Has New Rochelle High School Turned into a Credit Recovery Mill?

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — As the big day approaches, the long-promised release of the T&M Protection Serviced credit recovery investigation report, I want to take readers back to my first public utterances on what has come to be known as the Apex scandal. Unfair really, because Apex is just a web-based educational software company. While it may appear this is really a scandal of certain people engaged in fraud to artificially inflate graduation rates, the real scandal is that New Rochelle High School was turned into a “credit recovery mill”.

While there is no generally accepted definition of the term, a credit recovery mill offers pseudo credit recovery where graduation rates rise but students are not prepared for what comes after high school.

Apex Learning offers a list of 8 signs that a school has become a credit recovery mill:

1. Students complete a semesters worth of work in days.

2. Students go from dropping out to graduating in 6 weeks

3. Students graduate without passing any required graduation tests

4. Pressure to pass students outweighs pressure to prepare students

5. Your online credit recovery curriculum lacks reporting

6. Students work individually on courses without any teacher input

7. Teachers and administrators are experiencing overwhelming pressure to raise graduation rates too quickly

8. Students perform poorly on ACT, SAT and other assessment exams

We will be reviewing the T&M report with this list in mind.

It appears some students were given diplomas they did not earn as school administrators gave students credit for courses they did not master. The real scandal is students going out into the world unprepared for college or work. The students are victims but not innocent victims. These students knew they were getting unwarranted course credit and receiving diplomas they had not earned and happily took both. And that is the real tragedy of this scandal: the adults entrusted by parents to care for this community’s children abused that trust by teaching students that lying and cheating is not only acceptable but normal. One can only imagine what that sort of thing does to young minds.

I fully expect that when the T&M report is released there will be a lot of finger-pointing and a couple of scape-goats. The recently departed will certainly be among them so figure Reggie Richardson to take a flogging and perhaps Brian Osborne.

There is no explaining the continued employment of Shadia Alvarez as House IV Principal at New Rochelle High School except one: the intended blood sacrifice upon release of the T&M report.

In any case, it seems like a good time to remind readers how the Apex Scandal first came to the public’s attention.

For about two years I had been hearing stories about abuse involving Apex. Credit recovery abuse really began in 2010 after the board was shocked at incredibly low June graduation rates for minority students: 55% for Black/AA, 52% for Hispanic. The District contracted with Apex in 2014. Former head of guidance Mike Kenny ran the program in 2014-15. When he retired the job fell to each of the four house principals for 2015-16 and 2016-17. That included Shadia Alvarez who was hired in August 2015. Up until that time no one was ever paid a stipend for Apex. For the 2017-18 school year Alvarez was put in charge of Apex and paid a $5,000 a year stipend.

I first began to hear complaints about abuse with Apex in 2016 but it really took off in the middle of 2017. I tried many ways to get more information and to document that information without much luck; mostly I get anonymous tips and whispers but nothing solid. The problem being that the student specific records were protected under FERPA.

After a year of this I figured I may as well make a Freedom of Information request for the only thing I could think of that would not be exempt from FOIL: financial records. I filed in November 2017. Generally, a FOIL request is a last resort in a situation like this because all my FOIL requests are reviewed by the school board, the Superintendent and the lawyers at Bond, Schoeneck & King, most especially Sara Richmond and Jeff Kehl. They are looking at them to try and figure what I am researching and things tend to become hard to find once they have a sense where I am headed. In any case, I got the bogus response that my request was too broad. Stymied I set Apex aside and went on to other things.

In March 2018, I started getting complaints about Shadia Alvarez. Until then I had never heard of her. I was told that some people did not like her (not a story!), that she did various mean or rude things (boring!) and then one day that she had been caught stealing in New York City (bingo!!!).  I was pointed in the direction of a federal lawsuit she had filed. I have a PACER account so I looked up the case and found that her lawyer had conveniently filed a narrative about a DOE OSI Investigation and a copy of the report itself.

One thing I always do when I get onto a new subject is a deep dive into Google, newspaper abstract databases and BoardDocs. In looking through resolutions with her name in it I came across a resolution to pay her a $5,000 stipend to run Apex.

I wrote up the Prom Killer story in April. After I finished my draft I was looking at the paragraphs about the various board resolutions and had an idea to drop a bunch of my notes on Apex abuse into the end of the story with that Apex board resolution as a hook. It was not really a good hook, if you read the whole story you can see there are two paragraphs at the end that do not flow from the story, just stuck on there. My idea was it would be like sending up a flare to let potential sources know that I was interested in Apex abuse. On May 7th I ran the story with the Apex “flare”.

It worked!

First, it got the attention of a couple of board members who expressed concern about what I wrote. “It sounds serious,” said one. But the focus at the time was the budget which I understood. We agreed to circle back on it after the school vote.

Second, it got the attention of someone in the high school who had access to some of the “forbidden” student records. The Shadia Alvarez story with the Apex flare tagged onto it would set in motion what led to the T&M report due out on Tuesday (as much as the Journal News wants to claim they broke the Apex story and got the ball rolling on the investigation, the real cause was the person who did not like Shadia Alvarez who pointed me to the Federal lawsuit that gave a place to stick my Apex notes). In fact, I was the first to report on Apex abuse.

Whoever this person was who stole the Apex documents delivered copies of a set of Apex student records to a bunch of people in the high school. I believe it may be that a half-dozen packets were delivered but I cannot be certain. I know at least one package ended up on Brian Osborne’s desk. It was about this time I got a call from one of the recipients of the purloined Apex package who was willing to give me the material if I asked for it. That presented a dilemma for me. It is quite common for anonymous packets to show up on my doorstep, often financial records. When that happens I have no issues with accepting the material. In this case, these were federally-protected records, they were student records, they had been stolen, they would be taken out of the school but only if I asked and from someone I knew to be the sender; it felt a lot like I would be an accessory-after-the-fact if any crime was being committed (and I became convinced it would be a crime). So, as much as I wanted to see the records, especially after more than a year of poking around on the Apex story I decided against it. My caller would be taking an even bigger risk because that person would definitely be fired for cause and might be criminally charged if caught. This person made it even easier on me by asking me what advice I would give them. That was easy: get a lawyer. And any good lawyer would say return the records.

With that said, here is the Apex “flare” I stuck on the end of my May 7 Shadia Alvarez Prom Killer story:

“It is worth noting here, for the first time on Talk of the Sound, that over the past two years, serious questions have been raised about the use of the Apex Learning Credit Recovery Program to artificially inflate graduation rates at the high school and whether students are properly completing work to qualify for credit recovery. Talk of the Sound has previously sought records (and was rebuffed) in an effort to ascertain how many students each year are obtaining high school credits through credit recovery, how many such credits they are obtaining and how many students graduate each year “credit recovery” credits on their transcript. 

Sources at New Rochelle High School have told Talk of the Sound that the computers used for credit recovery are left “unlocked” so that students can complete “closed book” tests with their books, notes and other material on hand. Students have access to the exams at any time and can work on them from home. There is no way to know that a particular student completed their own work.  Worse, in some cases, credit recovery is not being used to recover credit for a class but rather in lieu of taking the class. Some house principals have students that are only enrolled in credit recovery classes.”

I am VERY curious to see how this flare stands up to what T&M found. In fact, I have to admit, the suspense is killing me! But so far it seems spot on.

– computers used for credit recovery are left “unlocked”

– students can complete “closed book” tests with their books, notes and other material on hand. 

– students have access to the exams at any time

– students can work on them from home.

– no way to know that a particular student completed their own work.

– credit recovery is not being used to recover credit for a class but rather in lieu of taking the class. 

– some students are only enrolled in credit recovery classes.

This was not ALL of my Apex notes so I may as well toss in the rest here. Realize these are raw notes, sometimes notes to myself, so not necessarily confirmed or throughly organized.

– What does it mean when Apex Credit Recovery courses were available outside the school’s network on other than district computer equipment?

– Students are working collaboratively, in school or out, take quizzes, tests and exams.

– Students taking “open book” tests.

– Students paid to take tests for other students.

– A coach for a non-CSDNR baseball team was given an administrative login so one of his players, a NRHS student, could take Apex credit recovery courses through the coach.

– Students taking exams without proctors.

– no procedures or protocols pure slapdash.

– no training, teachers very confused how to use the system so it has become cluttered, so cluttered that there is talk of getting a new system rather than cleaning up the existing system, they may scrap Apex mostly because of the clutter. What exactly does cluttered mean in this case?

– towards the end of the school year students check out laptops from the various house offices and then sit on the floors in the hallways outside the house offices and do the tests together. promised photos of this scene but never got them, was told I would get a heads up when it was happening so I could come see for myself. I never got the call and do not expect I could have gotten into the building to see that anyway.

– try to get numbers and percentages; how many kids took at least 1 Apex course, how many kids graduated with at least 1 Apex course, how many kids would not have graduated but for Apex courses, breakdown by grade, how many seniors were taking Apex just at the end of senior year v everyone else (in theory only seniors would need credit recovery, right? And at end of the year. Monthly data? Is there a big spike in May/June?  Other?

– the registrar is supposedly very old school about doing everything by the book so where is she in all this? Was she someone staff were trying to get over on? (she may very disgruntled about all this, what might she have to say…Haskett or Hasker.

I got one more tidbit. Reggie Richardson was NOT interviewed by T&M before he resigned which was in mid-July. That seems very odd if true but I have a good source on this from someone who is not a Reggie fan. Now it could be he was secretly interviewed before he resigned but my source says they interviewed him after he resigned. All of this makes me wonder if T&M did some interviews at their offices in Manhattan. The invoices do not give much guidance on that.

I might add that when the T&M Investigation began we heard they were seizing computers plural but the invoices indicate only one.

In looking at some of my tweets and posts at the time I see I also mentioned hearing that Shadia Alvarez was at the high school making lots of photocopies for T&M and at one point early on was behind closed doors at the high school with Joe Stavaggi and T&M for hours. In hindsight, that could be because Starvaggi is the union rep for Administrators. It is interesting because she was also interviewed about the 32 student spreadsheet at City Hall on the same day as Brian Osborne (not necessarily together, probably not). 

One thing I wonder about is that is 200 students got phony grades what does that do to GPA and class rank. Students who took Apex classes likely got a boost. Unfair to the others.

So that is about it for now. Still digging. If you have info including who else got interviewed call or text 914-325-4616.