Rumors have long circulated that it doesn't take much effort to earn a diploma from Vashon High School.
Now, a confidential memo obtained by the Riverfront Times might confirm the whispers: All but 8 of Vashon's 60 teachers gave passing grades to 101 students who skipped anywhere from 25 to 67 days of school during last year's fall semester.
Not a single teacher has been disciplined, and only one Vashon instructor would comment on the record for this story. The St. Louis Public Schools district plans to launch an investigation into the matter.
On March 13 Julie Hutchins, a Vashon assistant principal in charge of instruction, submitted to teachers and school administrators a "Grade Inconsistencies Report." It was the third such document she'd prepared since the fall of 2004.
Attached to Hutchins' report was an e-mail that read: "This year I asked to have included not only the As, Bs and Cs given to students with more than 15 days of absence but the students with Ds as well; this was done to remind us just how many students are receiving credit toward graduation for courses in which they rarely appear. I think you will be as shocked as I am to see the number of times we are passing students who are gone 20 and 30 days from one class and still pass."
"I think it's wrong," says Jeffrey Hoese, an eleventh-grade chemistry teacher at Vashon and one of the few instructors not involved in the embarrassing disclosure. "It's not something that I practice, and I think it's setting our society up for disaster."
Missouri does not mandate regular attendance as a condition of graduation only that students complete 22 credit hours of class. But state education officials say most local districts allow schools to expel students with excessive absences.
St. Louis Board of Education policy permits principals to remove from class rolls any student with more than fifteen absences but this typically occurs when a youth ends up pregnant or jailed. Suspended students can re-enroll without the superintendent's approval, which is required in the case of expulsion.
This school year's fall semester comprised 81 days, yet one young woman at Vashon missed 33 school days and still pulled off an A in a course, which the report did not specify. Another boy skipped 43 days of class and received a B.
Overall, the 52 teachers none of whom are named in the report handed out 13 As, 34 Bs, 89 Cs and 52 Ds to their perennially absent students.
"This should not be tolerated from teachers," says Tony Sanders, spokesman for the St. Louis Public Schools. "Certainly, there are cases where students are allowed to do make-up work due to hospitalization and, in some cases, incarceration. But for that many students to pass under the circumstances, it really is questionable."
Sanders adds that he doesn't know if principals at other schools are paying attention to teachers giving passing grades to students who rarely attend class.
Of the 101 students (sophomores, juniors and seniors) listed in Hutchins' report, 75 are female. "I think you will also be shocked when you see how often we are doing this for female students and how often the same students are having this done for them by multiple teachers," Hutchins wrote in her e-mail.
Some male teachers find the gender disparity unsurprising. As one teacher (who asked not to be named in this story) observes: "They'll say: 'You know I really like you. Can I get a break on my grade?' I say: 'You need to back up right now,' because I'll be sitting down, and they'll be standing over the top of me with their boobs right in my face."
Vashon principal Calvin Starks, still in his first year at the school, declines to say whether any wrongdoing has taken place: "I have great concerns, but you need to talk to Dr. Hutchins."
Hutchins did not return phone calls or respond to e-mails requesting comment for this story.
"Dr. Hutchins is on the right track, in my opinion," says Bill Carson, executive director of the Vashon Education Compact, a private-public partnership that helped fund the 2003 opening of Vashon's new $35-million campus. "A lot of Vashon teachers understand what Dr. Hutchins is trying to do to raise the bar. Others don't because of the legacy left by some past administrators who placed basketball at the top of the priority list and academic rigor at the bottom."
Hutchins' report does not name any players on the nationally ranked Vashon Wolverines basketball team.
"The basketball players are like little gods," says one teacher who asked not to be named in this article. "It's known that as a teacher you have to pass them. You can't give them bad grades. If you do, they will be changed by higher-ups."
Other Vashon teachers allege that grades and absences for all kinds of students are inexplicably altered after instructors enter them electronically in the school's database.
"I had kids last year who weren't coming at all, and I was marking them absent every day," says one teacher. "Well, I'd go into the [records] system later and suddenly see, gee, they've got a lot fewer absences than what I knew them to be. This year I keep a handwritten record in addition."
Sanders says he's shocked by the accusations. "These teachers should be bringing this straight to the proper person to have it investigated and dealt with," he says. "If not, they're aiding and abetting the situation. At the same time, we will look into the allegation. It'd be nice if the teachers would come forward and give us additional information."
Despite the financial backing Vashon receives from its alumni association and deep-pocketed private interests, the school continues to be plagued by gang-related problems and has failed to overcome its reputation as an academic abyss.
Last year not a single tenth- or eleventh-grade student at Vashon proved proficient in science or communication arts, respectively, according to Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) test results. As for math, only 0.3 percent of tenth graders demonstrated competence with figures and equations on the MAP test.
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Creg Williams announced last week that he will reorganize Vashon as a design- and communications-oriented school in hopes of raising academic achievement.
"Contrary to what's in the news, Vashon is full of smart and ambitious kids," says Bill Carson. But, he adds, sometimes the school fails to prepare students for life in the outside world.
One Vashon teacher went as far as comparing the high school to a zoo: "You get these untamed animals, and you're trying to train them, and they're trying to bite you while you do it."