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A nationally recognized charter school in San Diego is trying to salvage its reputation. It's in the middle of a grade-fixing scandal. The Preuss School is dedicated to giving low-income students a gold-plated education. But as teachers prepare those middle and high school students for college, some say they were pressured to break the rules.
NPR's Richard Gonzales has the story.
RICHARD GONZALES: As they stepped off their bus, scores of smiling students are leaping into a different world at the Preuss School. It's an elite institution for working-class kids, many from rough neighborhoods in southern San Diego. For most, it's a 30-mile commute north to Preuss's sedate modern facility on the edge of the University of California campus.
Mr. SCOTT BARTON (Acting Principal, Preuss School): It's 45 minute to an hour bus ride for these kids, so they have to want to be here.
GONZALES: That's Scott Barton, the acting principal.
Mr. BARTON: They're all low-income, of course. Their parents haven't graduated from college, and they have motivation to succeed in a rigorous college curriculum. And that means a lot of things. We - in the application, we ask for them to get letters of recommendations from their teachers, and they'd submit a sample writing. And we want to see that they have motivation to succeed.
GONZALES: Motivation is just one popular buzz word at the Preuss School; the other is family.
Jasmine Harris(ph) is a senior.
Ms. JASMINE HARRIS (Senior Student, The Preuss School): If I ever need help, I can go to my friends. And they're more than willing to help me, and I've never experienced that anywhere. It's always been, I have to do it myself. I have to do it myself. And that's because everybody is from the same background. A lot of us have divorced parents or we don't have money to afford things, and it's like everybody understands your situation and you have so much support from everyone around here.
GONZALES: The Preuss School was originally created eight years ago in response to Proposition 209, the voter-approved measure banning affirmative action.
Mr. PAUL DRAKE (Senior Vice Chancellor, University of California, San Diego): University of California, San Diego is looking for a way to create a more diversified student body without using quotas or set-asides or any special favors for any particular groups.
GONZALES: Paul Drake is a senior vice chancellor at UCSD.
Mr. DRAKE: And the goal was to make those kids ready for college. So we thought we could diversify the student body by making more students from poor backgrounds eligible to get in the University of California. And as you may know, over 90 percent of the students coming out of Preuss have gotten in colleges, so we consider it a great success. So some of the universities strenuously(ph) proud of and it's been copied by other universities.
GONZALES: But Preuss's success is now being questioned. In April of last year, the school's registrar was fired for changing the grades of her own children. Drake says an ensuing audit found more signs of trouble.
Mr. DRAKE: The audit found among about 200 transcripts. They found 427 incorrectly recorded grades — for multiple reasons: human error, computer mistakes, maybe some intentionality, but they were never able to exactly prove who had done what or why.
GONZALES: The audit appears to raise as many questions as it answers. Drake says that two-thirds of the grade changes improved the student's transcript, one-third had no effect or made the student's record worse. Some current and former teachers have also alleged that the school's ex-principal, Doris Alvarez, pressured them to raise grades. Alvarez, an award-winning veteran educator, says it's not true.
Ms. DORIS ALVAREZ (Former Principal, The Preuss School): I would never pressure teachers to change a grade because that would not benefit the student. My goal has always been that we prepare the students, and that is not preparing students if you give them a grade they do not deserve. That allegation is absolutely false and there was no evidence presented in the audit that said I did this.
GONZALES: Nevertheless, Alvarez resigned as a principal of the Preuss School. But she's still challenging the competence of the auditors, and she isn't alone. One group of UCSD faculty with no connection to the Preuss School say the audit is flawed. The school's board of directors also criticized the audit. Economics professor Julian Betts is a board member.
Professor JULIAN BETTS (Economics; Board Member, The Preuss School): If a single grade was changed either due to accident or intent to tamper with grades, either of those changes is completely unacceptable. But I think it makes a big difference to the people who stand accused in this case, in particular, the former principal, as to whether there was human error here or whether it was intent. And I don't think that the audit really proves intent in any way.
GONZALES: Still, the university is standing behind the audit. Back in the classroom, student Jasmine Harris worries the scandal will affect her chances for college.
Ms. HARRIS: I try so hard here and I worked so hard, and I don't want people to judge me. And people are looking at us in that sense that we haven't worked hard here. I don't know, it just hurts me really, really bad.
GONZALES: Her classmate, Alda Migoni(ph), is defiant.
ALDA MIGONI (Student, The Preuss School): We've heard all these allegations and all these things about our school and how there's sketchy things going on. But it kind of just brought us together and said, no, we're 100 percent legitimate and this is what we've achieved. And I think it just brought our graduating class a lot closer, and we defend each other and we defend our school.
GONZALES: The University of California says it still has confidence in the Preuss School's mission. It's hoping to move beyond the scandal by hiring an outside firm for a top-to-bottom review of the school's operations.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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