There was a pep rally, complete with high school cheerleaders and a pep band, at Chatom Elementary on Friday morning, Oct. 18, even though the K-4 school has no football team. And there was good cause as this is when students at this Washington County school got the news that their school earned an A on the latest Alabama public school report card.
You an watch it on this Facebook link.
Chatom is one of 170 elementary schools in the state to earn an A. The vast majority of these are in more affluent systems with significant local funding.
“This is just more affirmation of the progress this entire school system is making,” said one long-time administrator. The entire system is rated as a B. There are seven schools in this system. One is an A, four are a B and only two are a C. No other system in southwest Alabama is rated higher.
This news is significant as Woodland Prep charter continues its effort to open a school north of Chatom. It’s hard to imagine that many parents will take their children from an A rated school to one with no track record. Woodland Prep is proposed to be a K-8 school and open in the 2020-21 school year. Chatom is the nearest elementary school to the charter site.
The only other elementary school in the county is at McIntosh. (Elementary grades are part of the K-12 schools at Millry, Fruitdale and Leroy.) It is rated as a C. However, it is at least 30 miles from the Woodland Prep site. Since parents will have to furnish transportation to any student attending Woodland Prep, it is not very likely that many students from the McIntosh area will attend the proposed charter.
(Charter supporters originally indicated that the charter would be located near McIntosh. In fact, their charter application to the state charter school commission had a support letter from a then county commissioner based on this information. However, when this commissioner, who did not seek re-election, learned the truth, he recanted his support.)
Congratulations to everyone at Chatom Elementary. You have made your community proud.
At its essence, the charter commission is actually a bank. And every taxpayer in Alabama has a stake in how they conduct business..
What the charter commission really does is decide how taxpayer money will be invested, to the tune of about $8,500 per student who attends a charter school. It is up to them to decide if this money is invested wisely or poorly.
This was crystal clear in a riveting moment at the September 30 charter commission meeting when a member told Soner Tarim that the commission wanted him to succeed in Washington County and they should do anything they could to make this happen.
OMG. The person who made the statement had just listened to Tarim spend nearly an hour dodging direct questions, trying to play the victim and making up one excuse after another. The same guy the Texas state school board sent packing in June when he wanted to open four charter schools in Austin. The same guy who is being sued for fraud because of all the misrepresentations in the Woodland Prep charter application (which he told folks in Texas he prepared). And we want to help him succeed?
When someone approaches the charter commission seeking approval for a new school, they are looking for money. It is the duty and responsibility of the commission to decide if investing in this charter makes sense. Just like a banker does when someone wants to borrow money to open a new business.
When this happens, one of the first things the banker wants to know is how much money will this new business owner invest themselves. The bank is not going to take 100 percent of the risk and if the person seeking the loan is not willing to invest themselves, then why should the bank?
The charter commission should require that any new charter applicant show in writing that they have raised at least $250,000 in local money. If the local community is not willing to support this venture with their dollars, then why should Alabama taxpayers go out on a limb?
The banker will also do proper due diligence and determine if this new business venture makes sense. Is there a market for the services or goods the borrower is proposing to furnish.
This is where the charter commission has badly mishandled the Woodland Prep situation.
Soner Tarim claims that he will offer a curriculum that with be heavy on science and technology and prepare Washington County students to go to college to be engineers, doctors, etc. He obviously thinks that one size fits all. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
But some homework shows us Washington County does not need–nor want–what Tarim is peddling. Sure, they graduate bright students who have their eyes on college and the possibilities a college degree may afford them.
But of the 67 counties in Alabama, only four of them (Pickens, Clay, Coosa and Conecuh) have less people over the age of 25 with a college degree than Washington County does. On the other hand, Washington County has the highest average weekly wage ($1,152) of any county in the state. This is 30 percent above the state average. In addition, Washington County ranks No.19 in the state in median income, wedged between Mobile and Montgomery.
Plus, ACT Work Ready Communities has declared Washington County as a “certified Work Ready Community.” This means the community links workforce development to education; aligns with the economic development needs of the community; and matches individuals to jobs based on skill levels. In other words, they are tailoring education to what the public wants. They are preparing graduates for good-paying jobs in the area.
The charter commission, at least the one in place prior to four new members being appointed in August, obviously did not bother to do their homework and figure all of this out.. Instead of listening to the local community and understanding its dynamics, they chose to listen to a guy from Texas who is only trying to get money out of Alabama taxpayers. However, there is reason to believe that the most recent appointments to the commission are looking for accountability, not just the smoke and mirrors Tarim has given them.
In a nutshell, Tarim wants to open a Neiman-Marcus where folks are doing just fine with only a Dollar General.
No banker worth his salt would fall for this. Nor should the charter school commission have done so.
While the handful of supporters of Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County insist that all they want is better education opportunities for local students, their actions tell a far different story.
For example, the Oct. 11 edition of The Washington County News has a full page ad announcing an open house at the Woodland Prep construction site on Oct 17. Those who attend will see that progress is being made on the school and will learn how Woodland Prep’s curriculum will differ from the one now offered by local public schools.
But a bold headline at the bottom of the page let’s the cat out of the bag as to what is really going on. It proclaims:
Free Tuition! To anyone who lives in Washington County.
Charter schools are so-called public schools funded with taxpayer dollars. Public schools do not charge tuition. Period.
So how the heck do you have “free tuition” when there is no tuition? They might as well be offering “free air” to any student.
It is another marketing gimmick, probably hatched up by their PR guy, Jon Gray, from Mobile. It is an attempt to convince people that Woodland Prep is really a private school paid for with public dollars.
But the real message in this ad is that Woodland Prep is a BUSINESS VENTURE and has precious little to do with education. It is all about Soner Tarim of Houston and American Charter Development of Utah trying to get money our of Alabama taxpayers. If this school was all it is supposedly cracked up to be, why are Tarim and ACD trying so desperately to round up students so Woodland Prep can open its doors and get money from the state? Why have they paid “recruiters” to scour the county in hopes of enrolling students?
In Alabama, business recruitment is handled by the Commerce Department, while schools are the domain of the state department of education. But once again, Woodland Prep supporters show that they don’t understand the difference.
It was Monday, September 30 and right there is front of me, only 25 feet away, stood Soner Tarim, the wizard of charter schools, all the way from Houston, TX (even thought he said in the meeting he lives in Montgomery).
It was the most recent meeting of the state charter school commission and Tarim was there to first tell the world how wonderful things are at LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery; and then give a progress report on the effort to put Woodland Prep in Washington County. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in person.
He dodged question after question for at least an hour, apparently suffering from some malady that prevents a person from giving a direct answer to even the most basic of questions. For instance, when commission member Jamie Ison asked if he lived in Montgomery. he told her he does, which every person in the room knew was untrue. In fact, the next day LEAD board chair Charlotte Meadows went on a Montgomery talk radio show and said that he lives in Houston.
As this dog and pony show droned on, I suddenly realized I had seen this movie before.
It was when I watched the video of him before the Texas State Board of Education on June 14 when he was trying to get approval to open four charter schools in Austin. Just like in Montgomery, he dodged and dodged question after question.
Texas board member Georgina Perez questioned the numbers he had on his application for the Austin charters. She pointed out that the percentages of ESL students he said his schools would service were much lower than the numbers Austin schools have. He told her he was using numbers from a school district in the Houston area. His application said the six public schools in the area where he wanted to put charters were all failing schools. Perez pointed out that the state does not show they are failing. To which Tarim replied that he has his own grading system.
Perez, who taught in El Paso for 17 years, was especially interested in his thoughts about students with discipline issues. At one point, Tarim asked her, “Do you want these kids in your classroom?” She quickly told him that THESE were the students she had worked with. He made a big deal of saying that his schools would use something known as “social, emotional learning.” To hear him tell it this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and because of it, his charters would be far better than Austin public schools. But this bubble burst when someone pointed out that schools in Austin have been doing this for eight years.
During his presentation, Tarim boasted that when he ran the Harmony charter chain of schools, they received a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Board member Pat Hardy of Ft. Worth seized on this and asked Tarim if his schools use Common Core, which is by Texas law illegal.
“Oh no,” replied Tarim. “Common Core is a dirty word. We are 100 percent Texas.” Hardy then pointed out the Tarim’s $6 million grant was for Race To The Top, a Federal program that required recipients to use Common Core. At this moment Tarim looked like a deer in the headlights.
(Tarim’s application to open four charters in Austin was denied.)
I interviewed both Perez and Hardy by phone. Hardy told me that she could not believe Alabama was being hoodwinked by Tarim. Perez said that Tarim should not be allowed near a school–much less allowed to run one.
The more I listened to him on September 30, the more I agreed with both of them.
Charter schools are required to show the charter commission that they are engaging locals with community meetings. To verily, they are to send sign up sheets of meeting attendees to Montgomery. Woodland Prep has not done this. Tarim said the reason was that charter supporters in Washington county are “afraid” to sign anything.
So we are to believe that a parent is afraid to sign a sheet of paper, but they think it is OK to send their child to a charter school?
Tarim was asked when Woodland Prep will hire a principal. He said they had hired one, but the local community “bullied” this person and they withdrew. Months ago Woodland Prep did announce they had hired someone. But they only identified her as “Amy O” and did not say where she lived.
Some time later, Washington Post education writer Val Strauss somehow found out who the person was and tracked her down in California. Strauss was told the person had no intention of coming to Washington County.
But Soner Tarim wants us all to believe that out of 329 million people in this country, someone in Washington County found someone they only knew as “Amy O” with no address? Like most of what he says, this is unbelievable.
The Alabama Education Association is suing Tarim (and Woodland Prep) for fraud. Anyone who watched his “performance” on September 30 knows why.
We’ve all seen them. Folks who look down their nose at people from Alabama. Their disdain is evident. Like, “What the heck am I doing among all these rednecks? Why they wouldn’t know a martini from a Martian.”
They feel superior. They can say anything and the rednecks will believe them they think.
This attitude was on public display on Sept. 30 when the state charter school commission met in Montgomery. The guy was youngish and sitting against the wall as commission members peppered Woodland Prep board chair Thad Becton and his “education consultant, Soner Tarim with questions. Most of which were evaded.
Once again Washington County had brought a charter bus load of people to the meeting. A handful addressed the meeting, including two students from Leroy high school. So most of the crowd was quite familiar with this southwest Alabama county.
At one point one of the commission members wanted to know why progress at the building site had been so slow. Why little except pouring a foundation had been done.
This was “Mr. Attitudes” cue.
He never gave his name or position. So one can only assume that he is with American Charter Development, the company out of Springville, UT that is handling school construction.
And to the astonishment of all present, his answer was that “It rains a lot in Alabama.” Some people laughed out loud because they know that for weeks the state has suffered through one of the worst droughts in its history. The U.S. Drought Monitor says the entire state is “abnormally dry.” Then the guy said it a second time.
And some folks still wonder why supporters of Woodland Prep have about as much credibility as Washington County has gotten rain in the last month.
Had they seen what I saw and heard what I heard, they would know.
Terri Michael is a member of the Birmingham city school board. She works hard to keep a watchful eye on things involving that school system. She is very concerned about things she has learned about the push for charter schools there. In the article below, which was published in the blog of Diane Ravitch, the most widely read education blog in the U.S., Michael details something that does not pass the smell test.
“In Alabama we have a Legislature that appears to be perfectly fine creating legislation that targets our black and brown high poverty students in Birmingham.
We have education organizations and foundations that work against the very schools they are contracted to support.
We have a State Superintendent that is condoning the targeting of our students.
We have a real estate executive that in 2015 actively worked, unbeknownst to Birmingham City Schools (BCS), to get our charter school law passed while at the same time holding a contract to sell surplus properties for the school system. This information was just recently exposed. They are still under contract with BCS.
Now, thanks to an old organization, the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools, renamed New Schools for Alabama, we can add Betsy DeVos to that dogpile. Like the cherry on top of a sundae, Betsy DeVos is the final piece needed to serve up Birmingham City Public Schools to the power-hungry politicians and the gluttonous corporations they work for.
So, what was it exactly that DeVos did to make their charter school dreams come true? She awarded New Schools for Alabama a $25 million-dollar grant to open 15 charter schools, a majority of which no doubt will be in Birmingham.
However, New Schools wasn’t the only one that got a gift, I did too. What was it? The Federal grant application that New Schools filed in an effort to receive that CSP Grant. It brought together, in one document, the entire cast of characters that’sworking to undermine public education in Birmingham, Alabama.
When I began reading it, I didn’t really know what I was looking for.
But the first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that they had no problem saying they were targeting Birmingham, along with 3 other districts. Now, finally, for all of those in this city who refuse to believe we are targets for privatization, it’s right there in the application in black and white. I guess we can now put that ‘conspiracy theory’ to rest.
Second, I noticed the people and organizations that wrote letters in support of New Schools for Alabama and the grant that would be undermining our public schools; Alabama Sen. Del Marsh (R), U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D), State Superintendent Eric Mackey, the Mike and Gillian Goodrich Foundation, the Daniel Foundation, and A+ Education Partnership, just to mention a few.
Third, and possibly the most disturbing, was the fact that the Executive Director of NSFA, Tyler Barnett, used data gathered from our voucher law, the Alabama Accountability Act, to justify targeting our black and brown students for charter schools. Here’s what he said:
“Of Alabama’s 76 state-designated failing schools—meaning, the bottom 6% of schools in academic achievement—72 had at least a 90% poverty rate. And of the 38,420 students in those failing schools, 96% are Black or Hispanic.”
Ninety Six percent are Black or Hispanic!! How in the world can Mr. Barnett, or anyone else for that matter, take this data andthen twist it to blame the schools and/or the students for ‘failing’? Especially knowing the same Sen. Del Marsh that wrote the recommendation letter for this grant was also responsible for bringing us the Accountability Act. Just as they are targeting our students for charter schools, the Accountability Act targets our black and brown students and labels their schools as failing.
This data is garbage, the only purpose it serves is to strengthen the systemic racism that exists in public education in Alabama. If you are thinking to yourself, ‘it’s the poverty’, it’s not. Approx. half of our public-school students that live in poverty in Alabama are white.
Finally, the most surprising thing I found was this, in reference to what our charter school law says about acquiring real estate:
“Already, this law has been exercised by a charter applicant in Birmingham City Schools, which sold a historic but underutilized school building in the fall of 2018 so that an emerging charter network could restore the building for school use.”
Wait, what? I am a board member for BCS, I would like to think that I’d know if we sold a building for charter school use.We did attempt to sell one property last fall, but the sale fell through in February, a month after the NSFA Federal Grant Application was submitted.
If we were to believe that the information in this federal application were true, and why wouldn’t we, the reason I didn’t know the surplus property was going to be a charter school is, more than likely, because of three little words that come after the buyer’s name on our real estate sale agreement, ‘and/or assigns’.What these three words do is allow the person buying the property to assign the sale to a third party. So, if it says John Smith and/or assigns, then maybe John Smith is buying it, and maybe he’s just making a quick buck for his services and passing the sale on to a third party. As a BCS school board member, I don’t really KNOW who’s buying our property.
One bit of information I left out; New Schools for Alabama is still legally the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools(ACPS). This coalition’s sole purpose was to get the charter school law passed in Alabama. Once it did that, the organization went dormant.
Now they have rebranded themselves with a new name, a new board and a new purpose. Part of their new purpose is to help prospective charter schools buy and/or lease property. (Surprise!!)
In light of this very generous offering from our public-school hating Secretary of Education, I decided it was time to revisit the old board of ACPCS, just to refresh my memory.
Right away I came across the name of J. Michael Carpenter. I can tell you, I was more than a little surprised to find out that it was the same J. Michael Carpenter that founded Bloc Global,the real estate company that Birmingham City Schools has had under contract to sell surplus properties since 2011. Could this be how NSFA knew that we sold property to be utilized as a charter school?
So, let me explain this again in very simple terms. As a Birmingham City Schools Board member I discovered that the real estate company that we have under contract to sell our surplus property was, in part, founded by and currently still under the direction of, the very same person that sat on the board of the coalition that is responsible for helping write our charter school law and lobbying for its passage. Legally that coalition (ACPCS) is the same entity doing business as New Schools for Alabama. NSFA wrote the CSP Grant Application that stated the BCS board sold property in the fall of 2018 to someone for charter school use.
Is your head spinning? Well so is mine. I knew none of this information until recently. I’m very concerned and upset that as an elected member of the BCS board I had to spend days doing research to uncover all of this myself.
Yet, I know this is how things work in Betsy’s world. The world of charter schools is one big land grab full of backroom deals and shell games. Now, with this new information and the $25 million dollar grant it appears the final piece of the charter school puzzle is in place in Birmingham.