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Sunday, February 9, 2014

‘Fail factory’ teacher churns through 475 students per year

Alexis Pajares (left) teaches 275 students per year under principal Lottie Almonte's
 'blended' online programs
by Susan Edelman
On paper, he’s a super-teacher. To critics, he’s the poster child for academic fraud in New York City.
Alexis Pajares “teaches” 475 students at Manhattan’s Murry Bergtraum HS for Business Careers in all grades and all disciplines — including algebra, biology, chemistry, Chinese, earth science, economics, English, government, health, history, law and Spanish.
Students failing any of those subjects get dumped on Pajares, who signs them up for an online course they can do in a computer lab or at home. Students can snag full credit without attending class.
“There’s little to no traditional instruction going on, which makes the whole thing a farce,” said history teacher and union chapter leader John Elfrank-Dana. “It’s a credit-recovery trick, in most cases, to move kids along and get them out.”
Principal Lottie Almonte started the program last year, appointing Pajares the “blended learning” teacher. But staffers charge that it violates state rules that online programs must include “substantive interaction” with a teacher certified in the subject. Pajares is certified only in social studies.
Elfrank-Dana, citing complaints from teachers and students, said he has repeatedly asked Almonte to explain the program but got no response.
Two blocks from City Hall, “F”-rated Murry Bergtraum has struggled in recent years as a “dumping ground” for overage or held-back students who lack credits. The school had only a 51.2 percent graduation rate last year.
Almonte referred questions to the Department of Education. A spokesman admitted Pajares doesn’t teach all 475 kids, but “is running the blended learning program,” that other certified teachers “support students” and students are required to be in classes with traditional instruction.
Teachers and guidance counselors dispute those claims. Schedules show students in blended learning without an equivalent class.
“You don’t learn a lot,” said a 21-year-old senior — a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic — who takes an online chemistry course.
“We just sit down, sign on to the program and that’s it,” he said.
He watches a video of a teacher giving a lesson, then has to answer questions in a quiz. If he doesn’t know the answer, he watches the video again — or uses Google. He takes notes, but “nobody checks our notes.”
Another senior took blended learning English after failing the class in her junior year.
“There’s no attendance. You just log on when you feel like it,” she said.
The online course, which she did at home, took three weeks — while a classroom semester lasts 4¹/₂ months. She said she got no feedback on the one essay she was required to write and doesn’t know who grades it.
Other kids take the online classes purely as a convenience — instead of a regular class that starts early and requires a lot more work.
A math teacher said the program is flawed because kids take tests at home — not under school supervision — raising the possibility of cheating.
Staffers have heard that some students pay friends $80 to $100 to take the online exams for them.
Another math teacher had a student who “sat there doing nothing all semester,” the teacher said. “He told me, ‘I don’t have to do any work in your class. I can take blended learning.’ ”
After flunking out, the kid scored 82 online.
But students who pass the online courses stumble in subsequent classes. “I have not seen any kid who can handle material at the next level after blended learning,” the teacher said.