Lesson the Damage

The disastrous demise of Techworld raises questions about how we should navigate the uncharted waters of private-public education

When Sonnfred Baptiste emptied a round of bullets into the playground of an Upper Eastside charter school in January 2000, he opened more than just a hole in fourteen-year-old Antonio Hill's leg. Those shots were the first to pierce the fragile bubble of a dream that had spawned the high school for Miami's inner-city kids -- Techworld, where every laptop-toting student would be trained for lucrative technology jobs. It seemed all was not right with the vision that had captivated parents and convinced the public school district to help fund it.

One year later Techworld suddenly shut its doors, shortly before authorities were ready to do it for them. Facing federal, state, and local investigations into its financial dealings and employment practices in at least three states, not to mention sex charges against a former dean of students, Techworld would become the nightmare tale other charter-school operators fear. Its demise meant about 280 students had to be hastily reabsorbed into already crowded area high schools in the middle of the school year. It would cause the Miami-Dade County Public School system to re-examine the way it authorizes and monitors charter schools. The district also would instruct its lobbyists to try to convince Tallahassee lawmakers to tighten controls on the publicly funded, independently operated schools.

What the Techworld disaster will not do is slow the explosion of charter schools approved to open in Miami-Dade over the next few years. There are thirteen schools currently operating in the county, with five more set to debut in the fall and another twenty approved for the future. The number of students in these schools will jump from about 3300 this year to an estimated 26,000 in the next five years. It follows a Florida trend that is expected to add about 100 new charter schools next year to the 149 existing statewide. The main reason is simple: Parents, teachers, community groups, and municipalities across the county are being hooked by the idea they can do better than the traditional school system. That's what's driving cities such as Miami Shores to seriously consider running their own schools, says the city's chamber of commerce president, Jim McCoy, Jr. "In general there's a dissatisfaction with the system, and people are looking for more control," he suggests.

Bringing new meaning to union boss: UTD's Tom Gammon says the union's plan to run its own charter schools is an evolve-or-die decision
Steve Satterwhite
Bringing new meaning to union boss: UTD's Tom Gammon says the union's plan to run its own charter schools is an evolve-or-die decision

But is this headlong rush being thoroughly planned? How fast is too fast? And how are we going to make sure we don't end up with too many Techworlds? Octavio Visiedo, a former Miami-Dade schools superintendent who now heads a charter-school management company, acknowledges that with less than five years of experience behind it in Florida, the new movement has yet to prove it can deliver better-educated students on a wide scale. "The jury is still out on any definitive declaration of success for charter schools," he admits. "There are good schools and bad schools, and there have been some horror stories."

Still they are proving increasingly popular. An entire new industry led by multimillion-dollar companies is quickly developing to feed the trend and test the yet uncertain idea that there is money to be made in public education. Even the teachers union is getting involved, if only to better control a reform movement that threatens to dilute the power it has vested in the public school system. As more and more charter schools open, Techworld serves as the ultimate example of how the dream can go wrong. It is a warning to everyone who cares about education and taxpayer dollars that we should not enter this new era blindly.

At Techworld everything that could go wrong did. Its spectacular demise and the many unanswered questions left in its wake are reasons why the school district is hoping lawmakers will tighten controls on charter schools.

Techworld was the brainchild of Daanen Trevor Strachan, a Miami boy who left town soon after graduating from Miami Sunset High in 1984. He became an administrator at Howard University, a prestigious black college in Washington, D.C., and in 1994, at the age of 27, ran unsuccessfully for the D.C. school board. Strachan opened his first charter school four years later, riding the wave of charter-school mania sweeping the capital city in the wake of widespread dissatisfaction with public schools.

It was a high school that emphasized technology education and promised laptop computers for every student, bought with corporate donations. It was called Techworld Public Charter School, the flagship of what Strachan hoped would eventually be an international franchise. But just two months after opening with 148 students in the fall of 1998, Techworld already had hit its first snag. The D.C. school board threatened to revoke Techworld's charter unless it resolved a money dispute with one of its trustees that had resulted in a lawsuit. And in early 1999, Strachan had to admit to the Washington Times that almost half the students had failed the first semester.

Around the same time the school's financial consultant and the founder's cousin, Kenneth Strachan, was quietly let go after news reports revealed he had recently pleaded guilty to a host of criminal-conspiracy charges related to his former accounting position with a program that bilked taxpayers of millions in false Medicaid claims. It was just the start of the financial mess that would eventually sink Techworld. The D.C. school board would later order an audit of Techworld to determine whether Daanen Strachan had illegally used almost $20,000 in D.C. public money to start up a sister school in Miami. He later paid the money back to the D.C. schools.

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