Saturday, February 8, 2014

Documents tell tale of StudentFirst struggles

The question is bound to arise:  Why did the Observer dedicate so much time and space to a story about problems at StudentFirst Academy,  a new charter school serving just over 300 students?

The answer: Access and timing.

Certainly other public and private schools in our area have faced financial,  academic and management problems.  But in this case,  there was extraordinary public documentation of StudentFirst's high hopes and quick fall.

Recent charter applications are online at the N.C. Office of Charter Schools site,  and they provide a wealth of information about what founding boards say they'll do.  The application for StudentFirst was especially rich because it was a private-school conversion.  Testimonials from the likes of then-Mayor Pat McCrory and then-Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon were among the documents submitted with the application.  You can also find the applications for Miracle Academy East and West,  an attempt to reproduce the StudentFirst plan even as the original charter was trying to get started.

A public records request produced a November letter from the state charter-school office detailing complaints about the school and a redacted copy of the StudentFirst board response.  The blacked-out paragraph presumably involves personnel matters that are confidential under state law.

Personnel privacy often becomes a brick wall in the quest to find out what went wrong at a school.  But in this case,  former head of school Phyllis Handford and deputy head Sandra Moss have sued the board.  That suit detailed allegations of illegal board meetings and made it clear the two women were being paid significantly more than the charter application had called for.

Documents filed with the board's response provided further accounts of the problems,  including a summary written by Prestige Preparatory School Network,  an affidavit from StudentFirst vice chair Jennifer Winstel and an affidavit by Prestige executive Mark Cramer.

Finally,  Observer researcher Maria David found archived video of an hour-long presentation by Handford, Moss and several supporters outlining the charter plan for the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum.  That offered a more personal glimpse of the plan and the people pitching it.

Moss (second from left) and Handford (right) at breakfast forum
All of this landed as questions about charter-school quality are paramount in North Carolina. The state's system for reviewing and monitoring charter schools is evolving as the number of schools expands.  As the taxpayer investment in charters rises and thousands more families stake their children's future on the independent schools, it becomes ever more important to examine the system's successes and shortcomings.

If you're still up for more reading,  the National Association of Charter School Authorizers offers a lot of information, including a state-by-state comparison of systems and a list of 10 questions to ask. Public Impact,  a Chapel Hill consulting firm,  also offers a number of publications examining charter quality.


Anonymous said...

If your comment is delayed, be patient -- I've got it on filter and there are some stretches when I won't be at a computer. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Take the filter off an let people be herd. If they use foul language hit delete.

Anonymous said...

After approval, are we in Russia.

Anonymous said...

2:24 p.m., that's what I normally do and there are very few who abuse. But this involves sensitive material that is publishing on a weekend, when I'm not at a computer for long stretches. So rather than risk something personal and/or inappropriate being up for hours while I'm out and about, yes, I'm making y'all face a slight delay in seeing your comments. Turns out there's not a lot of blog commenting going on today anyway.

Shamash said...


I can't imagine what must have been going through their heads to drop the ball like this.

Just read a few of the documents and you'll NOT wonder how incompetent this whole lot must have been. Even though they sure did sound "nice" in their video.

And there are NO excuses for signing documents without reading them.

Especially one page documents with raises.

Seriously,"Dr." Mack?

Nepotism. Bad. Not showing up for work. Bad. Not paying bills. Bad.

Oh well, it sounds like the monitoring system works at some point, just perhaps not soon enough.

Also telling is that political testimonials mean nothing. As most love photo ops of anything that's "for the children".

I feel sorriest for the kids and parents and the taxpayers rooked by this crowd.

I hope it's a lesson learned.

Jeff Wise said...

The Observer piece was a well-written, well-sourced informative piece. Part of me got the feeling that in this particular case, some of those involved got dollar-signs in their eyes and lost focus.

If primary education becomes seen as a money-making opportunity (where it already has in other states) then we've got some serious issues to confront.

Great work Ann, will there be follow up pieces as these lawsuits and other things progress?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jeff, I plan to follow up. I believe the next hearing on the court case is in March.

BolynMcClung said...


CMS becomes greatly distracted anytime the subject is Charters. If it isn’t careful with what it says about these closed charters, it will start itself down an expensive and embarrassing path.

CMS has gone to a huge expensive to unsuccessfully lobby the General Assembly for control of some sort over charters inside Mecklenburg. I fear they will now waste more money running to Raleigh to say “I told you so!” CMS should be careful. The last time it rushed to Raleigh to get something of this magnitude it got the short-end of the Leandro stick.
But here’s the difficult thing for CMS to comprehend. It is not very good at fixing poor performance.

One only has to look at L.I.F.T. to see that the Board willing gave over control to an independent foundation so it would not have to invent another failed resuscitation program for urban schools. Just FYI, the two failures were High School Challenge and Achievement Zone. Oh yeh, there was a third older program to salvage the urban schools but CMS didn’t have any hand in that. It was called Swann and its second cousin Title i. With a little bit of fudging the facts we could pre-date that with the Great Society.

Back to today’s story. CMS should keep quite on these charter failures. It should consider itself lucky that NCDPI isn’t in here looking at some schools that are barely treading water.

Bolyn McClung

Wiley Coyote said...

CMS shouldn't cast stones from its glass house....

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Bolyn! You are speaking the unspeakable--telling the truth about the failure of programs to fix "urban education" and how long those failures have been with us. Wish you hadn't danced around the issue (especially the failure of the Swann remedy) for such a long time, though.

Anonymous said...

This is not an isolated incident. I would suggest other readers research both the Kennedy school in Charlotte and the Kinston Academy. Both schools are terrible, one has closed and the other remains open. Kinston academy closed within 2 weeks of the school years, yet no one can account for the $666,000 the school received a month earlier. Plus the staff was not paid however the principle helped himself to $10,000 for PTO as he left. The Kennedy school is performing horribly, the worst of any school in Charlotte except for Crossroads. Check out the salary the principle at Kennedy is taking, $187K and yes, he hired his wife in the bargain. From what another person stated, the charter business looks to be very lucrative!

Shamash said...

I think the main thing we should learn from this is to not become another LOUISIANA.

The good thing is that there appears to be some consequences when Charters go bad.

At least in this case.

I'm not so sure the public schools are held to the same standards with the same consequences.

I particularly question the effectiveness of project LIFT.

I think it may have been a PR and RECRUITING success so far, but how about the kids and parents?

Is any of that "success" trickling down?

Wiley Coyote said...


Can you say "Zumba"? I knew you could.

Mister Rogers would be proud.

Wiley Coyote said...

Here is liberalism working at it best.

New York is going retro and will be back in the 70's within the next 5 years.

With tightened restrictions, charter schools may leave New York City

After New York City spent years building a thriving charter school community, Bill Phillips, president of Northeast Charter Schools Network, says Mayor Bill de Blasio is showing how to take it down.

"If New York City has been a national model for growing charters, I think Mayor de Blasio is laying out a blueprint for killing charter expansion," said Phillips, whose school network serves New York and Connecticut. "This is clearly a blueprint: Do everything on your power to take away access to buildings. Facilities are almost always one of the major challenges for charters across the country."

Liberals love choice. Only if you're given one choice - theirs.

In New York City, 70,000 students attend charter schools and more than 50,000 are on waiting lists.

During his campaign, de Blasio clearly voiced his intention to charge rent to charter schools co-locating with district schools, sparking a protest involving about 20,000 charter school supporters.

Shamash said...

Diane Ravitch will be in Raleigh tomorrow (11 Feb) at the "Emerging Issues Forum".

The tentative agenda from her blog:

Interestingly, Project LIFT reps will be there as well.

But it's NOT about the kids and their "success". It's about how they restructured their school to provide better pay for teachers.

As the blog says:

"Project L.I.F.T., which is revitalizing 9 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, shows how business partnerships and redesigned school policies can turn around failing schools. Project L.I.F.T. has raised $55 million in private funds to support its venture.

• More importantly though, it has restructured many of its teacher policies- allowing for teachers to be paid more, and pursue leadership roles without having to leave the classroom. "



And all this time, I thought it was about those "poor, disadvantaged kids".

When it was really about the poor, disadvantaged teachers.

Just odd how the story changes to match the audience.

I hope some of that "success" trickles down to the kids.

Further, the blog says:

"Increases in teacher pay has[sic] not come through private funds, but rather the innovate structuring of their school’s personnel within normal salary funding."

Of course, if they've really figured out a way to pay teachers more using the same funding as public schools without special project money that would be a good thing.

So why not share that technique with everyone in CMS, too.

Maybe they've found a way to reduce non-teaching staff in a productive way and pay teachers more instead.

Everything else I've read said those increases came from private funds. Maybe I missed it.

It seems that I recall a "limo dinner" being part of that new compensation package. I wonder who foots the bill for that?

Old CO article here:

Anonymous said...

sadly, this is not an isolated situtation (see Kinston Academy) and one that will be a challenge to correct. For example, why was this school not closed, why are such underperforming schools such as Kennedy School and Crossroads still open, which are by far the worst peforming schools in the entire region. While noble, I think it is ridiculous to think a school can over come all of the issues associated with disadvantaged children.

Anonymous said...

I think local school districts have every right to keep an eye on charters schools such as these. What do you think happens when this school closes and I predict it probably will, unless we see profound changes occur. Poor kids present an extreme challenge to educate. I would be curious to see what the test scores are for this particular school. I suspect they are on the same level as schools such as Crossroads and Kennedy (really bad).

Anonymous said...

The current situation with charter schools will only grow worse. The only reason why we are seeing the growth in charter school is payback in the form of political favors. One of the men sitting on the NC Charter School Board owns four charter schools. IS THIS NOT A CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

Anonymous said...

Here's what I want to know about: Why CMS decided that Senior Exam scores wouldn't count? This wasn't a State decision, it was CMS. This is great for the Senior whose score may have passed him/her and who is now having to take recovery classes in order to hopefully still graduate on time. The scores are back, why can't the grades be updated to reflect this. Given that NC gave GENEROUS and HUMONGOUS curves on the NC Final Exams (like a kid earned a 62, gets a 91 for the gradebook), why can't the Seniors benefit from this too? If a Junior and Senior were in the same class, both were waiting on their exam scores, but the score only counts as 25% of the grade for the Junior and not the Senior. The Junior got the benefit of that gargantuan curve, while the Senior, who studied and was told AFTER he/she took the exam that "oh, now it doesn't count" doesn't get the grade bump from that crazy curve. WHICH, additionally, teachers and schools are evaluated on that 62, not that 91, FYI. This doesn't make sense. Someone please explain!

Shamash said...


Interesting story behind Kinston Academy.

And their "reparations"-seeking leader, Ozie Hall, Jr.

Seems that they're closed now.

But Ozie is still in the game.

But, oddly, the man who ran the place (Ozie Hall, Jr.) still marches on to...

Anderson Creek Club Charter School

But, wait, maybe the "Good Rev."
is only getting his well-deserved payback.

You know, his "Reparations"...

I think the problem may be too many people are impressed by anyone with a "Rev." in front of their names.

At least that seems to be the problem with the lowest 3 charter schools recently mentioned (Crossroads, Kinston, and Kennedy).

That and the particular "demographic" they serve.

Maybe these people know that the low-SES crowd is also a low-information crowd and take advantage of that situation.

I say we should be suspicious of anyone who is in business "for the children".



Shamash said...

Anon 8:08pm

Not only political favors, but it seems the Moral Monday crowd is getting their palms greased as well.

Check into that Kinston Academy guy, Rev. Ozie Hall, Jr.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but...

He sounds like another Jeremiah Wright wannabe to me.

His Facebook "likes" are telling, indeed.

Al Jazeera News AND William J. Barber II. Ha.

And he's apparently on the "board" of a NEW charter school now, Anderson Creek Club Charter School.

After breaking Kinston.

How does THAT happen?

Oh, yeah, and he's also:

President - The Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children

Who's VETTING these clowns?

Is this who we're selling out our public education system to?

Shamash said...

Oh yeah, and there's this:

It's all coming together now.

Shamash said...

I do hope they make criminal background checks and full disclosures mandatory for all employees of charter schools.

Because you'd probably never know otherwise.

Fake Name said...

Why would anybody question the observer and them making this front page, Sunday news, you know like the Chicken Plant thing and the like.

Why this very story eludes to the fact that the observer could have done so many stories about Charters, but this one was just ripe for the picking.

I just hope those other Charter Schools close up before you do any stories on them since they are so nefarious.