More than 300 Patterson High School students who were promoted in June are being informed in July that their report cards were in error: They flunked.
Officials attributed the error to an aide at the East Baltimore school who entered the failures in a computer after a deadline set by the North Avenue central administration. The computer is programmed to promote everyone unless the school enters a failure. The result was that all students except graduating seniors received report cards from North Avenue school headquarters with a computer notation: "PROMOTED TO NEXT GRADE."
When parents complained and the error was discovered, school officials sent all sophomores, juniors and seniors a letter informing them of their status.
About 300 students, 250 of whom were freshmen last school year, learned that they will have to repeat in September.
"This tells me they weren't doing their job," complained Betty Ruth, whose son, Edward M. Chaplinski, 14, had been told he was promoted despite missing 104 days and failing all four of his courses.
But Bonnie Erickson, the Patterson principal, said there was "no conspiracy to promote everyone. The whole thing boils down to an individual not doing the job."
She said the "loudest complainers" about the report card blunder "are the parents of children who were excessively absent. Where were they all year while we were trying to contact them to get their kids to school? Where are they in helping us turn this school around?"
Some parents said Patterson has been disorganized as it goes through a restructuring ordered last year by the state under threat of a takeover. Ms. Erickson said the reorganization is proceeding smoothly and that it was her concentration on plans for converting the 1,800-student school to five "academies," one exclusively for freshmen, that led her to miss the report card error.
High school students are promoted on the basis of credits earned -- one for each successfully completed full-year course -- not teacher judgment. To pass from the ninth to the 10th grade, for example, a student needs at least four credits. Most take from four to six courses; 21 credits are required for graduation.
Edward Chaplinski, who lives with his parents on East Lombard Street, said he stopped going to school in December after he was "banked" -- attacked -- by a group of students. "Me and my friend was walking to school during first or second period when ** they hit us with a sack full of rocks or something hard like that," he said.
Edward said police twice had picked him up for truancy and returned him to school. "I just got up and left after a few minutes," he said.
Edward's highest year-end grade was a 55 earned in algebra. Sixty is the failing grade in Baltimore.
William Morrison, who is setting up the academies at Patterson, said the school's failure problem -- and its dropout problem -- are concentrated in the ninth grade. "Seventy percent of the ninth-graders were failing each year," he said, and half were dropping out as soon as they reached the compulsory attendance age of 16.
Mr. Morrison said that by eliminating hundreds of "ghost students" who were on the rolls but not attending, Patterson officials during the past school year "got a handle on a completely out-of-control school."
The promotion rate this year will be about 65 percent, he said. It was 48 percent last year, according to North Avenue officials.
Maryland school regulators recently announced plans to stop using the promotion rate as a measure of an elementary school's performance. During the five years promotion was a standard, school districts' numbers climbed, until all 24 Maryland districts had promotion rates in the high 90s and the standard was meaningless.
The picture is much different in high schools, which in the city have enormous dropout rates, particularly in the ninth grade. Two reasons for Patterson's selection for state intervention were its dropout rate of 17 percent and its daily truancy rate of 33 percent.
Mr. Morrison said Patterson counselors are trying to find "alternative placements" for multiple failures. "An 18-year-old freshman is too old," he said. "If he gets through, he's at least 22 when he graduates. Too old."
Students who are behind in credits can catch up in summer school, but Lynne Ward, an aide at Patterson, said only 50 Patterson students applied this summer. They are attending school at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.
One reason so few students opt for summer instruction, said Ms. Ward, is that the system charges students $125 for each class.
Donna Franks, a school system spokeswoman, said Patterson was the only senior high where the report card error occurred. She said officials were investigating whether it also occurred in at least one middle school.