The Hits Keep Coming For Montgomery’s LEAD Academy

Once again Josh Moon, investigative reporter for the Alabama Political Reporter, has pulled back the curtain on LEAD Academy, Montgomery’s first charter school, and exposed what he calls a “first-rate mess.”

Go here to read his article of Dec. 17.

Here are portions of what Josh wrote:

“As former LEAD Academy principal Nichole Ivey-Price prepares for another hearing in her ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit against the charter school, a number of current and former LEAD employees have told APR that the environment at the school remains one of near-chaos. 

Perhaps most surprising, the employees said that Unity School Services — the management company led by Soner Tarim, the controversial charter school guru with questionable ties to a Turkish religious movement — is no longer involved at LEAD. 

According to several teachers, three more LEAD teachers have resigned in the last few weeks causing a significant staffing shortage. So significant, in fact, that several non-certified teachers have been hired to fill open positions. 

In addition, LEAD employees told APR that the school’s office is often staffed with volunteers. That isn’t necessarily uncommon for elementary schools, but what is uncommon, they say, is that the volunteers have access to private student records. 

“You can’t do what they’re doing and not expect a problem at some point,” said a LEAD teacher. “It is so obvious now that this school was not even close to being ready to open. Whoever approved this never spent a day here.”

LEAD was sold to desperate people as a beacon of hope. But from the start, it appeared to be little better than a scam.  

There was never a plan to create a different sort of school. There was never a plan to address specific issues within Montgomery. There was never any indication that LEAD administrators, including board president Charlotte Meadows — who used the publicity of the school as a springboard to be elected to the Alabama House — had a plan for success that extended beyond not following tenure laws. 

In one semester, LEAD is already on its second principal and has lost nearly half of its original staff, according to current and former employees. There have been issues with payroll, with employees receiving proper pay, being compensated for training and having their pay cut arbitrarily. 

There have also been sickening accusations of LEAD administrators working to push special needs students away from the school. 

And none of it should be a surprise to anyone who paid attention to the fiasco that unfolded during LEAD’s application process — when professionals who determine the readiness of charter schools all over the country told Alabama’s commission that LEAD wasn’t fit to open.” 

Editor’s note: Living in Montgomery and having many contacts in the education community, I have confirmed much of what Josh reports.  In addition, hardly a day goes by without rumors of more problems.  For instance, I have been told that principal Ibrahim Lee’s relationship with LEAD staff is rocky at best.   But then, Lee was once principal at Bellingrath middle school in the Montgomery system and was not retained.  He is also the same guy who was on the state charter school commission and voted to approve the LEAD charter application before taking a job with them.  The ethics of this maneuver are highly suspect.

It should also be noted that the same Soner Tarim who is no longer with LEAD is the same  guy who is the consultant for Woodland  Prep in Washington County.  And the same guy who told the Texas school board last summer that he not only prepared  the application for Woodland Prep to submit to the state charter commission–but also helped to grade it.  Like LEAD, the application for Woodland  Prep was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers who recommended that it be denied.

It is high time that the state superintendent of education step into this quagmire and get to the bottom of what is going on.  After all, charter schools are public schools getting public funds and the state superintendent is the overseer of all public schools.


Holy Cow Batman, New Hampshire Turns Down $46 Million Grant For Charter Schools

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, without doubt the most unqualified person to ever hold this position, thinks charter schools are the solution to every ailment in education.  So she is quick to hand out dollars to folks wanting to bring more charter schools on line.  (This is how the non-profit New Schools for Alabama, recently got awarded $25 million)

And to this end New Hampshire was recently told that $46 million was waiting for them in the coffers of the USDOE so they could double the number of charter schools in the next five years.

Just one problem.  Some folks in New Hampshire don’t want the money for more charter schools.  So they have voted to block the first installment of this Washington handout.  You can get all the details in this article in the Washington Post.

Some pertinent excerpts from the article.

Members of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted 7 to 3 to table the grant from the federal Charter School Program (CSP), with the majority Democrats saying they were concerned about the effect that the expansion of charter schools could have on traditional public schools at a time of decreasing enrollment.

The federal grant given this past August to New Hampshire was intended to allow the opening of 20 new charter schools. In addition, five existing charters could expand, and seven existing charters could “replicate” in other places.

Most of New Hampshire’s charters rent space from for-profit companies, a 2018 analysis by a pro-charter group shows. New Hampshire Public Radio reported that most of the state’s charter schools have fewer students than they are authorized to enroll.”

It should be noted that the political landscape of New Hampshire is starkly different than that of Alabama.  Whereas the state was staunchly Republican for decades, it began to shift a couple of decades ago and today both of its U.S. Senators and two U.S. Congress persons are Democrats.  And in 2018, Democrats took control of the legislature from the Republican party.



Perry County Schools Threatened By Charter School

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.


Report: Federal Government Wasted Millions Of Dollars On Charter Schools That Never Opened

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.

New Orleans Charters Not Measuring Up

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 Loses First Court Skirmish With Fired Principal

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.