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An alternative high school changed more than 70 grades for students who came from other school districts, sometimes on the same day the student enrolled, internal auditors at the San Diego Unified School District found.

But the audit itself is now under the microscope, throwing a shadow over its findings. And the question of when it is OK to change a grade — and how — is also tied up in questions about the school’s unique program.

The Met, an alternative school located on the Mesa College campus, follows the Big Picture philosophy, which allows students to adjust grades by doing independent work over time. The idea is that students have a chance to improve on their work over their school career. According to the audit, school staff said they improved kids’ grades after the students did new, independent work at the Met.

But the internal auditors concluded that the school couldn’t legally increase and replace grades that were given by another school and record them as if they were earned at the old school, instead of the Met. Auditors also found that at least 11 grades from transferring kids’ previous schools were upped the same day the student enrolled at the Met, casting doubt on whether they really reflected new work.

Area Superintendent Tony Burks said it was possible for students to show they understood a topic, even on the first day they enrolled, by showing their old school papers or doing quick assessments in math or reading.

He said the school’s unusual model is still sound. “While this may seem unconventional when compared to the traditional/comprehensive high school model, this is a Board-approved school, widely accepted concept, including acceptance by the University of California system,” Burks said in an email.

The new grades were recorded between February 2007 and February 2009, according to the audit. In a written response in late August, Principal Mildred Phillips said the school would change its practices to record changed grades as being from her school, but said she would grandfather in students whose grades were altered beforehand.

Phillips did not address why grades were changed on the day of enrollment at that time, and did not respond to several emails and phone calls from me seeking her comment about the changed grades.

San Diego Unified has hired an outside attorney to investigate how the audit itself was conducted after receiving complaints in September. School district attorney Mark Bresee said he couldn’t comment on why it is under investigation. As a result, most of the school board has not even seen the audit.

School board member John de Beck argues that by launching the investigation, San Diego Unified is just burying the audit. De Beck, who recently lost his spot on the school board and has been at odds with the district’s attorney, hinted at the issue at a recent school board meeting. He later shared the audit with me to explain his comments.

“We have evidence that there have been members of our staff that have changed grades,” de Beck said publicly. “Being dishonest is not something we need to model for kids.”

Board President Richard Barrera wouldn’t comment on the investigation because it is still happening, but said that by airing the issue before the investigation was done, de Beck was acting irresponsibly.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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