The Many Ways in which the T&M Report on Apex Fails
NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- After a six-month, six-figure investigation, news accounts of the recently released report by T&M Protection Resources (T&M) commissioned by the New Rochelle Board of Education have focused on one name and one number: Shadia Alvarez and 212.
Why Shadia Alvarez?
Another question goes to her intent which begs another question:
Why, Shadia Alvarez?
The T&M report barely scratched the surface of credit recovery abuse at New Rochelle High School (NRHS) and offered nothing new by way of explaining her purpose in changing hundreds of grades for 32 students.
WHAT IS CREDIT RECOVERY?
Credit recovery at NRHS takes many shapes and forms. It can be online credit recovery like the courses offered through Apex Learning but can also be an independent study course or giving a student currently failing a class an extra credit assignment or allowing make-up classes to address attendance deficits. Apex Learning is not only credit recovery but can be a traditional course offered in an online environment due to a scheduling conflict or a course for students unable to attend school for medical reasons or due to incarceration.
The T&M Report shows investigators examined only a small fraction of credit recovery programs offered at NRHS and only over discrete periods of times. Credit recovery has been part of the curriculum at NRHS for about a decade and has involved hundreds of students across thousands of assignments involving most every administrator and pedagogical staff member.
So, why such a narrow scope of investigation?
T&M looked at just one independent study course completed by one student over a one month period; a handful of written assignments by five students from the 2015-16 school year that may or may not have been submitted for a grade in the Apex Learning system; and grade changes entered into the Apex Learning online program during one ten month period by just one of several Apex Coordinators.
Why did T&M limit its investigation to just these three topics and over such limited periods of time: a month, ten months, 12 months?
T&M Protection Resources was hired by Bond, Schoeneck & King (BSK) in May 2018 in the wake of three published articles: two by Robert Cox of Talk of the Sound and one by Colleen Wilson of the Journal News. The first article, published on May 7th on Talk of the Sound, was about Shadia Alvarez; that she had been fired from her previous position for fraud, paid $5,000 to run Apex Learning and that there were numerous reports of Apex abuse. The second article, published on May 23rd on lohud.com, was about written assignments for Apex courses from the 2015-16 school year; that despite poor quality the student may have received full credit for the work. The third article, published on May 23rd on Talk of the Sound, was about allegations by three Art teachers; a guidance counselor was teaching a course improperly as part of an independent study credit recovery class through the Night School and had stolen course materials to do so.
T&M limited its’ investigation to just these three topics because the purpose of the investigation was not to investigate credit recovery abuse or Apex abuse. T&M was hired by BSK to look only at what had been published in the media. Requests by T&M to go beyond the information contained in the three media accounts was denied by the heavily-conflicted Sara Richmond, a former New Rochelle Board of Education President who left to work as a lawyer for BSK representing the District.
Credit recovery came into heavy use in New Rochelle in 2010, during Richmond’s term as Board President.
Sara Richmond prevented efforts to investigate all credit recovery going back to 2010; that would have included her tenure as Board President when credit recovery achieved lift-off at NRHS. She was blocking an investigation of herself.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CREDIT RECOVERY AT NRHS
The widespread use of “credit recovery” first began in the City School District of New Rochelle more than 8 years ago after the New York State Education Department (NYSED) Report Card for NRHS was released on March 4, 2010. The report included the 2008-09 June Graduation Rates, among them minority graduation rates that were the lowest ever reported in the District: 53% for Black/African-American students and 51% for Hispanic students. School board members at the time expressed outrage and professed deep concern. Among them Jeffrey Hastie, the current Board President and longest serving member of the current board, and then-Board President Sara Richmond who managed the T&M investigation on behalf of the District. At the time, then-Superintendent Richard Organisciak mumbled at a board meeting “I told you what would happen if we used the real numbers.”
At the board meeting immediately after those shockingly low 2009 June Graduation Rates were made public, also in March 2010, Richmond refused to allow public comment on the graduation data at board meetings. She declared that no public comment would be allowed until May, to give then-New Rochelle High School Principal Donald Conetta time to prepare a presentation to explain why minority graduation rates had plummeted to all-time lows. In May, Richmond announced Conetta had been “too busy” to prepare the promised presentation on the decline in minority graduation rates and again refused to allow public comment. Among the speakers denied an opportunity to address the board that May were Ron Williams, then-President of the NAACP New Rochelle Branch and Martin Sanchez who not long before had been the sole Hispanic school board member. Richmond refused to set a new date when Conetta would present to the board.
Conetta and his leadership team were under tremendous pressure to “fix” the graduation rate debacle before it got worse. In 2010, so-called “local diplomas” (non-Regents diplomas) were being phased out for general education students. He led a desperate flurry of activity at the high school in May and June to implement crude “credit recovery” solutions to boost the 2010 June Graduation Rates before it was too late. Students were allowed to attend a special 5-day class to “make up” for skipping all or most Physical Education classes during the school year, students were allowed to submit term papers and other coursework or extra credit projects for classes they had previously failed in years past to retroactively boost their average in that class above a 62 so scores could be then “rounded up” from 62 to a 65 so the student would pass and get credit for that class, teachers were pressured to “get creative” to find ways to pass students currently failing and, if that proved insufficient, the school simply altered transcripts, according to reporting by Talk of the Sound at the time. This information was provided at the time by this reporter to Richmond who expressed indifference to then-ongoing abuse of credit recovery.
The following year the 2010 NYSED Report Card showed minority graduation rates had gone up despite the elimination of the local diploma for general education students.
When the 2010 graduation rates went up instead of down, Hastie was the lone board member to express incredulity that there had been an increase in year-on-year minority graduation rates despite phasing out local diplomas. School officials struggled to give a coherent and convincing explanation.
From 2007-08 to 2008-09 and from 2008-09 to 2009-10, Black graduation rates went from 68% to 53% to 64% (a 22% decline followed by a 21% increase), Hispanic graduation rates went from 59% to 51% to 57% (a 14% decline followed by a 16% increase), White graduation rates went from 85% to 82% to 81% (a 4% decline followed by a 1% decrease). Year-to-year swings in minority graduation rates of 14 to 22 percent are highly unusual, especially in light of the elimination of local diplomas for general education students which significantly raised the bar to earn a diploma. The graduation rates would be expected to drop from the year before, not go up.
Five months after the 2009 Graduation Rates were released, over the summer of 2010, a time when board meetings were typically devoid of parent and community members, Conetta finally appeared before the board. This reporter was the only member of the public to attend. Conetta never gave his presentation on the decline in minority graduation rates. In Conetta’s hour-long presentation, he simply skipped over the shocking decline in minority graduation rates in June 2009. He barely mentioned Black students. He did describe, in great detail, existing programs targeting Hispanic students. He dropped repeated hints that the 2010 data, which by then he knew, would show improvement.
Conetta never truly recovered from the minority graduation rate debacle. By 2012 he was on his way out.
Reginald Richardson was hired in 2013. His response to the 2010 NYSED report card, when asked, was to simply deny the low June 2009 minority graduation data existed, even after this reporter provided him with the data.
In 2014, the District contracted with Apex Learning to offer online credit recovery which brings us to the era covered by Report which we have reported on extensively:
RESPONSE TO THE T&M REPORT
The T&M Report was officially released by the New Rochelle Board of Education on December 4th. The release of the report was accompanied by a statement by the Board President.
Only a small part of the statement addressed what T&M uncovered.
Only one person is obliquely referenced in the statement, as “the administrator identified as having made the grade changes”. A media availability notice announcing a press conference the following morning and a press statement handed out at the press conference referred to the person as the NRHS Apex Coordinator (stating, incorrectly, that she had resigned).
By the time the report was formally released, Shadia Alvarez had served her purpose. As we predicted, she was kept around for months by the Board, at a cost of tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, for the sole purpose of being offered up as a “blood sacrifice” to purge the sins of a school community where “everyone” knew credit recovery was a sham and graduation rates pure puffery.
The school board has now issued repeated statements that “the” NRHS Apex Coordinator is being fired but Shadia Alvarez was never “the” Apex Coordinator. She was just one of seven Apex Coordinators since the Apex Learning program was adopted in New Rochelle in 2014:
- Mike Kenney (2014 to 2015)
- Michael Hilderbrand (2015 to 2016)
- Camille Edwards-Thomas (2015 to 2017)
- Gustavo Barbosa (2015 to 2016)
- Daniel Gonzalez (2016 to 2017)
- Shomari Akil (2016 to 2017)
- Shadia Alvarez (2015 to 2018)
The T&M Report states that when Director of Guidance Mike Kenney retired during the 2015-2016 academic year, Richardson reassigned the administration of Apex among the four House Principals (Hilderbrand, Edwards-Thomas, Barbosa, Gonzalez). House Principals maintained this responsibility during the 2016-2017 academic year as Hilderbrand left for Trinity and Barbosa was named Social Studies Chairperson. Gonzalez and Akil were added. Before the 2017-2018 academic year, Richardson centralized Apex responsibilities and selected Alvarez to be the sole coordinator of the Apex program.
The investigation did not look into the period from 2014 to 2015 when the Director of Guidance, Michael Kenney, was the Apex Coordinator nor explain why a function under the Guidance Department was not assigned to the incoming Director of Guidance, Gregg Sloane, when Kenney retired. The investigation did not look at any of the house principals from July 2015 to May 2018 other than Shadia Alvarez. None of the other six Apex Coordinators were interviewed.
Even the investigation of Alvarez was limited. T&M obtained Apex Learning records for Shadia Alvarez but only for the 10 month period from August 1, 2017 to June 19, 2018. She was hired as NRHS House Principal in August 2015 and was made an Apex Coordinator soon after her hiring. T&M did not obtain any Apex Learning records for Shadia Alvarez from August 1, 2015 to July 31, 2017. T&M did not obtain any Apex Learning records for other six Apex Coordinators from 2014 to June 30, 2018. T&M made no effort to determine if any of the Apex Coordinators besides Alvarez changed or filled-in grades or whether Alvarez changed or filled-in grades between August 2015 and July 2017.
T&M looked at a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of credit recovery at NRHS — a figure below 1%.
Even the existence of a role called “Apex Coordinator”, created in 2014, was not made public until 2018 when the school board adopted Resolution 18-300-5, retroactively authorizing payment to Alvarez of $62.77 and hour for 80 hours or $5,021.60 on April 10, 2018.
THREE PRESS REPORTS EXPOSED PIECES OF APEX ABUSE
Less than a month after the school board approved an unprecedented $5,000 stipend for Alvarez, on May 7th, Talk of the Sound published our first story on Alvarez and Apex — that she had been investigated on sustained charges of financial fraud while employed as a Principal in the Bronx, then demoted and fired. We reported the $5,000 stipend as Apex Coordinator and broke the news that we had been investigating reports of Apex abuse for two years, that we had made a Freedom of Information request for “all Apex records” in 2017 which was spuriously denied, that we heard about pressure from administrators to change grades and attendance records as part of pressure to boost graduation rates, that teachers were complaining that grades for their students were altered, students were not properly completing work to qualify for credit recovery, that computers used for credit recovery were left unlocked so students could complete closed book tests with their books, notes and other material on hand, that students had access to the exams at any time and could work on them from home so there was no way to know that a particular student completed their own work.
Two weeks later, on May 23rd, the Journal News published a story on a set of documents mailed to them by an anonymous source purporting to be 2015-16 Apex coursework from the Art Department which suggested that students were given full credit for low quality work.
On the same day, May 23rd, Talk of the Sound published a story about an email sent by three Art teachers alleging academic misconduct and theft by a guidance counselor.
A review of the report on credit recovery at NRHS by T&M, first made public on December 3rd by Talk of the Sound which obtained a leaked copy of the report, shows the T&M investigation was confined to just three topics: (1) Shadia Alvarez and Apex; (2) documents sent by NRHS teacher Anthony Stirpe to Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne, believed to be the same documents sent to the Journal News; and (3) the allegations by three Art teachers against a guidance counselor accusing her of stealing course materials and improperly instructing a night school student.
The T&M report provided plenty of detail on these three previously reported stories but offered nothing new, there is no form of grade-fixing that was not already known from these three articles in May. The T&M Report was not an investigation of credit recovery at NRHS per se but a reaction to these three specific sets of allegations only one of which was substantiated by the T&M Report - our article on May 7th. The email sent by art teachers was found to be in error and the course material sent to the Journal News story deemed inconclusive.
What the T&M Report did show was a complete lack of oversight and accountability at a school where students were shoved willy-nilly into Apex Learning credit recovery courses with little regard to academic integrity. What the report did not show is whether the 212 grade changes over a 10 month period is 100% of the grade changes or the tip of a very large iceberg.
If this is just one rogue administrator changing grades for 32 students within a single school year that may just be a bad apple. If this is about 7 administrators changing grades for hundreds of students over 5 years that may be a criminal conspiracy.
Given the stakes, the lack of curiosity among school board members is striking.
At a press conference on Wednesday, December 5th, ostensibly to discuss the T&M report, New Rochelle Board of Education President Jeffrey Hastie and Interim Superintendent Dr. Magda Parvey bobbed and weaved to avoid answering questions about the T&M report. They would not address the findings of the report, lessons learned from the report or avenues of investigation opened by T&M but not pursued.
Hastie and Parvey were not asked many questions about the report itself and gave non-responsive answers to the handful of questions on the report they did get. Mostly they got questions about Alvarez, Richardson, and the impact of the scandal on the reputation of the school. The real purpose of the presser as far as Hastie and Parvey were concerned seems to have been to repeat a few talking points: the two employees at fault were going (Alvarez) or gone (Richardson), some of the recommendations will be implemented, the report is being sent to NYSED and that releasing the report, in and of itself, is restorative - a first step to rebuilding trust with parents and the broader community.
“We are trying to show that we are open and transparent and rebuilding the trust with the community,” said Hastie.
There was no explanation what purpose was served by sending the T&M Report to NYSED or how releasing a report, delayed for months, after it had already been published by Talk of the Sound, proved anything about openness and transparency.
Asked about a transcript mentioned in the report that was physically altered with “white out” and a typewriter, Hastie said no one would be looking into whether other transcripts were altered.
When asked "what went wrong" with Apex Learning, Hastie said “what broke down is a lot of processes and procedures we did not have in place to make sure and ensure the grading system was accurate and correct.”
How something that does not exist could break down was not explained.
“The breakdown was in our system,” he said while describing a complete absence of a system.
Parvey said employees at NRHS “were kind of just going essentially a little bit by the seat of their pants.”
“The school purchased this program without training for staff, without set procedures,” she said.
If the failure was a lack of "policies, procedures and training," then what policies or procedures did Shadia Alvarez violate?
Parvey said “the issue was just the manipulating of grades," that Alvarez was being fired because she “changed grades without the proper authority.”
If there were no policies and procedures, how could she exceed her authority? If there was no training how would Alvarez know what she could and could not do?
It seems like the real reason for taking punitive action against Shadia Alvarez and only Shadia Alvarez is our reporting on her being fired (and later banned) from the New York City Department of Education. She was already damaged goods and thus expendable.
No explanation was offered for why the Apex Learning contract was cancelled on June 30th, in the middle of the investigation. Parvey and Hastie both said Apex Learning was widely used by schools in Westchester and there was no indication that the system did not work. So why not keep a system already familiar to administrators, teachers and students, and create policies and procedures, and provide training. Neither Hastie nor Parvey would say. What was said, by T&M in their report, is that cooperation from Apex diminished after the Apex contract was terminated and they were unable to obtain reports on grade changes by any other administrators. When asked whether anyone would pull up these records. Hastie dismissed the idea, saying “the report was final”.
Dr. Parvey, who has been the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction since 2016 declined to comment on her role and responsibility with the failure to train staff, develop and implement policies and procedures and otherwise manage the instructional program at NRHS. She blamed some undefined collective “we”.
“We all take responsibility for this and also learning, this is a valuable lesson learned, in terms of being something that wasn’t being watched, and now we know, we need to keep any eye on it,” said Parvey.
Board Policy Number 2340 is the job description for Parvey’s position as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.
The role is to “provide the leadership necessary for the development of the Pre-K to Grade 12 educational program through organization, administration, supervision, coordination, and evaluation of the program.” All of her responsibilities apply to the high school. Her Performance Responsibilities include compliance with State laws pertaining to education, providing supportive service and assistance to the high school, developing goals for instructional programs for the high school, establishing and maintaining instructional programs within the high school to achieve goals, to determine training program needs at the high school, to establish programs and supervise the development of curriculum and the delivery of instruction at the high school, monitor the selection of resources at the high school, provide appropriate supervision of administrative and supervisory personnel at the high school, ensure the effective functioning of the educational programs at the high school and administer the delivery of special instructional programs at the high school.
In short, her job was to supervise administrative personnel at the high school, develop curriculum at the high school, ensure the effective functioning of education in the high school and provide training to high school administrators, teachers and staff.
Dr. Parvey is paid a great deal of money. By her own admission she failed in every aspect of her Performance Responsibilities as it applies to credit recovery and Apex Learning.
Neither Hastie or Parvey had much to say about Shadia Alvarez.
“You’ll have to ask her,” said Hastie when asked why she did what she did.
Asked about her public comments to the board on Tuesday, Hastie said “I’m not going to comment on that.”
Parvey said “I think they were hers to make.”
The public heard directly from Alvarez at the school board meeting on Tuesday. She said she “fundamentally disagreed with the findings of the report.”
The T&M Report states that on July 24th, investigators confronted Alvarez with a spreadsheet listing 212 grade changes associated with her Apex Learning account. She denied making 210 of the 212 changes. Her union lawyer, Michael Starvaggi of ESSAA, sent a letter denying she made any but 2 changes and declaring ESSAA would be conducting its own investigation. Her direct supervisor and now-interim NRHS Principal Joseph Starvaggi denied she made any inappropriate grade changes, he blamed a “technical anomaly” and said he would be conducting his own investigation. Recently departed Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne told T&M he was only vaguely familiar with Apex Learning, had never logged into the service and never used it. Former NRHS Principal Reggie Richardson told T&M he had never used Apex and relied upon Alvarez to manage the Apex program in an ethical manner. Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and Interim Superintendent Dr. Magda Parvey would not address her role in any of the curriculum or instructional programming deficiencies identified in the report. She was not interviewed by T&M and is referenced but not named in the report.
Osborne, Parvey and Richardson have disavowed any knowledge of Apex credit recovery or Apex abuse. Shadia Alvarez, Joe Starvaggi and their union deny Alvarez made all but 2 of the 212 changes in the report. So, despite the decisions of the board which amounts to just two actions — fire Shadia Alvarez, mail a copy of the report to Albany — the stated position of every administrator, past and present, is they know nothing about grades changed improperly.
When asked at the press conference “what went wrong”, Parvey blamed a lack of knowledge on how Apex worked.
“Essentially, what it looks like is there was a lack of understanding of the program,” she said. “Apparently the school essentially purchased this program without training for staff, without set procedures in place and so they were kind of just going essentially a little bit by the seat of their pants so to say so they were learning as they went along so there are intricacies within the actual system that people hadn’t mastered and understood prior to going through this process.”
The T&M Report did not look at the period of 2014-15 when Apex was purchased and rolled out at the high school. There is no basis either way for reaching any conclusions about what took place at that time. Parvey acknowledged it was before her time so she did not know what happened. So, there is no basis for her answer as to what happened when Apex was purchased or rolled out at NRHS.
If it is the case that the District did not train staff on Apex then why fire Alvarez for a “lack of understanding of the program?”
Not mentioned in the T&M report or the the letter read by Hastie at the December 5th board meeting or at the press conference is that the school board appears to have secretly met with Alvarez — possibly more than once — and took the opportunity to ask her directly about the 212 grade changes. In other words, after T&M delivered their report on October 18th, the board conducted their own investigation, which may explain, in part, why the publication of the report was delayed by 36 days.
The only difference between the so-called “draft report” dated October 18th and the “final report” dated December 4th is the signature of two T&M executives on page 46 and a Q&A Letter added as an Exhibit.
The Q&A Letter describes 3 questions from members of the New Rochelle Board of Education to T&M.
Two of the three questions show the board conducted their own investigation of Alvarez after October 18th.
The board asked T&M why certain documents were not in the report because Alvarez stated “she provided T&M a binder full of supporting documentation that included parent emails complaining about the software and her emails to supervisors asking for training/help/support.” Stated to who? After the board received the draft report on October 18th, Alvarez told the board about the binder. T&M did not include the binder because the documents Alvarez described were not in the binder.
The board asked T&M about the spreadsheet with the 212 grade changes because the Board wanted “to give her the names to give her an opportunity to address.” Give her the spreadsheet when? After the draft report was delivered. Why? To engage Alvarez further on this subject.
The Q&A Letter reveals that Alvarez was engaged in a dialogue with the school board between October 18th and December 4th as part of a separate, undisclosed board investigation into Apex.
As a side note, two of the three questions show that not all board members read the report before asking questions of T&M: whether Alvarez was shown the spreadsheet with the 212 grade changes in it when that confrontation is described in detail in the report. T&M was asked who was interviewed, whether that included any of the students in the spreadsheet with the 212 grade changes and, in particular, the two students who might not have graduated with help from Alvarez. The report clearly states who was interviewed and that the two students who might not have graduated were not interviewed.
The T&M Report is not a case of the New Rochelle Board of Education being open and transparent. There are many, many unanswered questions and many, many lines of inquiry not followed.
Firing Shadia Alvarez is about containment not justice. She should never have been hired. Keeping her on the payroll for six months after the public learned of her malfeasance in the Bronx was a cynical maneuver designed to give the public its pound of flesh. It is a ploy.
Sending the report to NYSED is about as useful as strapping the report onto a rocket and blasting it into outer space. T&M has already made recommendations. There is no role for NYSED here. It is another ploy.
Even the data T&M did collect was not analyzed for meaningful patterns: which houses were the students in, were they House IV students under Shadia Alvarez, were they varsity athletes, were they disproportionately White, Black or Hispanic, were they PAVE students?
So many unanswered questions and so little interest among board members to pursue them.
Despite claims to the contrary, the T&M Report was an attempt at damage control (and attempt that backfired given the media coverage). It was not a comprehensive investigation into credit recovery going back to 2010 when it gained popularity among school administrators, it did not go back to the beginning of the Apex Learning program in 2014, it looked at only one of seven Apex Coordinators and only looked back 10 months on the one it did consider. Dr. Parvey, the person with responsibility for instructional programming at the high school, was not interviewed and not even mentioned by name in the report. The T&M Report was damage control aimed at responding only to three media accounts published by Talk of the Sound and the Journal News.
Shadia Alvarez should be terminated but terminating her and ending the investigation is not openness and transparency. It is a coverup.