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125 Graduations at West Baltimore School Called Into Question by Audit

Ohanian Comment: This is very hard to comprehend.

Nearly a third of the seniors who received a diploma last month from Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy might not have met graduation requirements, and hundreds of other students might have been wrongly promoted to the next grade, city school officials said yesterday.

Graduates whose diplomas might be invalid will begin to be notified today by school officials. Walbrook is scheduled to open its doors at 1 p.m. for students to discuss their transcripts with counselors and figure out how to make up classes.

Officials spent last night contacting graduates whose diplomas are not in question to reassure them. They also have been calling students who thought they had just completed grades nine through 11 to tell them they might be retained in the fall.

The problems were found during a weeklong audit of the West Baltimore school's records prompted by its new principal, Shirley Cathorne, according to school officials.

Cathorne, chosen this month to oversee the restructuring of the 2,000-student school into smaller "learning communities," alerted central office administrators after seeing problems in student transcripts as she was performing a routine review of the records, school officials said.

A similar review at Southwestern High, also undergoing restructuring, turned up no discrepancies, officials said.

This month a state investigative panel reported that management failures contributed to the school system's $58 million budget deficit. But school officials were confident they had brought expenses in line and were getting ready to repay a $42 million bailout loan from the city.

"Just when you think you are turning the corner, something else comes along. It's the nature of the business," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the school system's chief of staff.

As many as 125 of 396 Walbrook seniors were improperly allowed to graduate, and several hundred students might have been told they would move to the next grade despite failing or not taking required classes, officials said.

The revelation means that some ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders might have to repeat a grade this fall. Students who need additional courses to graduate will be able to enroll in an emergency summer-school session at Walbrook to begin Tuesday, take summer online courses or attend twilight school this fall.

Registration for the 20-day summer school session will begin Monday at 9 a.m.

Students' diplomas could be certified by the end of next month if they complete summer makeup courses, school officials said. Those who already have met requirements will receive a letter and certified transcript by mail, Grotsky said.

"High school graduation is a big deal, and some of these kids are the first in their family to graduate," he said. "The worst thing would be for a student to take a job for a year and then to try to enroll in college and be told, 'You don't have the credits you need.'"

Even as officials notify students, they have begun an investigation into what went wrong at Walbrook and a broad review of records at the rest of the city's 39 high schools.

Linda Chinnia, the system's chief academic officer, said a breakdown in administrative procedures at Walbrook might have enabled students to slip through.

"It appears to look that way," Chinnia said. "That's why we are investigating ... to be certain we take corrective action so this does not happen again."

State education officials declined to comment yesterday.

Andrey Bundley, who was principal of Walbrook until being transferred this month for unrelated reasons, said he has been placed on paid administrative leave until the investigation is finished. He ran against Mayor Martin O'Malley in the city's Democratic primary election in September.

"This whole process comes as a shock and is a surprise to me," Bundley said in a written statement. "It seems clear that such an untimely or timely investigation is politically calculated and motivated."

Bundley also wrote that he would prevail against an unnamed "antagonist" - an apparent reference to O'Malley.

A spokeman for the mayor declined to respond to the accusation. "These allegations by Mr. Bundley do not merit a response from this office," said Rick Abbruzzese.

City school board members said they want a thorough investigation. "It's always disappointing when the values we espouse aren't upheld by the very people charged with carrying them out," Dorothy G. Siegel, an outgoing board member.

At Walbrook yesterday afternoon, at least seven school police cars were parked around the building. A group of officers stood near the main office and were posted outside several entrances. Several employees were escorted to their cars by officers.

"It's like Fort Knox in there," said Alfred Meadows, a parent who was turned away yesterday when he tried to pick up his son's school records.

Officers loaded three cardboard boxes and four carts of files into police cars.

Grotsky said student records were removed from the building as a precaution. "We took all of those files out of school to secure them and so that kids are treated fairly," he said.

As word of the problems at Walbrook spread yesterday, some students and parents reacted with outrage and worry.

"This is really devastating," said Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs. "This is just another instance where the system has failed to properly educate our children."

Shaneika Taylor, 15, said she had been told she would advance to the 10th grade at Walbrook, but now she worries that she might have to repeat ninth grade.

She failed algebra this past school year - a requirement for promotion, according to Frank DeStefano, director of high schools.

"I would be really devastated," Shaneika said, "because all my other classmates are going to move up, and I've got to repeat the same grade [because of] one class."

Shaneika said she blamed the school for failing to warn students: "Now the kids are in trouble for what adults have done."

Some parents and a teacher said they are not surprised to hear about the problems at Walbrook.

Tarsha Barnes, a parent volunteer whose daughter expects to enter the 11th grade, said she knows how the promotion policy is supposed to work.

"But that's not the case at Walbrook," she said. "You can fail all your classes and still go to the next grade."

Clarice Brown, who taught Spanish at Walbrook, said grade-changing has been a problem at the school and she thinks the central administration has known about it.

Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, Laura Vozzella, Scott Waldman and Matt Whittaker contributed to this article.

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— Laura Loh
Baltimore Sun





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