Is Nichole Ivey the principal at Montgomery’s LEAD Academy charter school–or is she not?
This subject was raised at the Sept. 30 meeting of the state charter school commission. LEAD board chair Charlotte Meadows told the commission that Ivey was no longer the principal.
However, a statement released by the Alabama Education Association on Oct. 1, contends that the board of LEAD Academy has not met and taken action concerning Ivey’s employment. “Unless it did so in an illegal secret meeting,” they say.
AEA goes on to say, “These latest developments are consistent with a troubling pattern of behavior from the forces behind LEAD Academy: Charlotte Meadows and Soner Tarim. As has been the case since it was proposed, and unlike the other charter schools operating in Alabama, LEAD believes itself to be above any law, including the charter school law under which it was founded.”
According to Ivey, “I was hired to be the principal of LEAD Academy, but all major decisions were and are made by Charlotte Meadows and Soner Tarim, the consultant hired by her. Meadows asked me to resign shortly after I engaged in a series of discussions with officials at the State Department of Education about LEAD’s lack of compliance with multiple state laws applicable to charter schools regarding student health, safety, and financial accountability. After speaking with those officials, I was called in last week by Meadows and told they ‘want to go in a different direction.’ I refused to engage in illegal activity and am confident that the truth will come out as this matter moves forward.”
The AEA statement goes on to say that Soner Tarim “is already being paid in excess of $30,000 per month by Alabama taxpayers for LEAD, but is looking to franchise across the state.”
The entanglement of LEAD Academy and Woodland Prep with Soner Tarim starkly shows how lax the Alabama charter law is when it comes to oversight. Either no one is in charge, or no one is willing to take charge.
Either way, the taxpayer is left holding the bag and Alabama students are being shortchanged.
Editor’s note: Charlotte Meadows is a former member of the Montgomery County school board. When a vacancy occurred in 2018 on this board, Meadows was nominated to fill it. Her nomination died for lack of a second. I was then nominated and selected and served for three months.
Meadows is now running for the state House of Representatives to fill the remainder of the term created by the death last spring of Demitri Polizos. She won the GOP primary and faces a democrat opponent on Nov. 12.
Josh Moon has been an investigative reporter for years. First for The Montgomery Advertiser, today he writes for The Alabama Political Reporter. Never one to shy away from exposing the underbelly of political–and other-shenanigans–Moon lets the chips fall where they may.
And when Charlotte Meadows, chair of the board of the new LEAD Academy charter school in Montgomery, woke on Oct. 1, she learned she was buried under a big pile of chips brought to light by a Moon story entitled “Craziness”: How Montgomery’s first charter school has devolved into chaos in less than six weeks.”
It is a very interesting read, especially in light of the fact that just the day before the story broke, Meadows appeared before the state charter school commission to report on how “her” new school was doing. While she told the commission that LEAD students celebrated Johnny Appleseed Day last week, she never alluded to the fact that some of the apples in the LEAD basket were apparently becoming way too ripe. Even to the point of being rotten according to Moon.
Here is the article in its entirety:
“LEAD Academy, Montgomery’s first charter school, has been a chaotic mess since it opened less than six weeks ago, with staffing shortages leaving more than 70 students crammed into one class, angry teachers left without necessary supplies, student shortages threatening the school, extensive discipline issues and an ongoing fight between staff and the LEAD board over a strange contract that faculty members are being forced to sign several weeks after school has started, according to numerous LEAD teachers and employees who spoke with APR.
Most of the issues have remained internal, with few details leaking outside of LEAD’s walls … until Friday, when the school’s first principal, Nicole Ivey, resigned unexpectedly. Almost immediately, rumors began to swirl and worried faculty members started to discuss the multitude of issues at LEAD.
Two staff members who worked closely with Ivey said she ultimately resigned after a heated argument with LEAD board president Charlotte Meadows, who was pushing Ivey to require the staff to sign an at-will work contract which would allow the board to fire or reduce the pay of any LEAD employee without cause. But those staff members, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that they could be fired by Meadows, said Ivey’s resignation was likely inevitable due to a litany of mismanagement issues and odd decisions by leadership at the school.
A list of more than a dozen detailed questions about the specific concerns raised by LEAD employees was sent to Meadows early Monday afternoon. Shortly after 6 p.m., she responded to the questions by saying that her email had been hacked and she had just gained access. However, she didn’t have time to answer the questions because a PTA meeting was underway and she needed to “pay attention to our parents.”
“I expect that you will not print anything that you do not have credible proof that it occurred,” Meadows wrote.
For several weeks now, LEAD Academy staff members and their family members have been sending APR information about problems at the school. Prior to Friday, those issues ranged from the mundane to something just short of serious. But following Ivey’s resignation, a flood of information, including details of troubling safety issues and possible fraud allegations, came pouring in from LEAD staffers.
The allegations reported in this story have been verified by at least two staff members, independent of each other, and in most cases at least four LEAD employees have corroborated the information. The staffers refused to be identified in the story out of fear that they could lose their jobs, and to explain their fear, several pointed to the fact that Meadows and the LEAD board members were already attempting to implement a “fire-at-will workplace.”
“This is the craziest place I’ve ever worked,” said one employee who has experience working in other school districts in Alabama. “There are no rules. They don’t follow the law. And when you ask Charlotte about it, or say that we can’t do something because it’s illegal, she’ll just tell you that ‘LEAD is a charter school and charter schools don’t follow laws.’”
A Shortage of Resources
Lawless is a good way to describe the day-to-day operation of LEAD, according to the teachers.
One of the prime examples that several teachers pointed out is a morning physical education class at the K-5 school, where more than 70 students are in one class and monitored by one teacher. That class is always outdoors, because there is only one room within the LEAD school building large enough to hold that many students — the lunchroom, where lunch is being served to other students.
The class being outdoors has increased anxiety among the staff who worry that a child could easily wander off — a point they say was repeatedly made to Meadows and others. Additionally, there is little shade, and the recent run of 95-plus-degrees days have made the classes even more dangerous.
When teachers inquired about hiring an additional teacher to handle some of the students in the PE class, they said Meadows told them that the school lacked the resources. Instead, an aide was assigned to help out “when she could,” which was fewer than two days per week.
A lack of resources also has hindered teachers in receiving proper supplies, three teachers told APR. The teachers said getting access to basic supplies is “a daily fight” and that it has sparked anger among the faculty, particularly due to the amount of money being spent on management fees that are being paid to Soner Tarim.
Tarim, a controversial figure with ties to the Gulen Movement, operates Unity School Services, which is listed as the management company for LEAD. Under its contract, USS should provide daily management services, apply for federal grants and generally serve the same functions as a public school district’s central office.
Only, that’s not the case, according to two employees with direct knowledge. Instead, Meadows, the board president, serves a more daily role — going so far as to direct staff to refer to her as a superintendent — and Tarim, who is receiving more than $30,000 per month, is rarely seen at the school, they said. Most of his duties, the sources said, have been shuffled off to others at the school.
“If he’s there at all during the week, it’s maybe three days, max,” said one employee. “But there have been a few weeks since we started that he hasn’t shown up once.”
A Lack of Discipline
The staff isn’t exactly complaining about Tarim’s absence, though. Both he and Meadows have fallen out of favor with most of the staff over recent decisions regarding discipline issues at the school. One decision in particular — not to punish a student who punched a teacher — angered the staff and led to a number of complaints.
In that instance, the teacher and an assistant principal at LEAD had determined that the student, who also cursed the teacher, deserved to be suspended. Meadows and Tarim intervened and sent the student back to class. Their reasoning: “(Meadows) said it would be bad PR for the school,” a staff member said.
Teachers said the student in question was returned to the same classroom and is still in the teacher’s class.
While Tarim is rarely at LEAD, the staff say they can’t get rid of Meadows and board member Lori White. Meadows has gone so far as to set up an office for herself at the school, and White is serving as the school nurse — which staff told White and Meadows was illegal under Alabama law.
Additionally, staff members said Meadows and White repeatedly overstepped their responsibilities as board members and became involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. Meadows often entered classrooms unannounced and has, on multiple occasions, sat in on faculty-parent meetings without prior warning.
White often communicates with faculty members about curriculum and daily activities. Recently, she used the faculty email list at the school to send a letter encouraging all LEAD employees to vote against Steven Reed in the upcoming Montgomery mayoral election, because of his ties to the Alabama Education Association. APR was forwarded a copy of the email.
“I understand why (Ivey) resigned — because she was never left alone and was constantly dealing with BS from board members who shouldn’t be in the school,” said a teacher who said she witnessed Meadows enter a classroom unannounced.
The Last Straw
The final straw for Ivey was the demand from Meadows and Tarim that she sign, and then force her staff to sign, a contract stating that they were working as at-will employees and could be terminated at any time without cause. The form, a copy of which was provided to APR, also stated that employees could have their pay reduced or docked without cause, and that salaried employees could be forced to work weekends, nights and overtime without additional compensation.
The demand to sign the contract came well after the start of the 2019-20 school year, when teachers would have no options for seeking other employment for the year. Teachers said they told Ivey that they felt entrapped by the circumstances and that it was unfair. She agreed.
“(Ivey) knew it wasn’t right and that’s why she was fighting them,” said one teacher.
That the situation at LEAD has devolved so spectacularly should not be a surprise. APR reported months ago that the school’s application was rejected by the national reviewers because its school plan failed to meet basic minimums in any of three main areas. In portions, the National Charter Authorizers’ review of LEAD’s application almost seemed mocking, as it noted serious problems in staffing, finance and curriculum planning. For months, the school lacked even a building, and even charter school supporters expressed concerns that the LEAD board lacked a single person who had experience running a school.
Still, the Alabama Charter Commission, facing serious political pressure, approved the application. That approval was the subject of a lawsuit, since a majority of the overall board didn’t approve — a requirement in the charter school law passed by the Alabama Legislature. The actual law didn’t matter much to the Alabama Supreme Court, however, and it overturned a lower court’s ruling and allowed LEAD to move forward with opening.
APR also was the first to report in Alabama of Tarim’s ties to the Gulen Movement and point out his charter schools’ ties to a religious organization that has been deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey. There were also troubling concerns of fraud and questionable hires at Tarim’s old company, Harmony Schools.
His management of LEAD — and of another charter school in Alabama — were questioned by a number of public education watchdogs around the state, who were concerned about the cost of his contracts with the schools, which pay Tarim a blanket 13 percent of all money — public and private — taken in by the schools.”
Editor’s note: As most readers of this blog now know, Soner Tarim is the same education “consultant” working for Woodland Prep charter in Washington County. And after watching him avoid the truth time and time again for more than a year, folks in Washington County have no reason at all to doubt a word Moon has written.
The newly re-constituted state charter school commission met in Montgomery on Sept 30 and one thing is quite clear. There is a new sheriff in town.
The state school board replaced four incumbent commission members on Aug. 8, one of whom was chairman Mac Buttram. When Woodland Prep came before the commission on June 7 asking for a one-year extension, Buttram handled them with kid gloves, never following up with questions to get to the heart of things. Instead, he tossed marshmallows at Soner Tarim, the consultant for Woodland Prep.
That was hardly the case at the latest meeting.
New members Paul Morin, Jamie Ison and Sydney Raine asked specific questions and expected specific answers. Morin made it very clear that he expects clear, concise documentation when it is called for.
Long time member Henry Nelson was elected chair at this meeting and it was quickly apparent that the days of Woodland Prep playing dodge ball and getting away with it are over.
The meat of the session began with existing charters giving an update. ACCEL Academy in Mobile, Legacy Prep in Birmingham and University Charter at the University of West Alabama updated commission members on their progress. They were professional and very believable. Then Charlotte Meadows and Soner Tarim spoke for LEAD Academy in Montgomery and the temperature in the room literally dropped as they flopped and foundered.
Meadows said that her school (she is chair of the board) had Johnny Appleseed Day last week. No one seemed to care. Commissioner Jamie Ison of Mobile then said she saw on Montgomery TV that LEAD had terminated their principal after only a few weeks on the job. Meadows acknowledged this was true and Tarim said one of his associates is acting interim principal. (However, an internet search for this person says that he is a principal of a Houston, TX charter.)
Probably the most unbelievable comment from this portion of the meeting was when Ison asked Tarim if he lives in Montgomery. He told her he does. This brought laughs from the audience because everyone knows he lives in Houston.
The squirming really started when Thad Becton, chair of the Woodland Prep board, and Tarim were called to give a status report on their school.
Washington County brought a charter bus load of people to the meeting, a number of whom spoke during the public comment portion. Time after time they pointed out how Woodland Prep has misrepresented facts and used bogus data trying to justify the need for Woodland Prep.
Pinning either Becton or Tarim down is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. They only offer vague answers and would not deal in specifics. For instance, Tarim says they have 50 percent of their required enrollment of 260 students enrolled. But they refuse to release the names so their numbers can be vetted. Becton said they have $50,000 in donations, but will not reveal from what sources.
To which Paul Morin said, “Until I see documentation, the money is not there.”
Allison Haygood is an elementary principal in Boaz and was appointed to the commission in May. At one point she said, “You don’t have enough money to start a school.” Woodland Prep did not present any evidence that would prove her wrong.
The school is being built by American Charter Development out of Springville, Utah. Their construction manager was at the meeting. When Henry Nelson wanted to know why so little progress had been made on the building, this guy told him that it rains a lot in Alabama and that was slowing them down.
Everyone in the room guffawed knowing that Alabama is suffering its worst drought in decades.
(State representative Brett Easterbrook of Washington County attended the meeting and said to me afterwards, “If you can’t tell the truth about where you live and the weather, how can you believe anything these folks says?” )
Another issue is the fact that Woodland Prep is supposed to show their efforts at community engagement. Again, there is only smoke and mirrors. Any such meeting is to be documented with sign up sheets from those in attendance. Woodland Prep has not done this. Their reason? People are scared to sign anything.
The meeting concluded with commissioners unanimously passing a resolution that commission staff and attorneys from Balch & Bingham develop specific information that Woodland Prep must deliver in the near-future.
In other words, it is time to put up or shut up.
It is certainly time for such action.
Of course it is impossible to watch all of this unfold with Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy and ignore the fact that Soner Tarim is the common thread. The same guy who was refused by the Texas State Board of Education in June when he wanted to open four charter schools in Austin. After that meeting, I spoke to board member Georgina Perez of El Paso.
She told me that Tarim only deals in “alternative facts.” Anyone at the Sept. 30 charter school commission now knows why she said this.
Deception and false info have been standard operating procedure for those promoting Woodland Prep charter in Washington County since the get go.
They have used bogus letters of support, fake proficiency rates, unverifiable numbers and listed non-existent “team members.”
Now they are employing “bounty hunters” to look for students in an effort to meet their stated enrollment of 260 by next summer. They are paying $20 an hour for these people to comb the countryside. For every five students they sign up, they get a $100 bonus.
(Which begs the question: if you are the greatest thing since sliced bread as they claim, why aren’t parents standing in line to enroll their children?)
Recently one of these “recruiters” approached a long time friend of hers in Washington County wanting to enroll her three kids. The mother told her she had no intention of doing so. Then the “recruiter” asked her to sign a paper saying her signature would prove she had called on her and would ensure that she would be paid by Woodland Prep for working.
To her dismay, the mother soon got an email from the charter saying that her three children were enrolled, which was totally untrue.
It’s hardly a surprise that shortly after this happened, the mother sent the following text message to a friend who teaches in the Washington County public school system.
“My biggest thing is I just don’t want anyone done like I was. That pisses me off that my kids were enrolled and I just thought my info was being put down saying we talked.”
And we want people who engage in such practices running a school?
It’s high time the state charter school commission pull the plug on Woodland Prep. There is a consequence for this kind of conduct in public schools. It is called losing your job.
When are we going to hold charters to the same standard?
Editor’s note: Soner Tarim of Houston is the consultant for Woodland Prep and calls all the shots. He is also the consultant for LEAD Academy in Montgomery. We are barely one month into a new school year and LEAD is already looking for a new principal. The first one they hired was fired after one year as principal at Park Crossing high school in the Montgomery system.
“There are “no measurable differences” between the performance of charter schools and traditional public schools on national reading and math assessments from 2017, a finding that persists when parents’ educational attainment were factored into the results.”
This is the conclusion of a just-released study by the National Center for Education Statistics and reported by EdWeek.
The study reviewed National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data for 2017 for fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores.
Here are a few conclusions from the new NAEP data comparing charter schools and traditional public schools:
“Based on scores alone, with no controls, there was no statistically significant difference between charters and traditional public schools on NAEP in reading or math.
Why does this matter? Because these schools tend to serve different populations with different background characteristics, which can skew scores.
The researchers controlled for parent educational attainment, and still found no significant difference.
A lack of data meant NCES couldn’t rule out lots of other factors (like income, teacher quality, race and ethnicity) that are potentially caught up in these test results. The report notes that other factors not controlled for “are substantively correlated with student assessment scores and school type.”
Unfortunately, such info falls on deaf ears in Alabama where charters are now the neatest thing since the hula hoop came along.
After thousands of miles and visits with countless teachers. principals and superintendents. After sitting in school board meetings from one end of Alabama to the other (including some when I was a member of the Montgomery school board) and seeing it all from the perspective of a non-educator (meaning I was not tainted by too much education mumble jumble), I have come to some steadfast beliefs.
The most important link in the education chain is the principal
Life in the classroom is a reflection of life outside the classroom
Teachers and principals are the real education experts
We don’t have failing schools, we have failing school communities
A student spends only 12 percent of the hours in their year in a classroom and 88 percent outside the classroom–but we spend most of our resources on the 12 and not enough on the 88 and wonder why so little changes
Climate and culture are hugely important to schools, but often ignored
Teachers can not solve all of society’s ills
The higher up the education bureaucracy someone is, the less they contribute to real classroom success.
Excellent schools are happy and joyful places for children.
So with these I mind, here are things Montgomery could do.
Embrace the concept of community-centered schools. These are schools who recognize that in most high-poverty schools there is a great need for medical services, including dental and eye care, including mental health. Cincinnati has a wonderful such program that has been in place many years. I have driven to Cincinnati five times to look at it.
Several years ago I worked with the Truman Pierce Institute at Auburn and we had four people from Cincinnati do a workshop in Montgomery. While more than 75 people showed up from across south Alabama, no one from MPS was there. However, several years ago pilot programs for community-centered schools were started at E.D. Nixon and Davis elementary. Grant money was secured to get the programs going.
But when the state intervened in the Montgomery system, state superintendent Mike Sentance shut down these programs.
There are bits and pieces of such programs across the state. Huntsville schools have had on-site medical and dental facilities for a number of years. The New Hope community in Madison County began he Care Center years ago. This grew out of concern from four churches. This has now grown to 16 churches. In addition to working with local schools, they provide services to the community at large.
Embrace the faith community. While many local churches work with schools, we need more. They can be wonderful assets for schools by providing tutors, supplies, volunteers, etc. They are also able to spread the message of how schools are performing and what special needs they have. Charlie Johnson of Ft. Worth, TX started Pastors for Texas Children several years ago. Today there are more than 2,000 Texas churches that have partnered with local schools.
Charlie is a Baptist minister who grew up in Monroeville, AL. Similar groups are now growing in six other states. He would love to do work in Alabama, and especially Montgomery.
Develop great principals. While you may have a handful of good teachers in a weak school, you will not have a strong school with a weak principal. You cannot provide too much professional development for principals. But it has to be meaningful. Not just another meeting scheduled for the same day each month whether it is needed or not.
One of Mike Sentances’s greatest blunders was giving a 10 percent raise to principals of more than 20 of the lowest performing schools in Montgomery. You do not reward mediocrity when you are trying to build excellence.
Some places have had great success with principal mentoring programs where “apprentice” principals work alongside top-notch principals for up to one school year.
Community resource personnel should be placed in high need schools. They are not educators, but people whose job is to develop community partnerships and generally relieve principals from wearing too many hats. Principals should be instructional leaders, not errand boys and social workers. Many principals are overly burdened with non-academic duties and chores.
Eliminate as much paperwork as possible. For reasons I don’t understand, education bureaucrats are addicted to paperwork. We should have every person who works in a central office examine every piece of paper they send to principals to be filled out and returned to determine what is life-threatening and what isn’t. A Montgomery principal told me recently that she had received 27 emails that day alone from central office staff wanting something, most of which they could have gotten themselves.
That is ridiculous.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea for some central office staff to spend time in classrooms so they could be reminded what school is all about.
Let’s go to school. We should encourage as many of our elected and civic leaders as possible to spend at least four hours as a classroom aide in a high-poverty classroom. The mayor, city commissioners, county commissions, chamber of commerce board members, civic club leaders, etc. need first-hand knowledge of what teachers face every day. This would be a great initiative for the education foundation to begin.
I spent an entire day in a classroom at George Hall elementary in Mobile several years ago. It was eye-opening. We have far too many people trying to direct education policy who have no clue about what is going on in our schools.
Advocacy. MPS board members should be constant advocates for our school system. Wherever two or more are gathered, a school board member should be there as well. During my brief time on the MPS board I attended numerous school events and was the only board member there.
Any board member who does not have time to take on this role should resign.
This is just a start on things that would benefit MPS-or most any other school system in the state. And the Montgomery Education Foundation could play a major role in many of these efforts. But they have to climb down from their Ivory Tower and get their hands dirty in some schools, just like teachers do.
Montgomery is a divided community. We should be building bridges–not burning them. The MEF charter application says this project has four board members. All are white. Yet, they will direct education in three schools that are majority black. That is a step in the wrong direction.