They stand as silent sentinels of a time gone by. Watch towers on the past. “They” are sturdy concrete silos, rising 40-50 feet above Perry County’s black prairie land. Head south out of Marion on Highway 5 and you’ll spy one every few miles. Each a reminder a dairy was once there and those silos were filled with corn silage to keep milk cows well-fed.
They remind us of the struggles this black belt county has faced for generations. Struggles that continue today.
No one understands this any more than John Heard, longtime county school superintendent. State data shows that public school enrollment has dropped from 1,938 to 1,256 in the last decade. There are only two schools in the system today. Things are no better at Marion Academy, a private school, that has fewer than 100 students in pre-12 through 12th grade.
And if one number can illustrate the plight of this school system it is 137. That is where the system ranks in terms of local revenue per pupil. Which means out of 137 systems in the state, it is dead last. By comparison, its neighbor to the west, Marengo County, gets $1,300 more per student from local sources than Perry does.
Marion is the county seat. In antebellum days it was a jewel in Alabama’s crown, probably best known for its commitment to higher education. Judson College was founded in 1838 and is still there. What is now Samford University in Birmingham began there. Marion Military Institute’s parade grounds still welcome visitors on the south side of town. Alabama State University in Montgomery has its roots in Marion.
All things considered, Perry County would appear to be the last place to open a charter school. But in our quest to sprinkle charter schools at random around the state, that is the plan. It makes no sense. But then, in todays world of Alabama public education, logic is too often thrown to the wind.
If a charter school opens in Perry County, it will drive a stake in what’s left of the public school system because it will siphon precious dollars away. Since charters are public schools supported by public dollars, every student attending one of the county’s two remaining schools (one which is rated a B by the state and the other rated C) means the county system will lose all Federal and state funding for that student. Presently, this is about $8,500 per pupil.
How we got to this point is a curious tale and testimony to the consequences of what we are supposed to believe are good intentions.
New Schools for Alabama is a brand new non-profit based in Birmingham. Its mission is to bring charter schools to the state. This year’s education budget gave them $400,000 for operating expenses. (Yep, we are taking money from public schools to fund a group who, if successful, will take more money from public schools. Another example of the logic practiced by the supermajority leadership of the state legislature.)
New Schools was recently awarded a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who has never seen a charter school she didn’t like. Plans are that New Schools will award three $1.5 million grants annually to give charters a jump start. They have also set up a fellowship program in which they fund someone to spend time at a charter school in another state so they can come back to Alabama and get a charter up and running.
This is where Perry County comes in. New Schools recently announced that one of their first fellowships is going to Darren Ramalho to start Breakthrough Charter School in Perry County.
And here is where the irony gets even more ironic.
Ramalho is a graduate of UCLA and came to Perry County in 2014 as a Teach For America teacher. TFA descended on Alabama in 2011. Like many others, they came to “save the Black Belt.” Perry County has used TFA from the outset and while most other west Alabama school systems quit TFA years ago, Perry County has continued to do so. Which means they have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on this program which puts temporary teachers in local schools.
In other words, someone from California who has been supported by John Heard and the Perry County system for several years now has intentions to bring harm to them. As you can imagine, Heard is upset. And rightly so. In this corner of the world, actions such as this are sometimes referred to as “biting the hand that feeds you.”
Perry County is struggling–and has been for generations. They definitely do not need an effort that will only intensify their struggles.
But putting a charter school there will do just that.
The Network for Public Education has released a new report detailing how millions and millions of dollars have been wasted by the federal government on charter schools.
Longtime Washington Post education reporter Val Strauss has written about the study. Here are excerpts from her article:
“More than 35 percent of charter schools funded by the federal Charter School Program (CSP) between 2006 and 2014 either never opened or were shut down, costing taxpayers more than half a billion dollars, according to a new report from an advocacy group that reviewed records of nearly 5,000 schools. The state with the most charter schools that never opened was Michigan, home to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The report, titled “Still Asleep at the Wheel,” said that 537 “ghost schools” never opened but received a total of more than $45.5 million in federal start-up funding. That was more than 11 percent of all the schools that received funding from CSP, which began giving grants in 1995.
In Michigan, where the billionaire DeVos has been instrumental over several decades in creating a charter school sector, 72 charters that received CSP money never opened, at a total cost of some $7.7 million from 2006 to 2014. California was second, with 61 schools that failed to open but collectively received $8.36 million.
The report — published by the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group that supports public education and was co-founded by education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch — says the Education Department has failed for years to properly monitor how its charter grant funding is spent. The new findings follow “Asleep at the Wheel,” the network’s March report, which said up to $1 billion was wasted over the life of CSP on charter schools that never opened or opened and then closed. After that report’s release, congressional Democrats voted to cut millions of dollars from the CSP.
The new report found:
The disbursement of more than $1 billion during the program’s ﬁrst decade — from 1995 to 2005 — was never monitored, and there is no complete public record of which schools received the funds because the Education Department never required states to report where the money went. During that period, California received $191 million, Florida $158.4 million and Michigan $64.6 million.
The overall rate of failed charter projects from 2006 to 2014 was 37 percent, with some states posting a much higher failure rate. In Iowa, for example, 11 charter schools received grants and 10 failed after receiving a total of $3.66 million. The failure rate exceeded 50 percent in a number of states, including Georgia, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland and Virginia. In California, 37 percent failed to open or stay open, after winning nearly $103 million in CSP funding.
Although Congress forbids for-proﬁt operators from directly receiving CSP grants, some of them still were able to benefit. The report says 357 schools in the database were run by for-profit chains, for a total cost of $125 million in federal CSP start-up costs. Most of that money was spent in Michigan and in Florida.
The report — whose lead author is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education and a former award-winning New York principal — reviewed all of the nearly 5,000 schools listed in a 2015 database released by the federal government, the latest such data published by the Education Department. That database covers 2006 to 2014, when CSP awarded a total of $1.79 billion. Of that amount, $505 million — or 28 percent — went to schools that never opened or that closed.”
Go here to find the entire report.
After Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans, charter schools were seen as the salvation for a school system plagued with poor performance for decades. Today all schools in the Crescent City are charters.
However, as Times-Picayune reporter Della Hasselle points out in a recent article, the latest school grades leave much to be desired. You can read her entire report here.
Following are key excerpts of her lengthy piece.
“The release of the state’s closely watched school performance scores earlier this month offered an overall update on New Orleans schools that seemed benign enough: A slight increase in overall student performance meant another C grade for the district.
But a closer look reveals a startling fact. A whopping 35 of the 72 schools in the all-charter district scored a D or F, meaning nearly half of local public schools were considered failing, or close to it, in the school year ending in 2019. Since then, six of the 35 have closed.
While New Orleans has long been home to struggling schools, the data released this month are concerning. There was an increase of nearly 11% percentage points in the number of schools that received the state’s lowest grades from the 2017-18 school year to 2018-19.
This year also showed the highest percentage of failing schools in the past five years. The closest comparison was in the 2016-17 year, when nearly 41% of the city’s schools, including those then overseen by the Recovery School District, earned D’s or F’s.
“It makes me angry and hurt. Because these are the children of our city,” said Ashana Bigard, a parent of two children in Orleans Parish schools and a longtime critic of the post-Hurricane Katrina education reforms that rebuilt the district as a network of charter schools.
For a look as close to apples-to-apples as possible, comparisons don’t include alternative schools, which cater specifically to struggling students and now are held to different standards, or schools now located in New Orleans but run by the state.
But even conceding bright spots and exceptions, the state of New Orleans public education isn’t rosy — especially since low scores on standardized tests can mean school closures or takeovers by other charter organizations, a controversial byproduct of the district’s all-charter system.
But even as charter advocates and critics haggle over what the data mean, failing grades have again ignited controversy in New Orleans, because they could trigger another round of school closures or takeovers.
In a prepared statement, Lewis, (Henderson Lewis Jr. is school superintendent) who has run the district since 2015, said students particularly need help mastering standardized tests, which account for a large proportion of schools’ scores. Lewis has pushed for more funding to hire the best teachers.
“The K-8 letter grades reflect the decline in test scores we saw this spring. We have work to do,” Lewis said. “Across the district, we are focused on doing a better job implementing high-quality curriculum and on ways to improve teacher recruitment and retention.”
“The good news is nearly three out of four schools received a progress index score of A or B, we saw significant improvement in the graduation rate, and our high schools did a better job preparing students for college and careers,” Lewis said.
But Kathleen Padian, a former deputy superintendent for the district, said she’s wary of letting poor-performing schools stay open too long, and of relying too much on the student growth factor to measure schools’ progress.
“There should be some credit given to schools who are able to grow year to year. But there has to be a limit,” Padian said. “I think it’s shocking … if you have had a school for so many years and you can’t get past a D letter grade.”
While Bigard is also skeptical of how well most charter schools are functioning, she doesn’t think closing them all is necessarily the answer.
“We close their schools, scatter them, and have them (students) up at 5 a.m. in the morning to get them (on the bus) to another failing school,” Bigard said of the district’s students. “Our children need stability.”
Before Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that crippled the Orleans Parish school district, the city’s public schools were notoriously low-performing.
Although it’s difficult to extrapolate citywide trends, there are some patterns in the data.
Schools in both big and little charter organizations got D’s and F’s. Some organizations saw major changes. FirstLine Schools, which got D grades for four of its six schools, and Success Preparatory, which also earned a D, got new leaders. Others absorbed students relocated from elsewhere, and many adopted new curricula.
Four other F-rated schools had already closed by the time the grades came out.
And, while Lewis expressed disappointment that six still-open schools dropped to an F, he said the district had already implemented support to help them improve.
For all her disappointment, it’s an effort Bigard said she appreciated.
“What makes a school failing is children not getting what they need to get up to grade level,” she said. “This is not rocket science. You get those schools the support they need.”
Editor’s note: The situation strongly supports what research has shown for years. Bascially, there is little difference in performance of public schools and charters. Some are exceptional, some are terrible and the majority are somewhere in between. There is no magic in simply labeling a school as a charter.
LEAD Academy is Montgomery’s first charter school. They opened this fall and shortly after fired their principal, Nichole Ivey-Price, who soon filed suit claiming fraud and beach of contract.
A court hearing was held in Montgomery Nov. 21. Here is how WSFA TV in Montgomery reported on what happened:
“MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) – Thursday was the first hearing for Dr. Nicole Ivey-Price, the former principal of Montgomery’s first charter school, LEAD Academy.
Ivey-Price was only on the job for a short time before LEAD Academy confirmed it was parting ways with her in late September. LEAD Academy made an official termination in a five-minute board meeting held on Oct. 2.
Thursday’s hearing was for Ivey-Price to be returned to payroll to avoid potentially irreparable damage that could come from her not having health insurance. She’s being represented by counsel with the Alabama Education Association, which says she is currently owed just over $11,000 in back pay.
Further, the AEA says if Ivey-Price continues to be denied pay and health insurance, that could lead to damages that money won’t be able to fix. It was revealed in court that LEAD Academy officials sent Ivey-Price paperwork regarding the continuation of her health insurance just hours before the 2 p.m. hearing.
“Judge [Jimmy] Pool granted our motion,” said Ivey-Price’s attorney, Clint Daughtrey. “She will be returned to payroll subject to a preliminary injunction hearing next month. He has also ordered the parties to immediate mediation before retired Judge [Charles] Price.”
Ivey-Price’s attorney said since she will be returned to payroll, she is willing to do administrative work for LEAD Academy unless she is placed on official administrative paid leave.
The lawsuit against LEAD Academy accuses the school of multiple counts of fraud, breach of contract, retaliation, and denial of due process of law regarding Ivey-Price’s termination.
Officials from LEAD Academy were represented by an attorney who appeared in court via a phone call. We have reached out to that attorney for comment but have yet to hear back.
The school has previously released a statement accusing Ivey-Price of providing false and misleading information to try and salvage her reputation.
The next hearing on this case is schedule for Dec. 17.”
What jumps out at me?
It was revealed in court that LEAD Academy officials sent Ivey-Price paperwork regarding the continuation of her health insurance just hours before the 2 p.m. hearing.
We recently posted a story from a former LEAD teacher who said the school is not a good environment for either students or teachers.
It should also be noted that LEAD uses Sonar Tarim of Houston as their consultant, the same guy involved with Woodland Prep in Washington County which is also being sued for fraud.
Editor’s note: Alyson Ford is a mother in the Charlotte, NC area. It wasn’t long after she enrolled one of her sons in a charter school that she began to feel something was amiss. Soon she was attending board meetings of the school and digging into financial records. What she found was disturbing and even led to conversations with the FBI.
What does this have to do with Alabama? Many of the players Alyson has uncovered are involved with American Charter Development of Springville, Utah. This company is heavily involved with both LEAD Academy in Montgomery and Woodland Prep in Washington County and has close ties to Soner Tarim.
Here is Alyson’s story:
“I have two boys. One has only attended charter schools. The other has attended traditional public schools, as well as charter schools.
My son enrolled at Lakeside Charter Academy in November 2017, during their rebranding and name change from Thunderbird Preparatory Academy. He stayed through the 2018-2019 school year (4th grade). My stepson began at Lakeside in January 2018, for 4th grade. We withdrew him at the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
We chose the charter school route for several reasons. The biggest being that one son has a severe peanut allergy. The thought of him eating lunch in a cafeteria, surrounded by peanut butter sandwiches was terrifying. Our district schools are much larger than charters as well. We liked the idea of smaller schools for our boys. We like the sense of community offered at many charter schools.
We were aware of the negative press since Thunderbird opened in 2014. I studied the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board meeting minutesl. The school was frequently in trouble and on the verge of having their charter revoked.
We toured the school and found the interim principal amazing. She was the reason we took the leap of faith. We were cautiously optimistic when enrolling at Lakeside Charter Academy (formerly Thunderbird Prep).
Given the school’s past I vowed to be very involved and attend board meetings. I was especially curious about the EB5 investors involved with the school. Even though I repeatedly asked questions regarding this I never received much clarity. Sadly, the more I attended board meetings the more unanswered questions I had.
I became quite suspicious of what I was being told. I continued asking questions and researching all involved parties/companies. I didn’t like what I was finding.
I had a feeling these businessmen from Utah weren’t wanting to educate my boys out of the goodness of their heart. There had to be a monetary motivator. Where could money be coming from given the depressingly low enrollment that has plagued the school for most of its existence and years of missed rent payments?
I took a trip to the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds office where I reviewed the sales history of the property, as well as work permits.
The property was initially purchased on May 5, 2014 by Provo Land Exchange, LLC for $1,300,000.
Six months later ALA Anthem Enterprises, LLC another Mike Morley enity (he founded American Charter Development and is a former legislator in Utah) became the property owner in a dollar free transaction. According to the work permits it appears that about two million dollars was spent on construction costs.
On June 18, 2015 ALA Anthem sold the land and buildings to Vertex iii, LLC for $7,650,000. Quite the whopping return on a minimal investment. I say minimal because three million dollars came from EB5 investors from China. It would appear that ACD and the Morley family wasn’t out any of their own money for the initial purchase and construction of this small school.
A curious side note about Vertex iii, LLC is the name of the registered agent; Jared Haddock. Upon further review of Mr. Haddock it appears that he is the President of the Alumni Association of the Board of Directors at Utah State University Eastern. Coincidentally Mike Morley is the Vice President of the same board.
June 30, 2017 Vertex iii, LLC sold their property to AEP Charter Thunderbird for $9,225,000.
This next sale occurred during our time at the school. On December 21,2018 Lakeside Charter Holdings, LLC purchased the school for $9.5 million. What I find quite odd is that during this time Taft Morley, COO of American Charter Development, was also the chairman of the board of directors at Lakeside Charter. He knows the schools financial struggles better than anyone. Why would he want his company, ACD, to purchase a failing school for such an inflated price? The assessed value of the land at this time was $3,315,300. This doesn’t seem like a wise business move.
If I was a betting person I would say most, if not all, of these sales are bogus and only on record to drive up the cost of rent paid to ACD via tax dollar money.
Upon review of various contracts ACD schools have with their tenants it appears that if the school fails to make payments ACD then has the authority to take over as the managing body of said school. I believe this is what happened at Lakeside. The school was set up for financial failure and completely incapable of meeting the astronomical rent demands thus opening the door for ACD to take over.
As my concerns arose I wanted to understand how this school went from max enrollment to barely staying open. It always came back to finances and the board of directors. The ethically questionable finances were alarming. In fact, I received a call from two FBI agents at the Charlotte Field Office. At the completion of the face to face interview I was told that it appeared there was fraud regarding Lakeside Charter Academy.”
Oh the webs we weave under the guise of helping children.
The voice on the other end of the phone line was polite, filled with the conviction of youth and disappointed that all people claiming to want the best for children are not sincere.
I’d heard the same voice hundreds of times before. Young people who had planned all their life to work with children, who had been “called” to do so. Voices full of both enthusiasm and innocence. Their mission was to save the world one child at a time. To give love and care and lots of hugs.
And so it was with the young lady I was talking to.
Except, she took a job at Montgomery’s LEAD Academy charter school and within a few weeks came to the jarring conclusion that what she faced each day was NOT what schools should be. A place were promises were not kept, administration was haphazard at best and money seemed to drive every decision.
She had a master’s degree and taught in a private school in Birmingham before joining LEAD. Why a charter school I asked. “Because I heard they offer more freedom to teachers,” she replied.
That was not what she found. And only weeks after going to work, she left behind a school she believes is not doing a good job of educating their students and one she would not recommend as a work place for another teacher.
She taught kindergarten and was so dedicated to her new job that she communed daily from Birmingham. She was interviewed by now dismissed principal Nicole Ivey and hired by the school’s board in June. She spent $650 on classroom supplies, but was not reimbursed after being told she would be. She was told she needed teaching “centers” in her room–but got no funding for them. Her paycheck for August was a week and one half late and about $1,200 less than she thought it would be. She got the remainder of her August check in September.
She did not get a contract until Sept. 27. To her surprise, it stated that she would be an “at will” employee, someone who could be terminated at any time. She did not sign it and resigned three days later. She was the second of five teachers to leave, along with the school nurse and special education director. When she left, all remaining teachers except one, were first year, including one with no education degree or certification
Two of her students also left.
The climate at the school? “Extremely chaotic,” she said. “Teachers got little support from the administration which was primarily LEAD board chair Charlotte Meadows and consultant Soner Tariim. “It was not a pleasant place to work,” she told me, “there was a feeling of discomfort and Soner Tarim was rude to teachers.”
Meadows would visit classrooms and tell faculty what to do. Who did she report to I asked. This brought a laugh. “We were constantly told different things by different people.” she said.
Finally the chaos and broken promises and lack of a clear chain of command were too much. She resigned.
Amazingly, when I talked to her she was not bitter. (Young people are like that you know.) But she was definitely disappointed that her motivation to help children in any way possible was obviously not the motivation for why this school began.
She is now looking for another teaching job. She will find one I’m sure. Let’s pray her dream of helping children still burns bright, which I think it does, and that at her next stop she will find administrators with the same desire.