At Greater Egleston High School in Roxbury, students on average missed about half of the school days in recent years, according to state data, often leaving classrooms fairly empty while giving rise to speculation that the school had “ghost students” on its rosters.
As it turns out, that speculation was not without merit. Boston school officials announced Wednesday, after conducting a three-month investigation, that the small alternative school had been keeping students on its rosters longer than it should have and also committed a number of other violations, including following questionable practices in awarding students course credits.
Consequently, Superintendent Tommy Chang said he is putting the school on probation and will be replacing the school’s headmaster, Julie Coles, as well as members of the school’s governing board, according to a letter he sent to the School Committee Wednesday.
“The practice at [Greater Egleston] has been to keep students enrolled no matter their attendance, age, or lack of progress in the school,” he wrote. “There was a regular, chronic issue of absenteeism that was widely known by staff and administrators” that went back several years.
The developments at Greater Egleston also highlighted problems faced by other alternative high schools.
Chang did not specify how many Greater Egleston students were wrongfully kept on the rosters. However, state data suggest it was likely more than 100. From October 2016 to October 2017 — about a month after the school system began its investigation — the school’s headcount shrunk from 225 to 105.
“As a district, we have a deep commitment to ensure that this school, like all of our schools, provides our students a high-quality education. I am saddened to report that Greater Egleston has not always delivered on that commitment,” Chang wrote.
The letter did not suggest a motive for keeping the students on the rosters.
Alternative high schools like Greater Egleston often represent a last chance for students struggling academically to earn a diploma.
Greater Egleston also operates as a pilot school, which gives it some autonomy from the central offices in choosing programs and staffing, and is overseen by its own governing board.
A few people close to Coles have said she had a philosophy of giving students a lot of latitude in attending school, knowing they lead complicated lives and may be juggling care of their own children or siblings as well as full-time jobs. She wanted them to know a door to a diploma remained open to them and she often gave students the flexibility to take online courses outside traditional school hours.
But wrongfully keeping students on the rosters can keep a school’s dropout rate artificially low and can position a school to receive more money for its operating budget under the Boston school system’s per-pupil funding formula.
Coles could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
But Anshul Jain, cochair of Greater Egleston’s governing board, called the school system’s investigation and resulting actions “a tragedy for the students” and a misguided attempt to slash the school’s budget.
“The district’s representation is not just misleading — it’s glaringly false, and even a rudimentary look at the chain of events reveals alarming inconsistencies between their statements and the actual events that transpired,” Jain said in a statement. “In order to push through some absolutely draconian budget cuts, the district chose to follow a path of attacks against an incredibly accomplished school leader with an irrefutable track record of success for over a decade.”
The Greater Egleston investigation wrapped up as the school system has been ramping up oversight of its alternative school programs, which has at times created public uproar.
Last summer, school officials raised alarms that they might be moving to shutter Dorchester Academy after ending a contract with ABCD, a community-based organization that had been running the school. The school district cut staff at Dorchester Academy at the time, and sent out notices to students suggesting they transfer to other schools. School officials have insisted the school will remain open, even though state data indicate only 42 students were enrolled in October.
More recently, Boston Adult Technical Academy in Bay Village, which largely serves students lacking English fluency, was facing the potential discharge of dozens of students who had or will be soon turning 22, the cutoff age for public schooling.
The school is now seeking approval from the School Committee for a one-year exception to the rule.
Greater Egleston’s enrollment irregularities first attracted media attention in September after students began showing up at the school but were told they were not enrolled, forcing them to go to a school registration site to re-enroll.
Members of the school’s governing board blamed the problem on the school system, saying they had no idea why the school system dropped the students from the rosters. The board also accused the school system of not registering students who had recently been offered admission by the school.
School officials at the time offered little comment beyond that they were conducting an investigation after spotting enrollment irregularities at the school and they had placed the headmaster on leave.
On Wednesday, the investigation also brought other problems to the surface. While many students were not showing up, the school was not doing enough to help other students graduate.
For instance, during the 2016-17 school year, the school should have filed more than 100 appeals with the state for students who repeatedly flunked the MCAS exams — the passing of which is a state graduation requirement — so they could receive their diplomas.
But the school didn’t file a single request. Successful requests enable students to use coursework and other measures in lieu of an MCAS passing score to demonstrate they have mastered a comparable amount of material.
The investigation also found discrepancies in how credits were issued for various courses and internships.
“It is imperative that any school serve our students well, especially a school such as Greater Egleston High School where the mission is to educate and support students for whom our other schools were not the right program,” Chang wrote.James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.