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Former Tutor Calls for Investigation of Page School

Fired Instructor Files First-Ever Complaint Against Program, Claiming Students Spend Too Little Time in Classroom

Two months after being fired from the House page program, a former tutor is seeking an investigation of the school from its accrediting institution, asserting that students do not spend the required number of hours in the classroom.

The complaint, initiated in late August with the Middle States Association Commission on Secondary Schools, is the first of its kind since the school was accredited in 1996.

In a letter sent to the association Aug. 22, former tutor Matt Frattali, who spent two years in the program before being dismissed in June for forging a student’s signature on a study hall attendance sheet, asserts that students fail to meet requirements outlined in MSA’s “educational programs” standards, one of several areas in which the school must qualify to receive accreditation.

“I would like to see kids in the page school spend the same amount of time in class that their peers do back home,” said Frattali, who also teaches at the New School of Northern Virginia. “They were in class 20 percent less than their peers.”

The House Page Program, which dates back to the 1800s, allows students to study the House of Representatives up close by serving on the chamber floor while they continue a standard high school curriculum. To take part in the program students must meet academic requirements, provide letters of recommendation, write an essay and be sponsored by a Member.

Frattali’s estimates show students spent only 144 days in class during the September 2002-May 2003 academic year, falling short of the 170-180 days typically required by school districts.

“They should be held to the same standard,” Frattali said.

But Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl, who oversees the page program, said the school far exceeds the MSA requirements and has actually increased students’ average classroom time since it received its accreditation.

“We take very seriously that certification process. We wouldn’t go through it if we didn’t believe in the academics of the school,” said Trandahl, who could not comment specifically on the complaint because he had not seen it. A spokesman for Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Page Board, said the office also had not received a copy of the complaint.

According to statistics provided by the Clerk’s office, students now spend an average of 20.7 hours in class each week, up slightly from the 16.6-hour average in 1996. In 1998 the House Page Board, of which Trandahl is a member, extended the school day by 1 hour, 25 minutes during days in which the House is not in session.

Although the students, all of whom are high school juniors, can request a pass/fail grade for their service in the House, hours spent working do not count toward academic credit or classroom hours in the page program itself, Trandahl explained. Students may request the credit for use in their home school districts.

Whether the Commission on Secondary Schools will initiate an investigation based on Frattali’s complaint remains to be seen.

“We do not investigate everything that comes across our desks,” said Susan Nicklas, the group’s executive director.

If the group determines Frattali’s complaint is legitimate, it will allow the school an opportunity to respond before launching an official investigation.

About a quarter of grievances received by CSS result in investigations, Nicklas said.

“Of the complaints that we receive, the vast majority of them are by disgruntled employees” or a student or parent seeking to change a grade or receive tuition reimbursement, Nicklas said.

Frattali, who admitted to the actions that led to his removal but asserts he was “fired unjustly,” said he did not raise his concerns earlier out of fear he would lose his position with the school.

“I think it’s a great program, it needs some changes,” Frattali said. “I didn’t want to rock the boat while I was with the program. … I didn’t want anything to jeopardize that job.”

Trandahl declined to comment on Frattali’s dismissal.

In his complaint, Frattali contends that although the school scheduled 172 days for the 2002-03 academic year, a total of 27 full days were lost due to nonacademic activity or early dismissal when the House was in session.

In a description of those days, Frattali lists two snow days, “departure activities” on the final day of each semester and a three-day “survival seminar” held at the beginning of the year.

The largest portion of lost class time, Frattali asserts, comes from shortened days when the House is in session and the school’s 72 students are dismissed at 9 a.m. The school day begins at 6:45 a.m.

“These amount to half-days of school. I’ve conservatively estimated that one-third of all Wednesdays and Thursdays were half-days,” Frattali wrote in the complaint. “Out of 172 days, about 70 were Wednesdays and Thursdays. Hence there were about 22 half-days, which amounts to eleven full days which were lost.”

Ideally, Frattali said, he would like to see a reduction in the number of classes students take or an increase in class hours on Saturday.

“Instead of taking five classes, you take four, and right away you’ve solved the problem. … You have 20 percent less school time, but you have 20 percent less classes,” he added.

Schedules vary based on state and local regulations, but a typical school year runs between 36 and 40 weeks, and a minimum of three to five hours of class time is required daily, according to the Clerk’s office.

Under the current structure of the House Page School, its officials note that students still receive more than the 120 hours of instruction required in each subject during the 38-week school year, even though students spend just 2 hours and 15 minutes in class some days.

And, Trandahl notes, pages already spend 14 Saturdays attending class to round out required class time.

Some of those Saturdays are used for the Washington Interdisciplinary Studies Program, a series of eight to 10 Saturday field trips to locations in the Washington metropolitan area such as the Chesapeake Bay or Monticello. Students receive a grade for the program, which includes several hours of classroom instruction prior to each trip and sometimes examinations following a trip.

While Trandahl acknowledged he has received some calls from pages’ home school districts questioning the academic programs, he pointed to the program’s success, as evidenced by a small number of recent page school students who graduated from the program and immediately entered college, rather than return to their home high schools.

“A lot of former pages come back to our office to visit … the vast majority of those kids always tell me now — and this wasn’t true six, eight years ago — that they got back and they were way ahead of the fellow students they had left,” Trandahl said.

Chris Denton, a page during during the 2002-03 academic year, said there is competition between work and academic duties required of students in the program.

“School was secondary, and they tell you that coming into the program,” Denton said.

But Denton generally praised the program, and compared pages’ class schedule to home-schooled students, asserting that more work can be accomplished in fewer hours than a traditional school.

“If they knew the Iraq debate was going to be the next week, we would have homework adjusted to how much time we’d be on the floor,” said Denton, now a high school senior in Virginia. “When the House went out of session that’s when homework went into 4-wheel drive.”

One of Denton’s page school classmates, Susan Forrester, began classes in Astoria, Ore., last week and said her year in the page program has prepared her, and her classmates, for at least one course this year: “Definitely in the government class, we feel like we’re more than ready.”

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