohen said there had been significant lapses in communications with Augusta Fells Savage parents.

“In this case, that former principal failed spectacularly to support some families,” Cohen said.

Santelises said school leaders should be checking in multiple times with families during a school year, particularly when students are struggling academically. She said there needs to be at least one adult making sure that a student is on track and has the information they need.

“It can’t be ‘wait until junior year’ to engage parents in the outreach,” Santelises said.

Last month, Santelises and school board president Linda Chinnea apologized for grading irregularities that were discovered in 2019 and said they were working to provide additional help to students at the school. Fox 45 first reported issues at the school.

After putting the principal and assistant principal on administrative leave, the school system began reviewing transcripts with students and their families. A year later school officials reassigned one of their best principals to Augusta Fells Savage to turn things around, said John Davis, the chief of schools, in an interview before the hearing.

Davis declined to detail the specifics of what the school system uncovered in 2019, including how it was discovered, how many students were affected and the extent of the problem. He said more details will be available once the investigation is completed within the next several months.

The principal, Tracy Hicks, retired before the investigation was completed, Davis said.

Davis said he believed there was poor communication between the school and families. “I think a good deal of this was that parents weren’t really sure where their child was,” Davis said. In some instances, a transcript accurately showed how many courses a student had passed but a student’s family believed their child was in one grade and they were in another.

School officials are confident the issues at Augusta Fells Savage are not widespread, Davis said, because the district’s own safeguards uncovered the problems.