I Work at a School That Passes Kids No Matter What

It took me a while to figure out I had taken a job at a diploma factory.

by Anonymous; as told to Allie Conti; illustrated by Hunter French
Jul 22 2019, 10:00am

Welcome to Scam Academy, where you'll find stories of schemes and cheats from within the high schools and colleges of America. If you cheated and want to share how you did it and why, please email Senior Staff Writer Allie Conti:

This week we hear from a 40-something in New England who thought she'd landed a dream job until she realized she was in the business of effectively pretending to educate troubled kids.

I cheated once in undergrad, but always held onto hope for education, thinking I was just a bad seed. That is, until I went to a job website for schools and found out about this whole world called therapeutic high school. They had a teacher's assistant position open, and I figured it would be a good fit. I'd been toiling away for a decade as an adjunct professor for college freshmen and was never gonna get tenure. I figured: What's the difference between 18 and 17?

What I figured out later—and it took me a really long time to accept it—was that I had taken a job at a diploma factory.

Let's say a kid is acting up or getting into fights. We take them when their district feels as if they can no longer teach them, and we get $60,000 per student in tuition. It's a very small class setting—sometimes almost one-on-one, depending on staffing. I got very excited when I heard this in the interview, thinking it could be like a mentorship. I had no idea how toxic it was. Teachers who have worked there for a few years immediately told me, "It's not about teaching them, it's about keeping them entertained until the end of the day."

That means a lot of Monopoly and Connect Four.

This place is all carrot and no stick. For instance, we let a kid sleep in the corner pretty much all day long, but we still pushed him along to the next grade, because we were getting paid so much. It’s called "social promotion," and it was part of what that book PUSH by Sapphire (made into the movie Precious) is all about. We push, or promote, kids into the next grade even though they didn't necessarily do the work.

Actual English, which is my subject, very rarely occurs at my school. The kids often refuse to read for homework; those who do typically end up going back to their home districts. We have one young man who's going into 10th grade who is either lying or his mother is reading him books at home out loud, and our principal doesn't care. (She shops for dresses on her phone openly during meetings.) The idea is that if you can't get the kids the districts send you to move to the next grade, then why would they ever send you a kid again? We lose the money. But every time I would try to bring up social promotion—that I was uncomfortable with it—people would just say that's the way it's always been.

One particular case I found really offensive. We have a young woman who's going into 11th grade and still can’t read half the words. One of the people who was higher up at our school said that she wanted to get her this diversity scholarship that allows you to take a college-level psychology class online. You know what? The motivation behind that is beautiful. But the reality is that she can't even read, so why was someone trying to get her to take a college class? But this was her baby, this was her idea. She pushed this girl through and wrote the essays for her, and tried to get the rest of us to help with the classwork. I refused.

In fact, I started to feel so uncomfortable about that that I brought it up at staff meetings. It was academically dishonest. All we were doing was taking this girl who couldn't read and lying to her by making her think she could pass a college-level course. People say: What's it gonna hurt if this person is probably gonna be on disability for their whole life anyway? But this girl ended up getting really stressed out and having an episode. She ran out of the school and started screaming about "getting justice for her education." It's ethically tricky, but letting someone think that they're capable of going to school for psychology at a four-year college seems cruel. Someone should instead be sitting her down and saying: "Maybe college isn't the end-all-be-all. There are other things that we can look at would still satisfy you and your sense of purpose while still being in your reach."

I know that's not a fun conversation to have with a teenager, but it's about her mental health.

It's strange to think that I also work at a community college where I want to motivate students to pursue as much higher education as possible while doing this. I mean, we should actually be teaching these kids in the first place, but if we're not going to do that, we need to at least temper their expectations if we care about them.

Sometimes I look into what happens to them later. We had three students try to go to community college the previous year. I looked them up in the fall and again in the spring to see if they were successful. Only one of them managed to finish a class without failing, and it was a college prep blow-off class he got a C- in.

I've been working at this therapeutic high school for about two years now, and have thought about trying to unionize the place, but talking about this makes me realize I just need to find another job. I also just had the horrifying realization that, because we're technically a non-profit, I could find out my boss' salary. But do I want to?

The above has been edited and condensed for clarity. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter or send her your story of cheating here.